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When good people become dangerous people

One of the best programmes in Iceland today is the current affairs programme Spegillinn [the mirror], broadcast on RÚV radio 1 after the evening news. And one of the very best reporters on Spegillinn is Sigrún Davíðsdóttir, RÚV’s London correspondent, who not only unearths the most amazing facts and figures and sides of the kreppa, but  presents them in such a way that they are easy for normal people to understand.

Sigrún’s latest report is slightly different from most of her others. It is about whistleblowers, and Sigrún actually goes so far as to urge people in Iceland who may have information concerning the investigation into the Icelandic meltdown to blow the whistle. In her words, “The majority of fraud cases are exposed because someone blows the whistle, not as a result of investigations.”

She goes on to point out that with most white-collar crimes there are people who are, directly or indirectly, accessories to those crimes. Lawyers and accountants who process things, and normal office staff who often overhear – or see – what is going on.

What happened in Iceland in the past few years was not only a result of ineffective  authorities, gullible politicians and greedy bankers. It also happened because some people were prepared to do favours for others without asking what, exactly, they were being asked to do. Others were prepared to do things without looking too closely at what was going on.

She goes on to suggest that, when it comes to indictments, the Office of the Special Investigator may look kindly upon those who volunteer information. She also – quite accurately – points out that getting things out into the open is the best hope for there to be some real change around here.

It has been said – and is fairly accurate – that around 30 people drove Iceland into the kreppa. But those actions were made possible because some people were prepared to do favours for their friends and acquaintances, like lend companies or front companies, or process cases without asking too much about what they were for. Those who were not instigators in such matters but do have information must face the fact that one day they will very likely be called for questioning. In such cases it is better to have volunteered information and  having one’s potential guilt evaluated in relation to that information. This is far preferable to waiting to be arrested and taken in for questioning. If those people who know they assisted in shady dealings are able to step forward and tell their stories to the authorities then there is hope that things may finally change in Iceland.There is hope that the shady characters of the Icelandic business sector may lose their control over assets and the powers that accompany them. As one of Spegillinn’s sources remarked: Good people who do nothing can, in fact, be dangerous people.

Definitely food for thought.

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  • sylvia hikins February 4, 2010, 12:26 am

    Many organisatios in the UK now have a whistleblowers policy making it possible for workers to blow the whistle (if it is in the public interest) without recriminations. It’s still a pretty brave thing to do. For example, to-day’s Guardian reports on an NHS doctor who was sacked for whistleblowing, but has been able, through the courts, to get a hefty financial settlement and his actions were vindicated. Does Iceland offer whistleblowers any similar protection in law?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Nick February 4, 2010, 1:12 am

    All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.

    Edmund Burke

  • Kris February 4, 2010, 2:23 am

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. No need for a narc-on-your-neighbor campaign. It’s a small island and people get along for the most part. No need to change that. I think the authorities already know who the bad guys are. Just encourage them to do their jobs.
    In Iceland, everybody knows everything about everybody else. Secrets are hard to come by, not easy to conceal.

  • Dorothy Gale February 4, 2010, 3:45 am

    Some Icelander said “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste”… That as about a thousand years ago…

  • Rik Hardy February 4, 2010, 4:20 am

    Perhaps it all boils down to whether Iceland’s mafia is as scary as Chicago’s. If hard drugs are involved, you can probably bet on it.

  • Lino February 4, 2010, 8:01 am

    Good people who do nothing are not good people: they are guilty of allowing bad things to happen, whether by commission or by omission, it is exactly the same moral liability whether as individuals or as a collectivity.

    They deserve to be punished like the culprits.

  • idunn February 4, 2010, 8:34 am

    There are many examples here in the USA. Definitely one of the most serious is what transpired on Wall Street. If you ever saw the 1987 movie of the same name starring Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko then you understand the ambience of greed. And it was not just confined to Manhattan island either, if that the epicenter, along with Washington DC. Many in this country jumped on that horse and rode it for all it was worth. Up, up and up went the stock market and real estate prices, always up, with little thought to the inevitable downside, or a proper balance.

    But having recently only narrowly averted a total collapse of the world financial markets, with a great deal of help from Wall Street in causing it, these same bankers and politicians have seemingly not learned their lesson. The bankers are fighting regulations that would hinder some of their profits, but structurally prevent the possibility of such a disaster again. And our politicians most concerned with campaign contributions are apparently unwilling to see that such proper steps are taken.

    One might at last excuse either of them, not in any moral sense, but only in recognizing what they are. Either basically have to be reined in, and in a democracy that is the role of the citizen. Ours to a large extent have forsaken their fiduciary responsibility as citizens and voters to both inform themselves, to know what is what, and perhaps more importantly to have the courage to complain loudly enough when it must be so. Instead we complain, blaming those in power, if in paying any real attention at all. It is not a good recipe.

    I see certain similarities. Iceland can make of this what she will.

  • RLJ February 4, 2010, 9:17 am

    hmmm… wise words. I wonder how long she has till she is laid off in the next “downsizing.”

  • hassan February 4, 2010, 10:21 am

    I worked at my kids kindergarten for six months and complained about the poor state of the food, then got fired. Funny that.

  • kevin o'connor waterford Ireland February 4, 2010, 11:07 am

    @Hassan yes the whistleblowers dilemma praised in general but punished in particular when they are exposed.

  • Tom Thumb February 4, 2010, 1:09 pm

    My sympathy goes out to the whistleblowers, who like Serpico, have to act on their conscience, knowing that even if they live to tell the tale, there will be consequences. They are compelled by conscience to report what they have seen, but it all ends like a Greek tragedy. This is only my experience and opinion. Each person has to decide for themselves what is the right thing to do in their given situation.

  • James February 4, 2010, 3:17 pm

    Whistleblower Protection Acts work in the rest of the world because whistleblowers know they will be exempt from prosecution. Iceland needs a similar act because many potential whistleblowers won’t be content relying on prosecutors to informally “looking kindly” on them. The Icelandic government should have passed such an act a year ago (perhaps limited to events surrounding the kreppa). Just like it should have frozen the assets of suspected criminals. In many ways, it seems to be behaving like an interim government…

  • John February 4, 2010, 4:34 pm

    Good news maybe
    http://www.aftenposten.no/okonomi/utland/article3501351.ece it say maybe Norway are gone buy Icelands Icesave debt. Hope, not since Iceland still needs to sort it problems with embezzlement first

  • sylvia hikins February 4, 2010, 4:35 pm

    kris- ‘In Iceland everybody knows everything about everybody else’ – so how come then that your banks collapsed and the banksters got away with fraud/corruption/embezzlement etc? Isn’t that why you need ‘whistleblowers’ which is not the same as narking on the neighbours?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • John Hopkins February 4, 2010, 6:51 pm

    I think the major problem with the concept of”whistle-blowing” in Iceland is scale. 310,000 people. This is a totally different field of social organization than 310,000,000 people or even 3,100,000 people. A whistle-blowing law would have no affect when the perpetrator and ‘blower are going to be elbow-to-elbow until they die. That’s why few (if any!) have come forward in the last year. Now, calling on a moral standard is another matter, but, again, “when everyone else is doing it” or “when no one else is doing it,” well, Icelanders tend to follow the flock, so unless there is a mass confession, I doubt we will see any significant ‘blowing, except wind from both ends of the IP, and Parliament in general!

  • Joerg February 4, 2010, 6:59 pm

    The Icelandic government could tender some monetary incentives in addition to exemption from prosecution, if they were really interested in solving this issue.

    The German government is just about to pay for a CD with data of tax evaders, which had been stolen from a Swiss bank by some former employee. Those methods may be debatable but money is apparently a suitable agent to promote investigation and prosecution.

  • Lino February 4, 2010, 11:10 pm

    do not forget whistleblower who are not guilty of anything and so would not care about immunity prosecution. The only immunity they’d like is immunity from prosecution by their employer (see the case Andreasen and Van Buitenen who worked for the EU Commission…)