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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.”

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 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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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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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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