You couldn’t make it up. While the UK Transparency twitter feed was sending out gushing messages about Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s latest open government agenda, Speaker John Bercow, in cahoots with Tory MP Julian Lewis, was trying a rear-guard action to keep MPs’ expenses secret.
You’d have thought Bercow might remember how his predecessor was brought low due to his obstinate stance on publishing expenses. But no. They’re at it again. Even a High Court ruling isn’t getting in their way. In 2008, MPs argued against my freedom of information request to disclose the full details of their second home allowance and address. They claimed such disclosure would endanger them. They had no proof. Just their own paranoid narcissism. Three of the nation’s top judges ruled in my favour saying that public accountability required the claims and addresses be published. Now some MPs are trying to subvert that ruling by stealth. The new broom, it seems, still has some sweeping to do.
I had a few words to say about it on Sky News.
A few upcoming events…
Friday 12 October 2012 – 8pm Wells Literary Festival
I’ll be speaking on the opening day of the Wells Literary Festival. For more information and to book tickets check out the Wells Festival website.
Monday 22 October 2012 – 7pm – Off the Shelf Festival of Words
I’ll be talking about the revolutionary aspect of digitising information and how it’s changing politics and power around the world at Off the Shelf. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Monday to Wednesday 29 – 31st October, 2012 – Power Reporting Conference
Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa
I’ll be speaking and doing hands-on teaching sessions at this conference, the leading investigative journalism conference in Africa. If you live anywhere nearby then I’d urge you to come along. There is a fantastic line-up of journalists who have done some stellar investigations both in Africa and abroad. For more information visit the Power Reporting website.
Perusing some old books in the London Library, I came across this statement on the English press. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1938.
But in England the links between government and newspapers are much more remote and subtle. The newspaper press is largely trustified – that is, controlled by rich men whose interests on the whole are bound up with conservatism. At the same time the commercial aspect of newspapers – reader-interest on the one hand and advertising on the other – make daily newspapers incline towards sensationalism, which means, towards opening their columns to anything which seems likely to increase circulation. And this sensationalism, bad as it is on the aesthetic and moral sides, does at least ensure a continuation of competition and rivalry in enterprise, which brings in its wake much of what we value as “freedom of expression of opinion.”
From “Propaganda” by Richard S. Lambert (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1938)
I’m speaking at the Sydney Writers Festival this week. Here are the debates I’m participating in:
- Journalism 2.0 – Is journalism different in the digital age?
- MYOB – Does it matter that we have surrendered our privacy to Google and social media sites?
- You Must Have Something to Hide – Where should we, as a society, should draw the line between public and private?
- Imagined Futures – Europe is in trouble. Can it be saved?
Look forward to seeing some of you there!
Newsnight reporter Allegra Stratton reported on the April 5th show (I’m looking for a link to this package) that the Government is planning to introduce fees for making Freedom of Information requests.
We’ve been here before (back in 2004/05) when the law was first introduced. No surprise that politicians who were once in favour of FOI when in opposition suddenly lose their appetite for the people’s right to know once in power. It usually takes about 12 months, so this government is doing well to last as long as it has.
I am of the opinion that it’s unlikely for these moves to succeed. We are still awaiting the report from Parliament’s post-judicial scrutiny on Freedom of Information. And do politicians and bureaucrats really want to come out against FOI at a time when cuts are being made and FOI has shown itself to be one of the most effective (and cost-effective) ways to cut waste, inefficiency and corruption? Making it harder for the citizens to get answers on how public money is spent is going to be a public relations disaster, so I hope sane heads prevail in Parliament.
Above, I am discussing the issue with Jonathan Baume, head of the First Division Association (FDA), the union for senior civil servants:
This is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for The Times last week about the UK Government’s proposal for industrial internet surveillance: the ‘snooper’s charter’. The following day, the Government announced it would NOT be putting the bill forward in the Queen’s speech but it still remains very much a live issue.
Don’t let the State spy on us by the back door
The Times, April 3, 2012
Proposed new laws would give powerful officials instant access to people’s internet data
It used to be that running a police state required a tremendous outlay of resources, from hiring watchers and informants to the central collection and storage of paper files. As we move our lives on to digital networks, we create a handy one-stop shop for the nosy official.
It is simple for governments to eavesdrop on our digital communications. They don’t have to store the data; they just go to where it’s collected – internet service providers (ISPs), social networks and telecoms companies. One simple step takes the State’s ability to spy on its citizens to a whole new level.
[We may hope our democratic principles would protect us from the sort of industrial internet surveillance practiced in China, Iran and other autocratic states. However, this government’s proposal revealed yesterday reveals a plan to rival China.]
Intelligence agents can already tap into our online communication and data where there are reasonable grounds for doing so. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), extended in 2003, allows not only the police, intelligence services and Revenue & Customs officials, but many other organisations, including local councils, to access telephone records, e-mail and internet activity.
That we have no idea how often they do it or for what purpose is an indication of the lack of supervision in this area.
There are three officials in charge: Read the rest of this entry »
The Lords Communications Committee report, “The Future of Investigative Journalism”, (HL: 263 – pdf) was published 16 February and I’ve written an article in response for House magazine.
March 1, 2012, The House
‘The starting point for this inquiry, as already mentioned, has been that responsible investigative journalism should be protected and encouraged, given its important role in our democracy.’
I am glad to see these words in the Lords communications committee report, The Future of Investigative Journalism, published 16th February, but the reality is that the law, the costs, the lack of public records, and an elitist political structure, obstruct public interest investigative journalism.
When journalism was profitable, these costs could be borne. Now they cannot. By all means prosecute those who break the law, but the press needs support, not obstruction. The journalism of verification and truth is resource-intensive. The best way to encourage it is to lower the resources needed to do it.
Firstly, it must be made easier to conduct public interest investigations. It should not take five years of a person’s life to find out the most basic facts of how public officials spend the public’s money (MPs’ expenses). And here we find in the UK, the crucial ingredient necessary for responsible journalism missing: easily accessible public records. The most important of these are:
- Court records – including full court lists with full, real names (no abbreviations); all documents referenced in bundles, full judgement and sentencing (current and historical).
- Police records – incident reports and arrest bookings.
- Identification records (vehicle ownership records, reverse telephone directories, electoral registers).
- Regulatory inspections, complaints, violations, prosecutions
- Detailed ‘line-item’ budgets
- Land ownership
- Company registrations and accounts.
In the USA where I trained as a reporter, these records were the basic building blocks for all journalism: used for accurate identification, verification and investigation. Privilege attached to their content so that if I reported that X had been charged with fraud, I was protected from libel if I had quoted accurately from the police charge sheet or the court record.
In the UK, only the last two items are easily accessible. Reporters still have the same requirements, however, so they must get information elsewhere: hearsay, anonymous sources or illicitly obtained either for money or favour. This is not good for democracy. It would be better for these civically important records be available to all, regardless of favour or resources.
The second way to encourage public interest investigation is to reform the libel law. The committee rightly points out that ‘investigative journalism is especially resource-intensive, requires long-term investment with no guaranteed return, involves some risk of litigation’, but it understates the problem: ‘the working of the libel laws in the UK can, on occasion, have a discouraging effect on responsible investigative journalism…’ No, not on occasion – always.
Any journalist thinking about investigating the powerful (corporate or government) must be prepared for bankruptcy. Everyone I know who has written a non-fiction, current affairs book published in the UK (myself included) had to go through an expensive libel reading. The exact same books published in the USA do not have these costs. The committee praises the creation of the the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, yet one of the biggest obstacles it faced was finding reasonable libel insurance. This legal nightmare halts small or online cooperative journalism sites in their tracks. Helpmeinvestigate.com, for example, was hobbled because of the UK’s libel law.
We do not need more obstacles put in the way of investigative journalism. The net result will be to make it harder for journalists acting in the public interest. People like me will be priced out of the market. Instead, we will have ill-informed online propaganda and public relations circulated instantly across the globe.