Big Tobacco whistleblowers awarded top prize

Whistleblowers rarely get the credit they deserve. They are often maligned and ostracised. Sometimes they are imprisoned, threatened and put in mortal danger. It is welcome news, then, that the whistleblowers who worked with the Bureau to expose British American Tobacco’s corporate espionage in Africa have been jointly awarded this year’s Blueprint Whistleblowing Award. We give our fullest congratulations to François van der Westhuizen, Pieter Snyders and Paul Hopkins.

Investigative journalism would not be possible without the courage of whistleblowers the world over. Too often it is journalists who receive the accolades when the real sacrifices were made by others.

At the Bureau we do our utmost to support and protect our sources and, where necessary, safeguard their identity. But Van der Westhuizen, Snyders and Hopkins waived their anonymity when they stepped forward with their disturbing disclosures about BAT.

It was their evidence that formed the basis of our joint investigation with BBC Panorama and the University of Bath’s tobacco control research group. In September, we revealed BAT’s private security agents had negotiated a bribe with Robert Mugabe’s regime in order to secure the release of three of their Zimbabwean spies. This work built on Hopkins’ disclosures in 2015, which sparked a long-running investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) that was closed this January without any charges being laid.

The potential bribe – negotiated ahead of the tyrant Mugabe’s election campaign – would never have been made public without the documents provided by Van der Westhuizen.

Lady Hollick, who presented the virtual award ceremony (and who is married to Bureau director Clive Hollick) said: “The latest investigations simply would not have happened without the personal testimony and documentary evidence of François van der Westhuizen and Pieter Snyders. The Serious Fraud Office are aware of these most recent allegations, but it remains to be seen if BAT will be brought to account.”

The SFO appears unwilling to review the evidence of the BAT whistleblowers. It has been intimated to us that this is because they are concerned how a defence lawyer may attempt to tear apart the character of the witnesses in the courtroom. But that does not explain its refusal to use the evidence to develop lines of enquiry.

Pieter Snyders, Paul Hopkins and François van der Westhuizen

Van der Westhuizen would be the first to admit he is no choirboy. He admits to having used violence during his early days as a police officer in the apartheid-era South Africa – actions he regrets. He has moved abroad to protect himself from potential repercussions for his whistleblowing.

What is irrefutable is the strength of his evidence that exposes wide-scale corporate wrongdoing. The award won by he, Snyders and Hopkins is long overdue recognition of their bravery in squaring up to malpractice, even when they are implicated themselves.

As Van der Westhuizen says: “There should be more done for people standing up against these big companies where you are a man alone.”

At the Bureau we want to make sure whistleblowers never have to stand alone. They deserve a safe haven where their voices are amplified, their rights are protected and their courage is rewarded.

The Hollick Family Foundation is one of the funders of the Bureau.

Listen to Smoke Screen, our eight-part podcast about love, bribes and spies in the tobacco industry.