The courage of a "filthy rat"

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 49, January 2007 , pp. 8-9

Brian Martin

Simon Illingworth's book Filthy Rat is an outstanding account of police whistleblowing. Illingworth was a member of the Victorian police, doing very well at his job, but then he encountered police corruption and refused to go along with it, thereby becoming a "rat."

The number of corrupt police is relatively small, but they have considerable power because even fewer police are willing to openly oppose them. Corrupt police keep detailed records on other police, documenting minor violations of the numerous rules governing police behaviour, and use this information as a weapon against anyone who breaks the code of silence against revealing corruption.

Illingworth tackled the dangerous alliance of criminals and corrupt police. He had successes, but he paid an enormous penalty.

Because of his efforts in bringing corrupt police to justice, he became a target by members of this alliance. He received threatening phone calls. In a court building, a barrister for a criminal recited Illingworth's home address to him, an implied threat that people knew where to find him. He was stalked by criminals. He was savagely assaulted.

To remain safe, Illingworth moved house and eventually had to stay with friends, moving frequently. He describes the collapse of his marriage under the strain, the damage to his health, the economic costs and the destruction of his peace of mind.

Illingworth eventually made the wise decision to tell his story publicly. He went to the media, and received courageous support from the ABC, which broadcast a powerful episode of Australian Story. (In addition, Filthy Rat is published by ABC Books.)

Illingworth, on leave for stress, negotiated to leave the Victorian police. He was offered a payout of $250,000, but refused because the package included a silencing clause. He told the media about the silencing clause: the Melbourne Herald Sun ran a front-page story with the title "You can't gag me" and a few days later published Illingworth's long letter to the police commissioner explaining his decision. He ended up getting the payout without signing away any of his rights. He states, "People shouldn't be allowed to sign away their rights and freedoms as part of a settlement process."

Filthy Rat is an autobiography, but Illingworth's main attention is on his police career, in particular his confrontation with corruption. He tells about his upbringing, personal life and recreational pursuits, such as surfing, in ways that throw light on his experiences in the police.

Illingworth is reflective about his decisions. He pinpoints the time when he should have left the force but didn't, because he was under the illusion that there was some point in the future when honest police would win against corruption. He later made the wise decision not to seek immediate justice for himself but to help others: "I hit rock bottom, but there was something I had to promise myself. I had to make sure I did everything in my power to ensure that this situation would never happen to anyone else."

Filthy Rat is engagingly written, nicely produced and contains numerous photographs. It is an exemplary and cautionary story of whistleblowing, especially good in portraying the enormous psychic stress of dealing with threats and reprisals. Illingworth knew his life was in danger. Ultimately, the only solution was to get out.

If any of Australia's police forces was really serious about dealing with corruption, it would hire Illingworth to head a well-resourced anti-corruption unit, and give it solid backing. Don't hold your breath.

Brian Martin is international director of Whistleblowers Australia.

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