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<nettime> Heather Brooke: "Let's end the UK's culture of secrecy" (Aleks
Patrice Riemens on Thu, 22 Apr 2010 16:02:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Heather Brooke: "Let's end the UK's culture of secrecy" (Aleks Krotoski, The Guardian)

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Aleks Krotoski
The Observer, Sunday 18 April 2010

Heather Brooke: 'Let's end the UK's culture of secrecy'

The journalist and freedom of information campaigner wants us all to use
technology to challenge the powerful

Heather Brooke is an award-winning investigative journalist whose research
into MPs dominated the headlines in 2009. Facing numerous political
obstacles, Brooke, using the Freedom of Information Act, tenaciously
pieced together the accounts of receipts and credit slips detailing MPs'
claims for "additional costs allowances" ? from soft furnishings to the
infamous floating duck island ? that cost many of them their jobs and
which has transformed the parties' election agendas.

Her investigation not only exposed abuses of the political system, but
also highlighted secrets of information control and censorship that lie at
the heart of a UK government that has operated for years without
sufficient public scrutiny. Brooke describes the five years of research,
hearings and appeals in a new book, The Silent State, and here explains
how access to technology has transformed what the public expects of people
in power.


What inspired you to look into the issue of MPs' additional costs allowance?

There were hundreds of institutions I was pursuing when I was writing my
first book, Your Right to Know. It just happened that Parliament proved to
be the most unhelpful, truculent and obstructive. For an investigative
journalist, that's a siren call that something is worth paying attention
to. MPs' attitudes showed that they were willing to expend a lot of energy
keeping secrets. I fired off a Freedom of Information (FoI) request. If
they had been helpful and had treated me, as a member of the public, as
someone with equality, I would have given them an easy ride. But they were
elitist, arrogant and didn't have much sense of accountability to the
public, the people paying them to do their jobs.

What happened then?

It went on for five years, starting with the information commissioner and
then moving to the information tribunal. Each time I won, but the Commons
appealed. I would then cross-appeal and that's how we ended up in the high
court, where I finally won.

Why did it take so long, when the act gives the public the right to
public-sector information?

There are exemptions to the FoI act; there are 25 reasons why officials
can refuse to give out information and some of them are really vague. It's
also not properly enforced: information officials are starved of cash so
they can't do their jobs as they want to. There's also a lack of boldness
about challenging authority. When we had the FoI request to disclose the
Iraq war memo [the so-called "sexed-up" dossier], it took ages to be
resolved. Finally, it was agreed that it should be disclosed, but then
ministers vetoed that decision and it was kept secret. There's still a
sense that power knows best and those in power are better placed to tell
us what to do. That's the attitude I want to challenge. These people don't
always know what's best for us; we know what's best for us.

What did your investigation expose about the UK system compared to other

There is a very intense culture of secrecy in Britain that hasn't yet been
dismantled. What passes for transparency here would serve any secret
society well. There's a paranoia about the public knowing anything, even
innocuous things like restaurant inspections. There are all these food
safety inspectors who go around, paid for by the public, and yet I can't
see the results of this. What an odd country where simple things are
hidden away as if they'll destabilise the country!

Governments have always kept information confidential. Why does the public
now feel it has the right to know?

People now have a greater awareness of how other countries treat their
citizens. They have different expectations for how public officials should
react to them. They use the web and can shop around, but then they go into
a public service and it's: "You get what you're given." People don't want
that any more. They want to know the reasons behind decisions. They can
also join forces through the internet, making them more powerful because
they can become a lobbying group and put pressure on politicians.

China and Iran are criticised for how much the state controls information.
How different is it in this country?

It's less different than we'd like to think. For example, a group of
computer programmers was trying to get hold of Hansard, the parliamentary
record. They asked for it politely, they didn't get access to it. They
ended up scraping it off the web. The parliamentary officials couldn't
stand this; they thought they should have a right to control who had
access to this information. These computer programmers had a huge battle
to get access to this supposedly public data so we could see how our MPs
voted and when our MPs had attended debates.

Are there any developments that offer hope?

There's now an onus on officials to provide a reason if they want to keep
something secret. In the past, the person who was asking for the
information had to provide the reason.

What do you feel has been the greatest effect of your investigation?

The way people look at public services. Before, they took things at face
value and thought everything was working fine. Taxes are quite high and
what are people getting in return? We weren't being given enough
information about how this money was spent. The investigation was trying
to make people more sceptical, to get them to challenge our leaders.
People are now less willing to accept what a powerful person says.

Has the investigation affected the party platforms in the election?

It's much harder to spin now, to roll a load of PR guff; the public has
seen all that. Now people are looking critically at the posters and the
promises and thinking: "These are the words, but what are the actions?"
That's how I think you should judge a politician: discard about 95% of
what they say and just look at what they've done.

What implications does the recently passed Digital Economy Act have for
freedom of information?

The theory is that everyone has access to information, but equally, the
act says that we can be switched off if we download something the
government doesn't like. That's a very disturbing part of this law. The
idea that you can copyright public information is another form of
censorship. It's all very well to say that we need to provide people with
a living, but what copyright is now being used for is either greed,
anti-competitive practices or censorship. The problem is that the act is
being debated by people who have no clue about technology. We're going
through this information revolution and yet our public services haven't
caught up with the fact that this is a new economy.

What are you investigating next?

I am taking these ideas of how the internet is changing people's
expectations of what they have a right to see, of democracy and of power,
and investigating how it's changing the way we as a world interconnect and
how this will change politics globally.

See Heather Brooke's website at  http://heatherbrooke.org

Also about her book "The Silent State" (2010)

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