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24 April 2010

The NS interview: Heather Brooke

“The only way to fix our broken system is to expose it” - Heather Brooke, Freedom of Information cam

By Alyssa McDonald

You worked for years on MPs’ expenses. Do you begrudge the Telegraph their scoop?
Well, I couldn’t have gone through all those records on my own, that’s for sure. And I wasn’t fighting to get them for myself, I was fighting to get them into the public domain. That’s what drove me originally – frustration.

The BBC made a film, On Expenses, about your investigation. How did you find that?
Strange. But I’m glad that now, when I tell people I did the MPs’ expenses investigation, they don’t say: “Oh, you write for the Telegraph?”

Do you think Britain is especially secretive?
I do. There is a really strange culture of secrecy. My parents are English, but they emigrated to America. When I came to England, I thought I would just slot right in, but I didn’t. I thought I was asking public officials for basic information that everybody had a right to know – about crime, about what was going on where I lived. They wouldn’t tell me anything, they didn’t think it was my right to ask. In America, everybody in public office expects that.

In your book The Silent State you rail against public institutions that want our information, but won’t share theirs.
The best way to preserve your privacy is to become a public official. The Data Protection Act was meant to protect individuals and give us some control over information being collected about us. All it has really done is give public officials a way to avoid accountability.

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You come back to accountability a lot.
The whole point of public officials is to serve the people. They’ve got to expect public scrutiny.

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Who concerns you more – those who take advantage of the system, like politicians, or the bureaucrats who allow it to survive?
I look at them as one and the same. It’s really easy to forget that you work for the public. So a politician will start to work for himself, and a bureaucrat will work to expand his bureaucratic fiefdom. Before you know it – in both cases – it’s all about their own interests.

What’s the solution?
It’s not as if there’s another parliament, or court system, that we can go to if we don’t like this one. The only solution is transparency. That’s why I bang on about naming people. As soon as they’re named, a different culture comes in.

Is the behaviour of the courts as troubling as that of parliament?
An Old Bailey trial costs the taxpayer £30,000 a day per defendant. There’s a public right to access the documentation, but there’s nothing in place to make sure those documents are available. And there are difficulties with the public gallery, or even the press gallery: there are now almost no journalists who cover courts. The courts are incredibly expensive, and incredibly important to civic life – what happens to people committing crimes, whether they get justice – yet we can’t see what’s happening in them.

What about the campaign to reform the libel laws?
The conditional fee agreement, which Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said will be amended, is how an individual can get representation. But it’s more the law itself that counts, and that doesn’t seem to be being rewritten.

Do you vote?
Yes, always. And I tell people to vote. I meet a lot of apathetic people.

And who gets your vote?
Well, the last time I checked, that was a private matter. So I’m keeping it to myself.

With the election looming, the MPs’ expenses scandal has rocked faith in democracy.
This is not a democracy. This is a system based on patronage with a very thin patina of pseudo-democracy on top. Britain’s legal structure is basically the same as in feudal times: laws are written for the elite. It used to be the aristocracy, now it’s a political elite. The system was broken, and the only way to fix it is to expose it.

Is there not, at times, a case for confidentiality?
Of course, but the harm caused by transparency is always overestimated. We make up disaster scenarios – if you release this person’s address, somebody could find some anthrax and send it through the post – and the harms of secrecy are ignored. Corruption only happens in secrecy.

Who is your hero?
George Orwell. I first read him when I was 17 and I was struck – that’s what I want to do, I want to be that kind of writer.

So there was a plan?
Definitely. When I was 26 or 27, I gave up journalism. I came to England after my mom died, to let serendipity take its course. And I just found myself back in journalism again.

Are we all doomed?
No. I’m very optimistic, but I’m optimistic about individuals, not institutions.