Parrhesia Inc

Advancing Whistleblowing

RIP Sinead O’Connor – Rebel, Activist, Whistleblower

The faithful, risky whistleblowing of Sinead O’Connor

She wanted to keep the contract she had made in her youth: to stand up for truth and justice in the face of power. That’s how Sinead O’Connor explained her most well-known act of defiance. Any contract she ended up making with the music industry would always be secondary to that: ‘I was just being me’, she said.

Sinead O’Connor defied the code of silence around child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. By tearing up the photo of Pope John Paul II live on U.S. television in 1992, she spoke out for hundreds of thousands of children who had been violently abused in his institution’s care.

This act of parrhesia- speaking truth to power- was risky. Sinead acted alone and the consequences were harsh. Her experience reflects what can happen to whistleblowers.

Researching whistleblowing for over ten years, I have interviewed many workers who spoke out. As part of this weekend’s collective mourning for a beloved singer and activist, my thoughts are drawn to the parallels with Sinead’s story.

Risk and Reprisal

Sinead was aware of what she was doing, that evening on the Saturday Night Live set.

She expected to be criticized but, she figured, it would ok in the end. Her deeply-held ethos of protest and punk had anyway left her uncomfortable with the corporate, pop-star image success had forced upon her, ‘I wasn’t a pop star by nature’. Perhaps now she would be free. She accepted the consequences of speaking out. But it is unlikely she foresaw just how risky her act would turn out to be.

The vicious reactions were beyond any expectations. Sinead appeared shortly after the broadcast at a concert celebrating Bob Dylan, a hero of hers. As she prepared to perform a song from Dylan’s own Christian era, she was loudly booed. Musicians known for their own controversies including Madonna expressed disapproval. From then on Sinead was explicitly cancelled. And she suffered as a result.

Stress from whistleblowing is common. Even the strongest people find it extremely difficult not to internalize violent exclusions by former colleagues and by peers. While Sinead had her own struggles, the reprisal and isolation from her act of truth-telling must have added to them. She sacrificed a lot, as do many who speak out.

Adding to mental health risks, a second danger, often less well-understood, is the financial cost. For whistleblowers and their families, the monetary impact of being blacklisted and cancelled can be significant when the opportunities to work dry up. Sinead, a single mother of four, whose income came from touring, spoke often about her pride in being able to provide for her children doing what she loved – live performances for music fans. But this livelihood was jeopardised because of her speaking truth to power, and her isolation in the industry.

We admire whistleblowers for their extraordinary radical acts of bravery, but we rarely consider the real human being behind the disclosure — who is trying to earn a living and support their family. We rarely think about how difficult this can be, when they have been isolated and excluded simply because they said what needed saying.

Faithful whistleblowing

Sinead O’Connor had a lifelong spirituality. For much of her life, this meant Christianity. It was from this place – as she explained repeatedly — that she spoke up against the Catholic Church. She saw the fundamentals of her faith being radically undermined by an institution that was busy covering up widespread abuse and protecting the perpetrators. She had promised ‘to stay true to the very Christian beliefs that were drilled into me by the Catholic church’ in the childhood rituals of communion and confirmation. These beliefs included, she explained, ‘the rejection of the material world in favour of the truth.’ She was simply acting on this, using Saturday Night Live as a platform.

A great many whistleblowers speak out from a sense of loyalty. This is not widely understood. When whistleblowers talk about why they risk so much, they often refer to the fundamental principles of the profession they are in. The mission of the organization to which they belong: its original purpose. Or the basic tenets of democracy, of social justice. Whistleblowers call out situations in which the actions of those in charge are in direct contradiction to those ideals. Like Sinead, whistleblowers often speak out from a place of deep commitment to values; their aim is to defend that which they love.

Outsider truth-telling

Sinead was a woman in a patriarchal and misogynistic industry. Early in her career she had been told success depended on her wearing a short skirt and boots, which, as she recalled, led her straight to a barbershop asking for her head to be shaved. The extreme vilification she later experienced after the Saturday Night Live incident would not have been levied against a man. Think of all the punk acts of symbolic protest against powerful institutions that had gone before, from Hendrix burning the American flag, to the Sex Pistols vilifying the Queen.

But, for Sinead, her act was career-ending. If a whistleblower is outside the category of what is deemed to be an acceptable and credible truth-teller, if they deviate from the figure of the straight, white, middle-class man, the reprisal can be far more vicious. In Sinead’s case, it was borderline pathological. Frank Sinatra would ‘kick her ass’, he declared. Joe Pesci would have given her ‘such a smack’, had he had the chance. While neither men are known for their feminism, their statements signal clearly what was deemed acceptable to say.

Professor Lida Maxwell calls this kind of whistleblowing by outsiders, ‘insurgent truths’. Insurgent truths show us two things: first, the wrongdoing – in Sinead’s case it was the cover-ups in the Catholic church she highlighted. But second, the intense reprisals that follow point to underlying cultural biases determining who is considered credible and believable, and who is not. The reaction to insurgent truth-telling demonstrates how we prefer to listen only to certain kinds of truth-tellers.

As whistleblowers from the US military’s Chelsea Manning, NSA’s Reality Winner, Amazon’s Christopher Smalls and Ifeoma Ozoma at Pinterest all discovered, gender, sexuality and race shape who gets to be supported and celebrate as a ‘real’ whistleblower. Doubly-excluded as a woman speaking out, the responses to Sinead’s act told us a lot about misogyny in our society.

As we mourn the loss of Sinead O’Connor and think about the legacy of her punk spirit, what can we take from her experiences as a truth-teller? The striking thing was the isolation.

But equally striking were the rare moments of solidarity shown by others. Much has been made of the hug she got from Kris Kristofferson after being booed at the Madison Square Garden celebration of Dylan. But when asked about the most significant shows of support during this time, she told a story about Lou Reed. His act of friendship helped. Backstage at a recording of UK TV show The White Room, the gathered performers – all well-known faces – turned their backs on Sinead, shunning her. But Reed alone walked across the room to embrace her. She barely knew Lou at the time, having once sang backing vocals with him. Yet, as she recalls, ‘he made a point of walking over to me across the whole room and hugging me like we were best mates… because he knew there was a lot of difficulty for me going through all that stuff.’ Lou Reed, the most popular musician in that backstage room, reached out, as some others have since.

It is not that Sinead O’Connor needed any help to tread her own brave and unique path. She was compelled to speak truth to power where she saw the need. But these gestures made life on the outside a little more liveable.

While legal whistleblower protections are now present in some countries, these laws can and do fail to protect whistleblowers, as recent cases such as prison service whistleblower Noel McGree show, and as Julie Grace this month informed the European Parliament in Brussels. Where public support is lacking, the most powerful and wealthy side in a legal dispute usually wins. Whistleblowers going up against large organizations still struggle.

Truth-tellers act on our behalf by speaking out about wrongdoing, despite powerful norms of silence and complicity. They take all that risk on themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of us benefit from the light they bring to hidden problems, the taboos they open up for discussion. Don’t we at least owe them solidarity, care and support?

It is clear, even as we celebrate her life today, that Sinead O’Connor could have done with a lot more of this.

Kate Kenny, Professor of Business and Society, NUI

Galway, Member of Parrhesia Academic Council