The theme song, in what ranks as one of the finest movies to emerge out of Hollywood, ‘For a Few Dollars More’, played when the two heroes, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood first make an appearance in the picture, is difficult to erase from the consciousness of anyone who has seen the movie or has even just heard the tune once. It is soft and sublime, yet substantive enough to celebrate the persona of the two who, by their looks, gait and mannerisms, and their role in the picture, stay long in the memory of any teenager who would have seen the picture.
The famous tune is nothing but a whistle with little aid of any instrument or fancy gadgets of the modern days that conjure up computerised notes! But, strangely, whistling was so despised by many parents of those days that, if younger than 13, the culprit was silenced with a spank and, if older, addressed as ‘abhishtoo’ : an appellation without a parallel in any language which perhaps took its root from a cognate expression in Akkadian whose use was most likely abandoned in the fourth millennium BCE!
Finding the term most elegant, Samuel Johnson insisted on the word being included in the first edition of the dictionary that he produced. as he, scathing without being scurrilous and castigating without calumny, his alter-ego strictly forbade the word on the premise that the sovereignty of the Crown would be seriously compromised as most Britishers might answer to that description!
But blowing the whistle has since become a significant virtue of detecting carefully concocted and craftily concealed corporate crimes! The whistle-blowing helped detect frauds like Parmalat and Tyco when the people who were paid as accountants to report on those who were busy fiddling!
Closer home, whistle-blowing helped discover (though still under investigation), a major wrongdoing, involving a celebrated bank chief, which the board tried to hush up in the first instance. Still, the persistence of the mole helped revamp the board and remove the CEO.
While the term sounds more recent, the concept of anonymous complaints to authorities is as old as the hills to alert to wrongdoings. Under the shield of anonymity, it was the cow that rang the bell kept for alerting the king to a wrongdoing, when its calf had been run over under the chariot wheel of the crown prince!
Whistle-blowers do a yeomen service that better-paid vigilantes fail to, especially auditors, executives or directors in the corporate context. The tendency to keep quiet emerges either from the desire to protect one’s self-interest or out of fear that publicising wrongdoings would tend to attract the wrath of the one spoken against.
Professionals like the accountants are prone to be averse to complaining by taking shelter under client confidentiality of the assignment and continuing to service the client, keeping their eyes closed or resigning when they fear personal loss of reputation.
The non-compliance with laws or regulations (NOCLAR) policy brought in by the International Ethics And Standards Board Of Accountants (IESBA) is applicable in India from April 2022 and obligates professional accountants, whether as employees or auditors, to report non-compliance of laws and regulations.
The ambit of the expression should be construed widely to serve the intended objective and all non-compliances and violations of ethics, including internal company policies, should be considered as covered.
The latest in whistleblowing has surfaced in the most unlikely location, a corporate considered the beacon of good governance and arguably the most followed stock in the baazar! Going by what has appeared in an isolated newspaper, the allegations are not vague but very damning. If ultimately established, it would reflect poorly on a very high-profile and distinguished board, especially independent directors with strong personal credentials. The company has not publicly responded to the allegations and it is not clear how it is being addressed internally.
The importance of whistle-blowing to unearth corporate shenanigans will stand once more vindicated if the matter finally stands proved after investigations.
Should some of the whistle-blowing even be seen as malicious and misdirected, the cost of those will be a trifle compared to what comes out true and the value of the clean-up that happens.
Isn’t it a big irony that the expression ‘clean as a whistle’ actually refers to an object that cries out to notice the dirt and filth in public life?
(The author is a CA and CS and retired as a partner at EY, Chennai heading tax and regulatory advice.)