Uber has its whistleblower moment (again)

On Sunday, my phone pinged with several similar push notifications in quick succession. They were all about Uber, and they came from news sites, not my Uber app. “Uber leveraged violent clashes between its drivers and taxi workers to pressure politicians,” the Washington Post told me; “Révélations sur le «deal» secret entre Uber et Emmanuel Macron,” Le Monde promised. When alerts like these fall in a flurry, it’s a safe bet that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or some other global media group, is involved, and so it proved this time: ICIJ had teamed up with forty-three news outlets in twenty-nine countries to sort through more than 124,000 emails, invoices, and other sensitive documents that a source leaked to The Guardian. Collectively, they show Uber engaging in all manner of sketchy tactics as the company piloted an aggressive international expansion between 2013 and 2017. As Mark MacGann, then its top lobbyist in Europe, put it in one leaked message, the firm’s approach to entering new markets was “Uber launches, and then there is a regulatory and legal sh*itstorm.”

Yesterday, The Guardian revealed, via a slickly produced video and accompanying article, that MacGann was the origin of the leak, and had decided to contact the paper because he thought that Uber had knowingly flouted taxi-licensing laws in various countries and sold prospective drivers a bill of goods about the benefits of working for the company. He met with Guardian journalists in Geneva in January, bringing along two suitcases stuffed with electronic devices and paper records and saying that it would take at least a few days to explain all the “shady shit” he’d seen. He also acknowledged his complicity in the shadiness. “How can you have a clear conscience if you don’t stand up and own your contribution?” he asked. “I am partly responsible. I was the one talking to governments, I was the one pushing this with the media.”

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The Uber Files, as ICIJ and The Guardian’s project is called, contains many interesting nuggets about the company’s interactions with the media as it pursued its expansion playbook, and some of the nuggets do indeed concern MacGann directly; at one point, he can be seen praising staffers in Uber’s Amsterdam office for leaking stories to the press about attacks on Uber drivers, pushing a “violence narrative” that would increase pressure on the Dutch government. The media stories in the cache go wider than MacGann, too. In 2014, consultants compiled a list of “stakeholders” in various countries whom Uber should seek to influence, including sixty-four journalists and media figures. In 2015, David Plouffe, a former top aide to Barack Obama who had gone on to work for Uber, met with the BBC on a visit to the UK and also spoke at a US Embassy event on the gig economy in front of journalists and other power brokers.

If none of this sounds out of the ordinary for a major company, Uber executives also sought financial investment from media entrepreneurs in several countries—not because they wanted their money or even favorable coverage, The Guardian reports, but to leverage their individual clout in the corridors of power, particularly in jurisdictions where Uber was in a tight spot reputationally or regulatorily. Carlo De Benedetti, an Italian media mogul, was an early Uber investor, and records suggest that he lobbied politicians on the company’s behalf, though he denies this; the German publishing behemoth Axel Springer, which now owns Politico and Insider, took a stake in Uber after the latter company talked internally about bringing the former “onside,” and the owner of the Times of India invested, too. (The latter company denied brokering political access for Uber; Axel Springer said it took its stake in exchange for Uber buying ad space, and that Uber never influenced its editorial line.) This morning, The Guardian reported that Uber paid several academics to produce favorable studies that it then fed to the press.

Some of Uber’s media tactics have long been public knowledge; in 2014, for example, the company apologized after a senior executive suggested that it should hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on Sarah Lacy, a tech journalist. During the period covered by the Uber Files, the company often found itself on the receiving end of damning exposés and other negative press that reached a head in 2017 when Travis Kalanick, its founder and CEO, stepped back amid a shareholder revolt, to be replaced as CEO by Dara Khosrowshahi. Responding to the Uber Files, an Uber spokesperson said that the company would not attempt to defend egregious past conduct, but characterized the investigation as old news with no bearing on its present direction. “There has been no shortage of reporting on Uber’s mistakes prior to 2017,” the spokesperson wrote, referencing “thousands of stories,” several books, and a TV series—Super Pumped, a Showtime drama based on a book of the same name by the New York Times reporter Mike Isaac—that added up to “one of the most infamous reckonings” in corporate history. “When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally,” the spokesperson said: “90% of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO.”

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Yesterday, after Uber learned of MacGann’s role in the leak, it took several shots at his personal credibility, claiming that he praised the company when he departed in 2016 but later became embroiled in litigation over a bonus he said he was owed, resulting in a hefty payout. “We understand that Mark has personal regrets about his years of steadfast loyalty to our previous leadership, but he is in no position to speak credibly about Uber today,” the company said. “It is noteworthy that Mark felt compelled to ‘blow the whistle’ only after his cheque cleared.”

MacGann acknowledged to The Guardian that he has had personal grievances with Uber and said that he couldn’t discuss his legal fight with the company—but he disputed that he had yet been paid in full, and he first contacted The Guardian months before reaching any settlement in his case. (“There’s no statute of limitations on doing the right thing,” he added.) And his grievances with Uber, he said, go far beyond money: he feels that bosses exposed him to violent threats from its opponents when he was on the job—contributing to a subsequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder—and says that he came to realize, after stepping away, that the company treats its drivers with a similar lack of care. (Uber denies this.)

Before approaching The Guardian, MacGann says, he tried to blow the whistle on Uber via a French lawyer and the London mayor’s office, but didn’t get very far in either case. Not that he wants for official connections: he’s on first-name terms with various heavyweights of European politics, and continued to text with Macron well into this year. Ultimately, “his profile as a senior executive and political insider make him an unusual whistleblower,” The Guardian writes. “So, too, does the fact he actively participated in some of the wrongdoing he is seeking to expose.”

While MacGann’s circumstances and motivations are his own, the fact of whistleblowing via the press isn’t so unusual these days—it’s increasingly common. MacGann isn’t even the first ex-staffer to have blown the whistle on Uber, specifically: early in 2017, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, wrote a blog post detailing her experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, setting in motion a major scandal that would contribute to Kalanick’s ouster and feed into reckonings both in Silicon Valley and internationally, as #MeToo exploded later in the year. (Fowler, who went on to work for the Times, later wrote a book titled Whistleblower.) Fowler went public on her own terms, though she made sure that all the claims in her post were backed up by extensive documentation. MacGann, by contrast, handed a much broader tranche of documents over to journalists for prepublication vetting. ICIJ commonly works on this basis, most famously combing through huge leaks of offshore financial data and packaging key findings for readers. (Its Pandora Papers investigation, which dropped last year, was based on 11.9 million records.)

Whistleblowers don’t always identify themselves: many choose to remain anonymous, while others end up being exposed against their will. In coming forward alongside his evidence, MacGann reminds me most, perhaps, of Frances Haugen, who anonymously leaked a trove of documents from inside Facebook to the Wall Street Journal then went (very) public—appearing on a Journal podcast and on 60 Minutes, testifying in front of Congress, and taking on a high-profile publicist, sparking and sustaining a prominent debate about Facebook’s business practices and impact on democracy. Like MacGann, Haugen blew the whistle from within the sprawling world of tech, albeit focused on a different corner, and was not the first person to come forward about wrongdoing at her company. (As my colleague Paroma Soni wrote at the time, Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data analyst, had shared damaging documents with The Guardian months earlier. That they landed with less of a splash, Soni wrote, reflected “complicated truths about what catches the public’s attention, the effects of strategic PR, and the extent of journalism’s value in holding the powerful to account.”)

After initially working only with the Journal, Haugen handed documents to an ad hoc coalition of other top outlets, including the Times. In doing so, she succeeded at amplifying the story across the breadth of the US news cycle, but the effect was in some ways messy: different news organizations sometimes replicated each other’s reporting, as my colleague Mathew Ingram noted at the time, and the coalition experienced some internal awkwardness and cracks, as the then-Times media columnist Ben Smith reported. MacGann’s leak, in the end, went down a more conventional route: ICIJ is well practiced at ensuring that investigations with lots of moving parts roll out in a more centralized way on a coordinated timetable, with outlets in different countries each owning their local chapter of the story. A planned joint embargo on Haugen’s leaked documents failed to hold. The Uber Files have rained down in a measured, multilingual stream of push alerts.

It’ll be worth watching, now, whether MacGann, in such a crowded news cycle, has the ability or inclination to retain significant public and media focus over a period of months, as Haugen managed—and whether and how he might use his leak to sell policy proposals pertaining to his industry, or to sell himself. Intentionally or not, Haugen became a media personality in her own right, perhaps reflecting—as Delphine Halgand-Mishra of the Signals Network, a group that supports whistleblowers internationally, told me back in 2019—a broader cultural reappraisal of the image of the whistleblower, from the “sad geek who destroyed his life” to part of a “power movement.” MacGann already seems to have at least some ambitions in that direction. “It is my duty to speak up and help governments and parliamentarians right some fundamental wrongs,” he told The Guardian. “Morally, I had no choice in the matter.”

Below, more on the Uber Files, investigations, and whistleblowers:

  • News of the world: The Guardian has a useful rundown of how various partners on the Uber Files have been covering their slice of the story. In Canada, the Toronto Star reported on meetings between Uber representatives and John Tory, the mayor of Toronto; the Indian Express reports that a local Uber manager told staffers to embrace “chaos” in that country, while De Tijd, a newspaper in Belgium, alleged that Uber hired private detectives to spy on rivals in Brussels. Direkt36, a Hungarian outlet, reports that Uber eventually withdrew from what it described as a “shitshow” in that country’s market, while Eesti Päevaleht centered Uber’s lobbying efforts in Estonia.
  • Early impact: In France, Macron, now the president, has already come under fire for his contacts with Uber in his previous role as economy minister; he insists that he gave Uber no special privileges and was more broadly trying to lift red tape, but opponents from across the political spectrum have accused him of “lobbying” for the company and could now force an investigation in Parliament, where Macron’s party lacks an outright majority. Neelie Kroes, a former commissioner of the European Union, is also under fire for allegedly lobbying for Uber, which she later joined in an advisory capacity, in possible violation of ethics rules; yesterday, Commission officials said they would be asking Kroes for an explanation. (Kroes, who reportedly once walked out of an interview after a Belgian reporter questioned her integrity over her Uber ties, denies wrongdoing.)
  • Haugen days: In the aftermath of Haugen coming forward, Smith, then of the Times, weighed the role of leakers in the modern media ecosystem and the “tricky questions” it raises as to “the balance of power between the sources of vital information and the reporters who benefit from them,” and whether the former can trick the latter into “groupthink.” In some cases, “the leaker or hacker seems to be the one who controls how and when information is released,” Smith wrote. He concluded, in Haugen’s case, that while “journalists on any beat can slip into a herd mentality, there’s little evidence that this leak, with its trove of documentary detail, had deepened that tendency.”
  • Under the skin: In 2018, ICIJ granted me behind-the-scenes access as the group investigated the global medical-devices industry—a project that was based on meticulous shoe-leather reporting rather than a single centralized leak. As I wrote at the time, the project ran “amazingly smoothly given its size and international scale, which added reportorial and data-crunching muscle, then lent a megaphone to the findings.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Sign with logo at the headquarters of ride-sharing technology company Uber in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood of San Francisco, California, October 13, 2017. SoMa is known for having one of the highest concentrations of technology companies and startups of any region worldwide. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)