A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

10 – with Heather Brooke

By Quill

Disillusioned with U.S. newspapers and the daily grind of reporting to a “heartless” editor, Heather Brooke quit her job covering state government and criminal justice and moved to Britain, her parents’ home country. There, she upset British journalism and influenced a full-scale reform of the Parliamentary expense system. After challenging new Freedom of Information laws in London, Brooke won a High Court case against the House of Commons for the full disclosure of members’ second-home allowances. She is the author of “Your Right to Know,” a citizens’ guide to using the Freedom of Information Act. She also teaches students how to use the Freedom of Information Act at City University’s Department of Journalism and hosts training sessions for professional media around the globe.

When you first called the House of Commons about expenses in 2004, what did you think you would discover?

I had no idea; I hadn’t done journalism in this country. I had no idea what kind of reception I would get. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was. I didn’t expect them to be so dismissive and rudely arrogant, as if they were from some kind of feudal era. They did, and still do to some extent, (have the attitude that) it’s very well for the public to pay their taxes, but that’s where our engagement stops in politics. That’s an attitude I found totally foreign and alien and not at all acceptable, so I carried on asking.

What is the biggest difference between Freedom of Information laws in the United States and Britain?

The biggest difference is cultural. (In the U.S.), it’s very understood by people in power that the government is at the pleasure of the citizen, and they have to be accountable or pay the consequence of not getting elected. It’s a very different culture (in Britain), very secretive and old-fashioned, very paternal. It’s expected that people know their place. Obviously, the citizens’ expectations in Britain are changing, but politicians are still in some kind of Dark Age where they think they can lord it around. I obviously came from a totally different culture where people want to know how their money is spent, how decisions are taken, (and) they just expect that as a matter of course.

What is the difference between journalism in the U.S. and Britain?

Basically, in British journalism, everything is dependent upon the source, and most of those sources are anonymous, and most information comes through leaks. Journalists here are really good at getting sources, but what they’re not good at is recounting facts in an objective way. I think that’s why Britain has such a political and salacious press — everything is coming from someone with an ax to grind. In America, you have these huge trenches of information and everyone can look at them. In Britain, everything comes to you through a compromised source. They’re very good at tracking people down and wheedling out information, but not so good at citing sources. Most newspapers are incredibly competitive and only care about the short-term scoop and to hell with everything else.

What were your feelings as you went up against some of the most powerful people in the British government? Did you feel intimidated, or confident that the law was on your side?

Although I knew intrinsically I was right and people had a right to know this information, it wasn’t what they were used to, and it definitely challenged a lot of their thinking about privacy and the right of politicians to keep things secret. But I wasn’t really frightened, no. The good thing about Britain is that it’s not the kind of country where people take a hit out on you. (Laughs.) They’re generally very nice people.

Have you seen any changes in Britain since you began this fight for Freedom of Information?

This scandal has been absolutely huge in Britain and around the world. I’d almost call it quite revolutionary. For the first time in this century, there’s a radical re-thinking of what members of Parliament are for. How can we call ourselves a democracy when so much of our apparatus is totally old-fashioned and not represented by the people? There’s been a big discussion about how do we change politics, how do we re-engage people in democracy, what needs to change in the House of Commons? I find it really exciting.

Were there any additional challenges or advantages because of your dual citizenship in Britain and the U.S.?

I think for me, it was an advantage. I saw everything as a foreigner. Although my parents are British, I came here and saw everything with fresh eyes. If something didn’t make sense, I thought, “Hang on, that’s incredibly illogical.” I think if you grew up here and worked here from day one, you would come to accept it.

Did you believe you would win the case? What were your concerns?

Not at all. I had no confidence that I would win at all. The whole system is stacked against you in Britain. It’s very much that the machinery very rarely goes against the establishment in Britain. It’s one rule for the common man and another rule for the people in power, and you’ll see all the time that justice is dispensed varyingly. It was very surprising and heartening that I did manage to succeed.

What concerns do you have when you hear statements like “Transparency will damage democracy” from officials such as Andrew Walker, head of the House of Commons Fees Office?

I was concerned that someone like that would be able to say such a thing with a straight face and no shame or embarrassment at all. I thought, gosh, it’s one thing to be a hypocrite and say I believe in transparency and when no one is looking at you pass laws that favor secrecy. But to not even feel that you had to make a pretense of supporting transparency, that was amazing to me. They came out as bold as brass and saying, “I don’t think people have the right to know this.” Nobody would come out and say that now. All of a sudden after this scandal, all these politicians are coming and saying what a great thing transparency is, which I think is fantastic. Now, the job here is that the action follows the rhetoric. But at least they have the rhetoric now.

What were the reactions from the people around you? Did they believe in your fight, or was there any dissent?

Most people didn’t know about it until it went to the information tribunal, and that’s where it started getting a lot of publicity. I would say that your average person was very much in favor for what I was doing. However, there were members of the elite that weren’t so keen. Even people in the media — there were a lot of journalists who took the side of politicians. Again, that’s the difference in journalism(between the U.S. and Britain). All of those British journalists are totally dependent on politicians for stories. The only way they can get information is by keeping these politicians on their side. They become incredibly compromised and captured in that very insular world, and they take their view. There were a lot of journalists who thought I was wrong and invading (the politicans’) privacy. It’s good to say now, “No, no, I told you so.” Of course, now they all see that I was right and understand why it was important for these things to be in the open.

Will you stay in Britain?

I think so. I’m never totally sure about what I’m going to do, but I like causing trouble here. I think most of the big battles have been fought in America already, and what I found so interesting coming here was that it’s almost virgin territory. So many things have never been done, and never been asked. I had the chance to come in and create a whole new kind of journalism, which I thought was an amazing opportunity.