The hard path of the whistleblower: apropos An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

By Martin Vogel

Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS
Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS

Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy is not only a cracking read but a psychological study in the gathering courage of a whistleblower in an organisation gone to bad.

It tells the story of the Dreyfus affair – the wrongful conviction and incarceration for spying of a Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th Century. It is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, a spy chief who is both a party to the downfall of Dreyfus and a prime mover in the uncovering of Dreyfus’s framing by the military establishment.

Much of the power of the narrative derives from the fact that Picquart is a reluctant whistleblower. The youngest colonel in the army, he has a great career ahead of him. Moreover, he shares the casual anti-semitism of his age and has no great sympathy for Dreyfus. Nonetheless, when he discovers evidence that implicates a different officer, Esterhazy, in the spying for which Dreyfus was blamed, he cannot ignore the injustice and assumes his senior officers will think likewise.

Instead, he encounters a blank refusal to reopen the Dreyfus case. As he investigates further, he discovers that Dreyfus’s conviction was not simply an accident of justice but the result of a conspiracy to falsify evidence against him. The conspiracy succeeded because the army was able to avoid the evidence being tested, presenting it instead to a secret court hearing. This contravened the principle of justice that an accused should know the evidence against him.

Picquart’s sense of honour as an officer of the army and a citizen of the French republic is affronted. He does not turn against the establishment of which he is a part so much as risk everything in order to uphold the underlying establishment values that he believes have been subverted. For his pains, he is relieved of his command, ostracised, ordered on a suicide mission that he manages to evade and eventually prosecuted and drummed out of the army.

Throughout all of this, he is driven not by an animus against the army but by a strong sense of duty. He explains this most clearly giving evidence against his commanders in court:

“Shall I tell you what my crime really was, in their eyes? It was to believe that there was a better way of defending our honour than blind obedience. And because of that, for months now, insults have been heaped upon my by newspapers that are paid for spreading slander and lies… For months I have been in the most horrible situation that any officer can occupy – assailed in my honour, and unable to defend myself. And tomorrow perhaps I shall be thrown out of this army that I love, and to which I have given twenty-five years of my life. Well then – so be it! I still believe it was my duty to seek truth and justice. I believe that is the best way for any soldier to serve the army, and I also believe it was my duty as an honest man.”

This passage is remarkably congruent with a description of whistleblowers in our own age provided by Margaret Heffernan in her book, Wilful Blindness:

“They are not cynics, but almost always start as optimists, not nonconformists but true believers. They are not, typically, disgruntled or disappointed; they’re not innately rebels but are compelled to speak out when they see organisations or people that they love taking the wrong course.”

Picquart is certainly not a non-conformist, but he is different to his fellow officers. He’s a cultivated man, a pillar of the establishment but also a free-thinker who revels in the emerging modernity of his culture. This gives him qualities that Heffernan identifies as marking out whistleblowers: an ability to see the whole picture and an ability to hold a cognitive map that embraces diverse influences. Where others identify with their organisation’s perspective, the whistleblower is more likely to bring a broader perspective – more rooted in societal values, more inclined to locate the organisation within society rather than separate from it.

An Officer and a Spy not only elucidates the whistleblower’s predicament but also the psychology of an institution that cannot acknowledge its dark side. Context matters. Picquart’s France has been through the national trauma of military defeat by Germany. For the military high command, sustaining the public’s belief in the army as an institution is a higher order priority than rectifying a miscarriage of justice against a single officer. As Picquart’s commanding officer tells him, warning him off his investigation:

“Some very senior figures are going to be gravely embarrassed. Do you want that? Can you imagine the damage it will do to the reputation of the army? … Perhaps it’s Esterhazy and perhaps it’s not. You can’t be sure. The fact is, however, if you say nothing, nobody will ever know.”

The problem for the army is that, then as now, information has a way of finding its way into the public domain. Picquart was living in a 19th Century version of an emerging information age in which the rules of the game were in flux:

“There is no such thing as a secret – not really, not in the modern world, not with photography and telegraphy and railways and newspaper presses. The old days of an inner circle of like-minded souls communicating with parchment and quill pens are gone. Sooner or later most things will be revealed.”

The point here is not that the army should investigate itself because it will be found out anyway. It’s that an organisation should always face up to its dark side in order to keep renewing itself and stay connected to the public that it serves. Picquart’s superiors are able to convince themselves they are doing their duty for the army and the republic only because they have allowed themselves to become disconnected from their base in society. As soon as the secrets behind the Dreyfus affair reach the public domain, this way of construing their duty collapses. The ensuing damage to their institution is greater than if they had allowed it to be self-righting in the first place and all the top brass who presided over the affair are quickly swept from office.

Harris’s historical novels often have contemporary resonances. There are obvious ones here with what we’ve learned about the security state from the disclosures of Edward Snowden. But others too regarding the way flawed institutions – such as News International, the NHS and the BBC, to name a few – have responded inelegantly to disclosures about their failures. The book leaves us in no doubt about the lonely and oppressive path taken by the whistleblower, an experience confirmed by Heffernan’s latter day subjects. Heffernan is clear that the ability to overcome wilful blindness and call things differently from the prevailing view is hard to cultivate. But those who make this journey gain through it, whatever they lose:

“Though many have had to wait to see their prophecies validated and to earn respect for their foresight, courage and perseverance, they have all found themselves more powerful with the truth than without it. The mother who discovered child abuse in her family found in herself a stronger, more capable parent than she knew she was. The executive who dared to resist the power of silence in a meeting can look back at a problem fixed instead of buried. The bystander who wasn’t passive, the soldier who could not obey, all take as their reward a comfort in knowing that they did what they could and did not choose to look away. Hannah Arendt says that what such individuals gain is the knowledge that, whatever else happens, they can live ‘together with themselves’, continuing in their minds a dialogue that is neither incriminating or soporific but dynamic and alive.”

To blow the whistle is a hard path. But it is to choose life rather than the slow death of conforming to something you know to be wrong.

An Officer and a Spy

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.


Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan