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February 03 2012

08:15

Video: Heather Brooke’s tips on investigating, and using the FOI and Data Protection Acts

The following 3 videos first appeared on the Help Me Investigate blog, Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare. I thought I’d collect them together here too. As always, these are published under a Creative Commons licence, so you are welcome to re-use, edit and combine with other video, with attribution (and a link!).

First, Heather Brooke’s tips for starting to investigate public bodies:

Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:

And on using the Data Protection Act:

December 29 2011

08:27

2 guest posts: 2012 predictions and “Social media and the evolution of the fourth estate”

I’ve written a couple of guest posts for Nieman Journalism Lab and the tech news site Memeburn. The Nieman post is part of a series looking forward to 2012. I’m never a fan of futurology so I’ve cheated a little and talked about developments already in progress: new interface conventions in news websites; the rise of collaboration; and the skilling up of journalists in data.

Memeburn asked me a few months ago to write about social media’s impact on journalism’s role as the Fourth Estate, and it took me until this month to find the time to do so. Here’s the salient passage:

“But the power of the former audience is a power that needs to be held to account too, and the rise of liveblogging is teaching reporters how to do that: reacting not just to events on the ground, but the reporting of those events by the people taking part: demonstrators and police, parents and politicians all publishing their own version of events — leaving journalists to go beyond documenting what is happening, and instead confirming or debunking the rumours surrounding that.

“So the role of journalist is moving away from that of gatekeeper and — as Axel Bruns argues — towards that of gatewatcher: amplifying the voices that need to be heard, factchecking the MPs whose blogs are 70% fiction or the Facebook users scaremongering about paedophiles.

“But while we are still adapting to this power shift, we should also recognise that that power is still being fiercely fought-over. Old laws are being used in new waysnew laws are being proposed to reaffirm previous relationships. Some of these may benefit journalists — but ultimately not journalism, nor its fourth estate role. The journalists most keenly aware of this — Heather Brooke in her pursuit of freedom of information; Charles Arthur in his campaign to ‘Free Our Data’ — recognise that journalists’ biggest role as part of the fourth estate may well be to ensure that everyone has access to information that is of public interest, that we are free to discuss it and what it means, and that — in the words of Eric S. Raymond — “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow“.”

Comments, as always, very welcome.

July 15 2011

07:19

When information is power, these are the questions we should be asking

Various commentators over the past year have made the observation that “Data is the new oil“. If that’s the case, journalists should be following the money. But they’re not.

Instead it’s falling to the likes of Tony Hirst (an Open University academic), Dan Herbert (an Oxford Brookes academic) and Chris Taggart (a developer who used to be a magazine publisher) to fill the scrutiny gap. Recently all three have shone a light into the move towards transparency and open data which anyone with an interest in information would be advised to read.

Hirst wrote a particularly detailed post breaking down the results of a consultation about higher education data.

Herbert wrote about the publication of the first Whole of Government Accounts for the UK.

And Taggart made one of the best presentations I’ve seen on the relationship between information and democracy.

What all three highlight is how control of information still represents the exercise of power, and how shifts in that control as a result of the transparency/open data/linked data agenda are open to abuse, gaming, or spin.

Control, Cost, Confusion

Hirst, for example, identifies the potential for data about higher education to be monopolised by one organisation – UCAS, or HEFCE – at extra cost to universities, resulting in less detailed information for students and parents.

His translation of the outcomes of a HEFCE consultation brings to mind the situation that existed for years around Ordnance Survey data: taxpayers were paying for the information up to 8 times over, and the prohibitive cost of accessing that data ended up inspiring the Free Our Data campaign. As Hirst writes:

“The data burden is on the universities?! But the aggregation – where the value is locked up – is under the control of the centre? … So how much do we think the third party software vendors are going to claim for to make the changes to their systems? And hands up who thinks that those changes will also be antagonistic to developers who might be minded to open up the data via APIs. After all, if you can get data out of your commercially licensed enterprise software via a programmable API, there’s less requirement to stump up the cash to pay for maintenance and the implementation of “additional” features…”

Meanwhile Dan Herbert analyses another approach to data publication: the arrival of commercial-style accounting reports for the public sector. On the surface this all sounds transparent, but it may be just the opposite:

“There is absolutely no empiric evidence that shows that anyone actually uses the accounts produced by public bodies to make any decision. There is no group of principals analogous to investors. There are many lists of potential users of the accounts. The Treasury, CIPFA (the UK public sector accounting body) and others have said that users might include the public, taxpayers, regulators and oversight bodies. I would be prepared to put up a reward for anyone who could prove to me that any of these people have ever made a decision based on the financial reports of a public body. If there are no users of the information then there is no point in making the reports better. If there are no users more technically correct reports do nothing to improve the understanding of public finances. In effect all that better reports do is legitimise the role of professional accountants in the accountability process.

Like Hirst, he argues that the raw data – and the ability to interrogate that – should instead be made available because (quoting Anthony Hopwood): “Those with the power to determine what enters into organisational accounts have the means to articulate and diffuse their values and concerns, and subsequently to monitor, observe and regulate the actions of those that are now accounted for.”

This is a characteristic of the transparency initiative that we need to be sharper around as journalists. The Manchester Evening News discovered this when they wanted to look at spending cuts. What they found was a dataset that had been ‘spun’ to make it harder to see the story hidden within, and to answer their question they first had to unspin it – or, in data journalism parlance, clean it. Likewise, having granular data – ideally from more than one source – allows us to better judge the quality of the information itself.

Chris Taggart meanwhile looks at the big picture: friction, he says, underpins society as we know it. Businesses such as real estate are based on it; privacy exists because of it; and democracies depend on it. As friction is removed through access to information, we get problems such as “jurisdiction failure” (corporate lawyers having “hacked” local laws to international advantage), but also issues around the democratic accountability of ad hoc communities and how we deal with different conceptions of privacy across borders.

Questions to ask of ‘transparency’

The point isn’t about the answers to the questions that Taggart, Herbert and Hirst raise – it’s the questions themselves, and the fact that journalists are, too often, not asking them when we are presented with yet another ‘transparency initiative‘.

If data is the new oil those three posts and a presentation provide a useful introduction to following the money.

(By the way, for a great example of a journalist asking all the right questions of one such initiative, however, see The Telegraph’s Conrad Quilty-Harper on the launch of Police.uk)

Data is not just some opaque term; something for geeks: it’s information: the raw material we deal in as journalists. Knowledge. Power. The site of a struggle for control. And considering it’s a site that journalists have always fought over, it’s surprisingly placid as we enter one of the most important ages in the history of information control.

As Heather Brooke writes today of the hacking scandal:

“Journalism in Britain is a patronage system – just like politics. It is rare to get good, timely information through merit (eg by trawling through public records); instead it’s about knowing the right people, exchanging favours. In America reporters are not allowed to accept any hospitality. In Britain, taking people out to lunch is de rigueur. It’s where information is traded. But in this setting, information comes at a price.

“This is why there is collusion between the elites of the police, politicians and the press. It is a cartel of information. The press only get information by playing the game. There is a reason none of the main political reporters investigated MPs’ expenses – because to do so would have meant falling out with those who control access to important civic information. The press – like the public – have little statutory right to information with no strings attached. Inside parliament the lobby system is an exercise in client journalism that serves primarily the interests of the powerful. Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel.”

But laws come with loopholes and exemptions, red tape and ignorance. And they need to be fought over.

One bill to extend the FOI law to “remove provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal; to limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; to amend the definition of public authorities” and more, for example, was recently put on indefinite hold. How many publishers and journalists are lobbying to un-pause this?

So let’s simplify things. And in doing so, there’s no better place to start than David Eaves’ 3 laws of government data.

This is summed up as the need to be able to “Find, Play and Share” information. For the purposes of journalism, however, I’ll rephrase them as 3 questions to ask of any transparency initiative:

  1. If information is to be published in a database behind a form, then it’s hidden in plain sight. It cannot be easily found by a journalist, and only simple questions will be answered.
  2. If information is to be published in PDFs or JPEGs, or some format that you need proprietary software to see, then it cannot be easily be questioned by a journalist
  3. If you will have to pass a test to use the information, then obstacles will be placed between the journalist and that information

The next time an organisation claims that they are opening up their information, tick those questions off. (If you want more, see Gurstein’s list of 7 elements that are needed to make effective use of open data).

At the moment, the history of information is being written without journalists.

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May 27 2011

11:10

#newsrw: Heather Brooke – ‘How do any journalists in the UK do their job?’

The main difficulty for data journalist in the UK is gaining access to meaningful data, Heather Brooke said in her keynote speech at news:rewired.

Brooke, a journalist, author and freedom-of-information campaigner, who is best known for her role in bringing the MPs expenses to light and who went on to work with the Guardian on the WikiLeaks cables, compared the difficulty in accessing data in the UK compared with the US, where she trained and worked as a political journalist and a crime reporter.

When working in the US, Brook explained how she was “heavily reliant on public records” and said the “underpinning of my journalism was state records”. As a crime reporter she used a police scanner, likening it to those familiar with US series ‘tThe Wire’.

“As a journalist I would decide what the story was,” she said, based on the data from public records. She was able to note patterns in the incident reports and able to notice a spate in domestic violence, for example.

Brooke told of how many UK police forces limit the release of their data to media messages left on a voice bank.

Public bodies in the UK “control the data, they control the public perception of the story,” she said.

“How do any journalists in the UK do their job?” she asked. And it was that problematic question that led her to becoming an FOI campaigner.

When she asked for receipts for US politicians’ expense claims in the States, she had them within a couple of days.

It was a different story in the UK. It took her five years and several court cases, including taking the case to the High Court which led to the release of second home allowance for 10 MPs.

The House of Commons “sticking their feet on the ground” refused to release further data, which had been scanned in by the fees office.

A CD of the data which was touted round Fleet Street and sold for £110,000.

The Telegraph, rather than Brooke, then had the data and had to verify and cross check it.

What is purpose as journalists in the digital age?

Brooke’s answer to that question is that “we need to change an unhelpful attitude” of public records being withheld.

“The information exists as if they own it”, she said.

“They don’t want negative information to come out” and they want to try and manage their reputation, she said in what she described as “the take over of public relations”.

“We need to be campaigning for these sets of data” and gave the examples of courts and the release of files.

“We make the FOI request and that should open the whole trench of data so any other journalist can go back and use it for their reporting.”

She said data journalism is “not just about learning how to use Excel spreadsheets but you have to have something to put in those spreadsheets”.

Brooke made a “rallying cry” as to why professional journalists, particularly those who practice investigative journalism, are vital.

The “one unique selling point, why people would come to a professional news organisation” is the training and experience journalists have in “sifting through for what is important and what is true”.

Brooke said as people have more and more information, a journalist’s role is distilling and signposting the information.

The second key point she made is journalists must establish “what is true”.

When a politician claims that crime has gone down, a journalist must be able to verify it and “test the truthfulness” of it, she said.

She explained that journalists need to know how that data was collected and, ideally, have access the data itself.

Brooke told how she tried to pitch stories on MPs expenses on an almost daily basis before they came to light. She said editors thought it was a non-story and “almost took the word of parliament” and had the perception that the public was not interested. But they were.

“It’s a symptom of the public not having meaninful information and are not able to take action. That’s our role as professional journaists.”

09:38

LIVE: Keynote with Heather Brooke

We have Matthew Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. Follow individual posts on the news:rewired blog for up to date information on all our sessions. Blogging over the course of the day are Sarah Marshall and Joseph Stashko.

Heather Brooke is best known for her role in bringing MPs expenses – one of the biggest stories of 2009 – to light after a tireless five-year freedom-of-information campaign.

As well as an author of two books – Your Right to Know and The Silent State – Brooke is an honorary visiting fellow at City University London’s journalism department, where her teaching covers computer-assisted reporting and the effective use of public records and databases.

July 28 2010

11:31

Let us record what happens in our courts – comment call

Heather Brooke is calling for a campaign to allow recording in UK courts. I agree. In the comments below, let’s talk strategy.

Meanwhile, here’s some of the background from Brooke’s related blog post:

How:

“The simple answer is to allow tape recorders for all: no party is disadvantaged and an ‘official’ recording is there for checking. This is how it works in other countries. But this is to ignore the root objection of the courts: that they are losing control of how court proceedings are presented to the public.”

Why:

“You might like to know whether the builder you’re going to give your keys to has any convictions for theft or if the company you’re about to do business with has a report for fraud. Tough. This information is not a click of a button away. Instead you’ll have to know the details of the case before you can call up any records – even though it’s the existence of cases that you’re trying to find in the first place. It’s Catch-22. If you do know the details of the case you’re then forced to undergo a tortuous and tedious process which involves battling a raft of petty officials across a number of court offices all for the simple purpose of accessing information that is supposedly public.”

And what:

“There are three main things that would make the courts useful to the general public:

  1. knowing by name who is using them (the court list);
  2. why (the particulars of claim);
  3. the result (the verdict, sentence or settlement).

“Yet trying to get any, let alone all, of these is fraught with difficulty.”

So: strategy. To kick things off, I’ll give you 3 starters:

Come up with some better ideas than that, and we’re somewhere.

Meanwhile, to spread awareness of this, why not tweet about this with the hashtag #opencourts?

July 22 2010

10:18

Are you on the j-list? The leading innovators in journalism and media in 2010

Recent industry lists ranking the great and good in journalism and the media fell a bit short of the mark for Journalism.co.uk. Where were the online innovators? Where were the journalists on the ground outside of the executives’ offices?

So we’ve compiled our own rundown listing those people we think are helping to build the future of journalism and the news media.

Some important points to note:

  • There are no rankings to this list – those included are from such varied areas of work it seemed pointless;
  • We will have missed some people out – let us know in the comments below who you are working with that should be included;
  • We’ve listed groups as well as individuals – with individuals we hope you’ll see them as representing a wider team of people, who have worked together on something great;
  • And it’s not limited to 50 or 100 – we’ll see where it takes us…

So here’s the first batch. There’s a Twitter list of those included so far at this link and more will be added in the coming weeks.

Click on the ‘more’ link after these five to to see the full list.

Iain Overton

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is both a return to supporting classic, investigative journalism and an experiment in collaborative working and new business models for heavyweight reporting. Overseen by managing editor Iain Overton, the bureau is working with news organisations across a range of media and investing efforts in data mining and new business models.

Will Perrin/TalkAboutLocal

Will Perrin and his team at Talk About Local are changing the local media landscape one website at a time. Through training workshops and community groups, TAL is helping citizens have a voice online – but also encouraging new growth in hyperlocal news. It all began with Kings Cross Environment, the local site that Perrin set up himself.

James Hatts, SE1

There’s a lot of hype about hyperlocal as a future model for local news – and in James Hatts’ case it’s justified. Hatts was still a student when London SE1, which covers London’s Bermondsey and Southwark areas, started. It’s now more than 10 years old and is a great example of quality news and information for the community with an innovative approach to making money to support that goal.

Marc Reeves

The former Birmingham Post editor makes our list because of his straight-talking, forward-thinking attitude to business journalism. Having recently helped launched a new edition of successful online business news network TheBusinessDesk.com for the West Midlands, Reeves views on niche news and the role of editorial in the commercial life of a news organisation are not to be missed.

Stewart Kirkpatrick

The former editor of Scotsman.com, Kirkpatrick launched a new newspaper for Scotland in January this year. With 200,000 unique users in its first month, you wouldn’t bet against the Caledonian Mercury and Kirkpatrick’s innovative approach to creating a truly complimentary print and online newspaper with a strong and independent identity.

Martin Moore

As director of the Media Standards Trust, Martin Moore has many responsibilities and aims – but near the top of that list is more transparency for public data online and for the metadata associated with news. His work on the hNews project with the Associated Press in particular is something to keep an eye on.

Charlie Beckett

As director of journalism and society think tank POLIS and a former broadcast journalist, Charlie Beckett is a leading exponent of networked journalism: the idea that journalists can work together across organisations, media and with non-journalists to produced news. His research and writings on this model for journalism show a new way of thinking about the role of the journalist and reader in the production and distribution of news.

Paul Egglestone

Egglestone is digital director at the School of Journalism Media and Communication at the University of Central Lancashire. He’s been instrumental in the innovative Meld and Bespoke schemes that run projects from multimedia training for freelance journalists to work aimed at improving local community relationships and living spaces through hyperlocal news, mapping and social media projects. Image courtesy of Andy Dickinson

Pierre Haski

The former Liberation journalist and colleagues from the title are busy carving out a model for successful, heavyweight and independent journalism online with Rue89. The site is not afraid to innovate when it comes to revenue models and crucially not afraid to kill off parts of its network if they’re not working. A new print offshoot has just been launched and with or without this new source of revenue Haski expects the venture to move into profit next year.

Jason Mawer/Oxbury Media

Taking something traditional – the parish newsletter – and seeing the potential of community-interest publications when combined with cutting edge technology – Fwix – is Oxbury Media‘s game. The agency is focused on getting hyperlocal and community media networked, particularly in terms of advertising. Currently involved with more than 10,000 titles, Oxbury Media has the opportunity to create a hyperlocal powerhouse.

Andrew Sparrow

Senior political correspondent for Guardian.co.uk, Andrew Sparrow showed us how liveblogging was done during the 2010 UK election campaigns: on a typical day the blog got between 100,000 and 150,000 page views, rising to two million on election night. Sparrow’s ability to report, summarise and aggregate material for the site made it a must-read and has rewritten the rulebook for online political coverage.

Alison Gow

Alison is executive editor for digital at the Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo. Gow makes the list not only for her work with those titles but also for her openness to new ideas, technologies and experimentation with journalism on the web. Her personal blog Headlines and Deadlines shares her thoughts on these developments and offers important insights into the changing role of local media and its relationship with a community online and offline.

Ben Goldacre

The author of Bad Science and esteemed science writer is as influential for his loyal following – you should see the traffic spikes when he links to anything on Journalism.co.uk – as he is for his views on science journalism and transparency online. As a doctor and health professional his views on journalism come from a different perspective and can offer a necessary antidote to the “media bubble”. Image courtesy of psd on Flickr

Jo Wadsworth

Web editor for the Brighton Argus, Jo Wadsworth is a digital journalist who remembers the importance of offline as well as online networking. Her work on building a team of community correspondents for the paper and her efforts to help with training and mentoring for non-journalist readers wanting to get involved with the website amongst other things show the scope and rewards that a local newspaper website can bring.

Alberto NardeliiAlberto Nardelli/Tweetminster

Alberto Nardelli knows a thing or two about Twitter and social networks – and he’s willing to share it with media and non-media partners to create a better service for users of his site Tweetminster. His and the Tweetminster team’s work shows the power of tracking real-time, social media information, while doing the filtering dirty work for us. It’s a tool for journalists and an example of how new ideas in the digital media world can take hold.

Sarah Hartley/Guardian Local

It’s early days for the Guardian’s venture into hyperlocal ‘beatblogging’ and its architect Sarah Hartley, but the signs are positive. The three existing sites offer a model for how ‘big media’ can do local, making use of third-party websites and dedicated to the online and offline audiences for their patch.

David Cohn/Spot.Us

David Cohn is the founder of Spot.Us, a model for ‘crowdfunded’, investigative journalism. Cohn has carefully built the pitching and funding model, as well as relationships with news media to create partnerships for distributing the finished articles. Spot.Us has grown out of its San Francisco base with a new venture in Los Angeles and even a project built to its model in Australia. Image courtesy of Inju on Flickr

Tom Steinberg/mySociety

Director and founder of non-profit, open source organisation mySociety, Tom Steinberg works to improve the public’s understanding of politics, government and democracy. From campaign literature site the Straight Choice – to FOI request site WhatDoTheyKnow, Steinberg helps create tools for journalists and ways for them to play a part in making a better society. Image courtesy of Tom Steinberg on Flickr

Heather Brooke

From her Freedom of Information rights campaigning to her work on MPs’ expenses, no list of journalism innovators would be complete without Heather Brooke. She’s both a classic investigative journalist with the nose and determination to get a story and someone who knows the best tools to challenge the data and information restrictions that can affect her line of work.

Juan Senor/Innovation Media Consulting

A fantastic speaker on news and magazines, in particular the notions of design and newsroom structure, Senor’s work with Innovation Media Consulting is perhaps best seen through Portuguese microformat newspaper i, a visually stunning and innovative take on what a newspaper or news magazine should look like.

Paul Bradshaw

Founder of the Online Journalism Blog Paul Bradshaw will soon be leaving his online journalism teaching post at Birmingham City University – but that doesn’t mean he’ll be resting on his laurels. Through his teaching, blogging, books and Help Me Investigate site, Paul’s research and insight into new opportunities for journalists, whether that’s tools, collaborations or entrepreneurship, are not to be missed.

Jack of Kent

A.k.a. David Allen Green. A shining example of specialist writing for the web and why bloggers shouldn’t all be tarred with the hobbyist “in their pyjamas” brush. Green’s dedication to his subject matter, his ability to distill often complex or jargon-riddled legal concepts into plain English and give the issues context should be a lesson to all specialist journalists.

James Fryer and Michelle Byrne/SoGlos.com

Online entertainment and arts magazine for Gloucestershire SoGlos.com prides itself on high standards editorially and innovation commercially. The site has embraced a start-up mentality for the news business and is quick to react to new business opportunities sparked by its editorial quality. What’s more the site is developing its model as a potential franchise for elsewhere in the UK, licensing for which would go back into supporting SoGlos.com.

Matt McAlister/Guardian’s Open Platform

Matt McAlister is head of the Guardian’s Developer Network and the driving force behind the Guardian’s Open Platform initiative, which allows third-party developers to build applications using the Guardian’s content and data. The platform has now launched commercially – a revenue stream for journalism from a truly digital age. Image courtesy of pigsaw on Flickr

Aron Pilhofer

Aron Pilhofer and his team at the New York Times are pioneers in data journalism – both creating interactives and visualisations to accompany NYTimes content and opening up the title’s own data to third parties. Image courtesy of Institutt for journalistikk on Flickr

Adam Tinworth

The man involved with most, if not all, things with a social and digital media twist at Reed Business Information, Adam Tinworth is pushing innovation in multimedia journalism and distribution within a big publishing house. He documents his work to help other journalists learn from his experiences – whether that’s reviewing equipment or explaining a common problem – and his liveblogging abilities are something to behold!

Joanna Geary

As part of the Times’ web development team, Joanna Geary is part of one of the biggest experiments in UK journalism. But she’s also a journalist clearly thinking about the future of journalism and news as a business and profession – whether that’s through her own use of new communication tools and technology or in setting up Ruby in the Pub, a meet-up for journalists and programmers.

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April 08 2010

13:58

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens - paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

March 29 2010

10:50

Heather Brooke: ‘PR is infecting public institutions and destroying our democracy’

In the latest extract of Heather Brooke’s book, ‘The Silent State’, published in the Mail on Sunday yesterday, the investigative journalist looks at the effect of PR in public institutions.

On council-run newspapers:

My prediction is this: the more officials take over the news the more our money will be wasted. Scrutiny by the public keeps the powerful honest.

And on trying to reach officials:

PR people have manoeuvred themselves to the top of the political pole. Even senior managers have to get clearance from the Press office to speak to the public.

Full post at this link…

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March 24 2010

09:36

Heather Brooke: ‘Transparency keeps those in power honest’

In case you missed reading an extract of Heather Brooke’s new book, ‘The Silent State’, in the Mail on Sunday, here’s a link…

A second excerpt will be published next Sunday. Last weekend’s extract focused on expenses.

An early reporting experience in America taught her ” that transparency keeps those in power honest: more than any regulator, any bureaucracy or set of rules,” she writes.

On being scooped, she says:

The Telegraph did a phenomenal job presenting the data, and I don’t begrudge them anything, even if they did take away my scoop.

Brooke collected the judge’s award at last night’s British Press Awards for her campaigning over MPs’ expenses.

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09:06

MediaGuardian: British Press Awards results

The Guardian has the full results from last night’s British Press Awards: the Telegraph took the big one, for newspaper of the year, while the Guardian’s Paul Lewis walked away with reporter of the year. Overall, the Telegraph won six prizes for its expenses story, including journalist of the year for its editor Will Lewis.

Heather Brooke got acknowledgement for her role in the expenses exposé, with a judge’s award. The Guardian reports:

The judges’s award went to freelance journalist and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke whose tireless campaigning did so much to keep the story in the public eye. She praised the Telegraph for doing a brilliant job but appealed to Fleet Street to be more co-operative on major stories.

“I don’t begrudge the Telegraph and I hope they don’t begrudge me. The fact is I’m fucking proud,” she said.

Full story at this link…

There’s a Guardian Twitter liveblog too, if you want to catch up with it as it happened.

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February 24 2010

09:43

BBC iPlayer: On Expenses

Missed last night’s BBC Four drama about American journalist Heather Brooke’s fight for the disclosure of MPs’ expenses?

Catch up here: BBC iPlayer at this link.

Jon Slattery praised the show on his blog, saying it showed how much the public owed freelance journalist Brooke, for expenses exposure.

Brooke told Journalism.co.uk she hoped the film would help people understand the importance of investigative journalism and the role they play in holding political leaders to account: “If we don’t want corruption then we each have some responsibility, if only to care about where our taxes are going.”

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February 01 2010

10:27

Heather Brooke on how British journalists avoid accountability by not naming sources

British journalism was under attack from two fronts this week. Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the London school of Economics accused the UK press of making things up. And on Charlie Brooker’s satirical TV show Newswipe Heather Brooke, investigative journalist and freedom of information campaigner, lambasts UK journalists for not always attributing official sources and therefore avoiding accountability. [Update: watch the video and read Brooke's comment to understand the difference between protecting confidential sources and not naming official spokespeople...]

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November 25 2009

11:40

Heather Brooke and Telegraph named in PSA Awards

Reporting on the MPs’ expenses scandal was recognised yesterday with awards for both the Telegraph and investigative journalist Heather Brooke.

Brooke took the ‘Influencing the Political Agenda’ prize at the Political Studies Association (PSA) Awards for her ‘tireless and inspiring’ campaign to uncover details of MPs’ expenses.

The Daily Telegraph was named as best political publication of the year for its investigation into MPs’ expenses; while the BBC’s Newsnight and business editor Robert Peston also received prizes.

The full list of PSA Awards winners is available at this link.

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