Posts Tagged ‘The Times’

A few words on the Times paywall

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Inevitably since I’ve written for the Times a few readers have questioned why, as the paper’s online content is no longer free. Andrew Denny, for example, wrote: ‘Is there not an irony in the fact that your Times articles are now online behind a paywall and not openly accessible?’

It’s a point I’d like to address.

Firstly this comment is to miss the clear difference between a public body and private industry. The courts are paid for by the public. We have no choice but to pay our taxes – under threat of jail – to support this service which exists for the benefit of the public as a whole. Whether we like what we get is immaterial to the taxes we must pay. Transparency is one of the only ways to ensure this public body is working efficiently for the benefit of all, not just the elite.

The Times is a private company. Its survival depends entirely on whether people feel they get something of value for the money they pay. Newspapers are not free and they never have been. They can appear to be so but someone, somewhere is covering the costs whether that is through advertising, a patron’s largesse or a license fee. Advertising is no longer subsidising the industry and so the cost must fall somewhere – why not on the people who use it?

I actually believe journalism must improve if the Times is asking people to pay for it, as readers are not going to pay for inaccurate rumour or propaganda. They can get that anywhere – for free. What quality journalism can offer is synthesis of a great amount of material which is then verified and put into language everyone can understand.

I believe the experience and skills I’ve gained over 22 years as a journalist and writer have value which is why I don’t give away my work for free. I’ve written for the Times because they have valued what I do enough to pay me. The New Statesman magazine also asked me to write an article but they didn’t want to pay me anything. To me, that shows how much they value quality journalism.

If you don’t think there is any value in the work I, or any other serious journalists do, then don’t spend your money on it. At least you have the choice. You’ll still have to pay your taxes, though.

Article: The courts are open but justice is a closed book

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The courts are open but justice is a closed book
The Times, 28 July 2010

By Heather Brooke

We are denied even the barest details of what goes on in supposedly public legal proceedings

Last week I had an encounter with open justice. I was attending the Information Tribunal hearing of a friend who is trying to peel back layers of secrecy surrounding allegations that the Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust had a history of silencing whistleblowing staff by offering them public money to sign confidentiality or ‘gagging’ contracts.

I’ve been to the Tribunal before when I was fighting for the release of MPs’ expenses and that’s when I discovered the only record of proceedings of this so-called “open” people’s court (the Tribunals are meant to be a less formal, more accessible form of justice) were my scribbled notes. When it came time to write a script for a dramatised version of the hearing my notes and those of other reporters were all we had to go on. I’d asked at the time if I could tape record the hearing and was told “no”.

This time I decided to press harder. The rhetoric of the English legal system is that justice must be seen to be done so why are the public forbidden – under threat of jail – from recording a verbatim account of proceedings? Not only that, rules are so opaque and obscure that court reporters struggle to report cases with any degree of accuracy or depth. And that is when there is a reporter in court, which these days is a rarity – there used to be 25 reporters covering national courts for the Press Association; by 2009 there were only four.

We are paying nearly £1.5 billion for the court service plus £2.1billion for legal aid and the salaries of nearly 1000 senior judicial officers. It’s a high price, but to be honest not enough to adequately fund the system. However, if we’re going to invest in the judiciary it’s vital we understand where our money is going and receive some benefit for our considerable contribution. The least we might have is an account of proceedings held in open court.

Anisa Dhanji, the judge, said she was concerned with the hearing being recorded. ‘Usually such requests are made in advance so the tribunal can maintain the necessary degree of control over the transcript.’

“Control” is exactly what a court shouldn’t be exerting. Once it is decided that it is open, there should be no restriction on how that open hearing is processed. She went on to say that she’d allow me to record now but I’d have to wait for a future ruling before I could “use” the recording.

The next day in court the Judge announced she’d made her ruling.
“Please turn your tape recorder off,” she said, looking sternly at me over her glasses. I did so.
(more…)

Article: A Prime Minister’s conversion to openness

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Freedom of information? It’s a state secret
The Times, June 11, 2009
By Heather Brooke

Promises of more open government have been made before

When it comes to politicians advocating open government the best advice is to ignore what they say and focus on what they do.

Yesterday, Gordon Brown used the dreaded word “transparency”. I have been campaigning for five years on freedom of information and had to go to the High Court to force the disclosure of MPs’ expenses, so it is with some satisfaction that I now hear the Prime Minister issuing statements about the need for open government that I couldn’t have written better myself.

Mr Brown proposed extending the scope of freedom of information. The funny thing is that he suggested this once before, in October 2007. It must have slipped his mind.

Back then, in the first flush of office, he gave a rousing speech on civil liberties. He announced a public consultation about extending coverage of the Freedom of Information Act to institutions that received huge whacks of taxpayers’ cash but had no obligation to be publicly accountable, such as city academies, Network Rail, and private companies providing public services.

The consultation closed in February 2008 and the results were supposed to be implemented no later than November 2008. Need I say that nothing happened? In January I inquired about this phantom consultation. I asked the Ministry of Justice for a copy of the submissions and timelines of progress on implementation. Not getting a straight answer, I filed an FoI request (as I do).

You can guess what happened next. My FoI request about the progress of freedom of information was rejected. The ministry claimed that all the information was exempt as it involved the “formulation of government policy”. So much for Mr Brown’s airy claim that “this is the public’s money. They should know how it is spent.”

Now Mr Brown has put in charge of the FoI reforms one Jack Straw, of the Ministry of Justice, (a department with one of the shoddiest records in answering FoI requests). He is to head a public debate on this secret public consultation. When it comes to making bureaucracies accountable this is the snail’s pace of progress.

How unlike the lightning speed with which new bureaucracies are created. Two were magicked into life just this week: A shiny new department for Peter Mandelson and the ironically-titled Government Democratic Council. I say ironic because in the true spirit of Yes, Minister its creation is shrouded in secrecy. It appears the members will be ministers appointed by the Prime Minister in secret and it’s unclear how transparently they will formulate reforms for a more transparent democracy. Here’s betting it will be behind closed doors.

Article: Police Bonuses

Friday, February 13th, 2009

From The Times, 24 January 2009
What have they got to hide?
By Heather Brooke

Investigation is a little like psychiatry where the most telling details are often those kept hidden. When only one police force is willing to tell the public what it pays its Chief Constable in bonuses curiosity is piqued. What do they have to hide?

The police chiefs who accepted bonuses not only refused to reveal the amounts, but also declined to say what they were for. Some Chiefs told us they refused bonuses ‘on principle’ which makes one wonder what principles are at stake? We can’t know that until we know the details of the bonuses.

They cited the Data Protection Act, claiming that it would be an invasion of their privacy for the public to know the details of their salary and benefits. This may interest chief executives of public companies who must disclose this information in their annual reports.

It’s a topsy turvy world when the public have more rights to find out how the heads of corporations spend their shareholders’ money than the public do the heads of their public services.

The Data Protection Act is a badly written law. It is understandable that no one can understand it, but it is the implementation of a European Directive designed to protect the privacy of private individuals not to help public officials avoid public accountability.

The law hinges on a fairness principle and a balancing test is used to compare personal privacy interests to the public interest in knowing the information. Under this test, if the information is determined to be private, it can be released anyway if it is found that the public interest in release is more important than the privacy interest. There have been several cases now, including a High Court case on MPs’ expenses, where this balancing test has been done and the public interest found to outweigh the individual privacy interests.

In the case of Chief Constable pay there is clearly a valid public interest in this information. The public pay this money. They have a right to know how much and what it is for. Are the bonuses for cutting particular types of crime? Has this resulted in changes to the way crimes are recorded? Until the bonuses are published we just don’t know how they are affecting policing.

Another issue of concern is the massive non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Of the 57 requests sent out at least 38 forces failed to answer legally. They simply let the deadline come and go failing to provide a legal reason for their continued delay. The police enforce the law, so what does it say when they don’t obey it themselves?

Article: Let’s get crime mapping

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

From The Times, June 26, 2008
Crime mapping: we can’t afford to ignore it
By Heather Brooke

It works in America – and could help to improve crime clear-up rates dramatically

Most police forces in American cities provide the public with a list of all crimes, broken down by street or city block. You might read of a robbery on the 1600 block of 9th Avenue at 11pm for example, or three assaults in close proximity on Tuesday.

When I was a crime reporter in America, I was able to view all police incident reports, jail booking records and every warrant signed by the magistrate. I had some privileges as a reporter, but all this information was considered to belong to the public. The logs can be found in local newspapers or online and give the enterprising citizen the ability to build their own crime maps such as: www.spotcrime.com and http://chicago.everyblock.com/crime/. People use these maps to band together to pressure their police to tackle problems. As most police chiefs are directly elected, solutions are quickly found.

The police in Britain, however, feel they “own” crime data and the public have no right to know what is happening. Yet access to criminal incident data is vital, as it allows the public to judge the effectiveness of the police and crime policies. In a void of ignorance, a politician or police chief can claim anything he likes about crime: that binge drinking is endemic or under control, that muggings are increasing or falling, that policing is working or failing.

The police can also hide their failings. Northumbria police claimed that only three crimes of note had occurred one weekend in May, yet a freedom of information request revealed that, in fact, there were more than 1,000 incidents, 161 of them violent.

I asked the Metropolitan Police last summer if they could publish this data, if not by street then at least by postal code. No. The Met’s excuse was that it was technologically impossible (which I doubt), and in any event, “had it been possible to produce this data, it would have been likely rejected as a breach of the Data Protection Act”.

Shamefully, the Information Commissioner has objected to the plan of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to allow people to know what crime happens in their street, arguing that it would breach the privacy of the victims of crime. But the Data Protection Act does not prohibit personal information being disclosed. Its purpose is to ensure that such disclosure is for a legitimate purpose.

Yet again a policy that would be of great public benefit is being blocked by an unthinking, fetishistic attitude towards privacy. A balance can easily be struck between the privacy of those reporting crimes and the overall safety of citizens. The only people made safer by the current policy of wilfully enforced ignorance are poorly performing police chiefs.

Police PR Spending

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

A three-month project by James Ball and I using the Freedom of Information Act to examine police spending on public relations, press offices and marketing concluded with two pieces in today’s Times:

Long arm of police spin-doctors costs almost £40m a year

Tough on crime – or on the image of crime?

We found that police forces across the UK are spending £39m each year on press and PR – enough to fund an extra 1,400 full time officers and more than enough to cover the annual police pay rise withheld by the Government. The force at the top of the league (Police Service Northern Ireland) spends eight times more per person on PR than the lowest (Derbyshire). Meanwhile, forces spend nearly ten times more on PR (what police want us to know) than on FOI (what we want to know).

Also while resources are pumped into PR, we found a distinct lack of interest in responding to our FOI requests. Only 19 of 53 forces responded to our requests on time. All the rest broke the law. They had a variety of explanations though some offered none at all. Police Service Northern Ireland had the most novel excuse – their FOI officer was on an advanced driver training course. It had no affect in speeding up their tardy reply which came more than a month late. If any of us were to break the law I doubt such excuses would carry much weight. Even those committing non-crimes such as parking get no leeway.

When we called the press offices for comment, however, it was remarkable how quickly forces found the time to re-examine their figures to decrease the amounts, often claiming the initial figures they’d given us were incorrect.

There is lot more detail than we could get in the newspaper so check out the summary or the full database for the full story on how your police force responded.

Summary of press and PR spend in the 52 police forces questioned

Full Database (Excel). Here you’ll find a sheet with the main findings, a summary sheet and finally the full detail of all our requests to 52 police forces.

Police PR Press Release

Link to Secret Squirrel page

PR/Press spend per 100,000 people, per year
Top 5
Police Service Northern Ireland £99,501.01
Metropolitan Police Force £85,629.10
Northamptonshire Police £80,138.57
Dorset Police £72,670.79
Merseyside Police £68,189.82
Bottom 5
Derbyshire £12,566
Dyfed-Powys £19,088
Durham £20,193
South Yorkshire £20,818 (ave 3 years)
Lincolnshire £20,934
Total PR spend increases
Top 5
Cumbria Constabulary 125%
Dyfed Powys Police 77%
Lincolnshire Police 72%
Northumbria Police 55%
Devon & Cornwall Police 43%
PR staff spend increases
Top 5
Thames Valley Police 146%
Cumbria 136%
Lincolnshire 72%
Dyfed-Powys 65%
Hampshire 61%

PR is taking over our public institutions

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

So what if the truth is inconvenient?
The Times, April 1, 2008
By Heather Brooke

A senior police worker is facing a disciplinary hearing for “damaging the reputation” of West Yorkshire police. Philip Balmforth is in trouble for granting an interview to The Times last month on Asian girls going missing from Bradford schools. Bradford City Council complained to the force claiming his high-profile work was damaging the city’s image and was “bad for regeneration”.

Now, I thought the police’s role was supposed to be about solving crime, not engaging in “reputation management”. Obviously I’m behind the times: clearly PR has taken over our public institutions.

Public sector bodies should not be in the business of reputation management. The reputation of a private company has value because it is by reputation that customers choose to buy goods and services. But most public institutions are monopolies; we have no choice but to buy, if not use, their services. In the absence of competition it is only through public scrutiny – and whistleblowing – that some level of accountability is gained. To try to restrict this is wrong.

Yet many public institutions forbid staff from speaking to the public or press without clearance from the all-powerful press offices – and permission doesn’t come easy unless you’re peddling a saccharine story. The fine line between co-ordinating communication to provide the public with clear information and propaganda used to push an agenda has been crossed by many bodies.

Mr Balmforth is a national expert on forced marriage. Why should he have to clear everything he says with a press officer? He was giving facts about crimes and should not be used as a pawn to sell a particular political policy. Bradford council’s wish to airbrush out ugly realities comes at the direct cost of the happiness, even the lives, of young girls.

We think it absurd that Thailand has a law against insulting the King. We are shocked by Turkey’s prosecution of Orhan Pamuk, the award-winning novelist, under Article 301 of the penal code for the offence of “denigrating Turkey’s national identity”. We might laugh at Brunei’s constitution which declares: “His Majesty the Sultan can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity” and further admonishes that “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings. that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan”.

Now just replace “His Majesty the Sultan” with Bradford council or West Yorkshire Police and you get an idea of the thinking in some of our public institutions.

Witch-hunt? MPs don’t get it

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Witch-hunt? MPs don’t get it
The Times, February 28, 2008
My battle to make MPs’ expenses more transparent met with obstruction and mystification
By Heather Brooke

Nearly 15 years ago I found myself in a small office digging through boxes of receipts looking at the expense claims of local politicians. Everything was laid bare: all the trips, all the meals, all the hotel bills, all the contracts. I was a young trainee reporter covering the Washington State government, and my editor had suggested I look at these claims to see if there were any instances of corruption or personal enrichment.

The laws of the state required that all expense claims and receipts be open to the public. And do you know what I found? Nothing. Not one instance of an improper claim or misuse of money. That is the result of transparent government.

Fast forward to 2004 and I find myself in London. I decide to replicate the exercise in the Mother of Parliaments. I ask the House of Commons for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ expenses. So unusual is this request that the officials greet my question with stunned silence. The public aren’t even allowed in the Commons Library to access official documents paid for with public money, so there’s no way they’re getting anywhere near expense records.

Later, the officials tell me they’re publishing annual bulk figures. But that’s no good, I tell them. A myriad of sins can be hidden in bulk totals. An MP can claim £23,000 for a second home but there’s no way to see if it is a legitimate expense without a detailed breakdown. Is it for mortgage payments or a new kitchen? Food or a new flat-screen TV?

When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005 I used it to ask for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ travel expenses, staff allowances and finally their second-homes allowance. I encountered relentless opposition from the Commons authorities and Michael Martin, the Speaker. Andrew Walker, the House of Commons’ director of finance and administration, said with a straight face that he believed the transparency I sought was bad for democracy. He thought it mere “public curiosity” rather than “public interest” and that it would impinge on MPs’ jobs to have to account to the public.

Finally, this week, my three-year battle culminated with the Information Tribunal ruling that MPs must disclose all documentation associated with their second-homes claims. But many MPs are angry about this. They think it’s an invasion of their privacy and that my campaign is some sort of witch-hunt. They just don’t get it. In a democracy MPs are supposed to be directly accountable to the people they represent; not accountable to other politicians, or officialdom, but to us.

As I listened to Mr Walker testify, the scale of parliamentary arrogance became clear. He didn’t even try to hide the fact that there were little or no checks on MPs expense claims. Why should there be? They are honourable members. I could just imagine Mr Walker as Lady Bracknell. The public? As though the very idea of an MP being accountable to the public was so beyond the pale it could barely be allowed in polite conversation.

Tribunal hearing coverage

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

I am expecting the final decision in my case for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ Additional Costs Allowance to be published this week, so here as background, is the media coverage from the hearing. Sam Coates, political correspondent for The Times, also very generously published his transcript of the hearing. It’s a shame the taxpayer-funded Tribunal couldn’t provide the same public service.

8 February 2008

Why there’s something fishy about MPs’ food allowance

The Times

MPs can claim for fishtanks and iPods on their expenses, the head of Parliament’s finance department has admitted.
Andrew Walker, director general of resources since 1997, told a tribunal yesterday that until 2003 MPs may have been able to “write their own cheques” from their taxpayer-funded allowances. In an unprecedented glimpse into the backroom workings of the House of Commons, he said the system was overhauled in 2003 after Michael Trend, then the Conservative MP for Windsor, claimed £90,000 for a second home he did not have.

Expenses details ‘intrude’ on MPs lives

BBC News

In which my lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC is quoted very nicely!

The Daily Mail covered the Tribunal hearings and the resulting fall-out:

MPs’ expenses should remain secret “for democracy”, says Commons Fees Office chief

Press Gazette

Give a man enough rope and he can hang himself – Andrew Walker, director of the House of Commons Fees Office testifies that public accountability is bad for democracy. Honestly, you couldn’t make this up.

9 February

MPs remortgaged their homes for cash in hand at taxpayers’ expense

The Times

The man in charge of administering expenses in the House of Commons has admitted that he thinks MPs are willing to exploit the system.
Andrew Walker, the director of finance and administration, also conceded that until 2006 MPs had been able to remortgage their house if they wanted cash in hand — even though the taxpayer meets the cost of the mortgage. He said that now MPs could only remortgage if the move was sanctioned by the finance department. Valid reasons include wanting to carry out building works on the property, he said.
A former MP alleged yesterday that his colleagues had routinely put in for the maximum allowances by claiming for “food”, a category that does not need receipts.

‘John Lewis’ list kept from MPs

BBC News

A list of guide prices for items commonly claimed by MPs on expenses is to remain secret, a tribunal has ruled. The “John Lewis” list is used by Commons clerks to check maximum prices deemed reasonable for items like TVs.

Come clean on family salaries or prepare to be investigated

The Times

Police misconduct claims cost £44 million

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

My investigation into the amounts paid out by police forces across England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland concluded with two pieces in today’s Times:

Police misconduct costs forces £44m
We need this data to catch and fix problems in system

This is the first-ever disclosure of compensation payouts for public liability claims and clearly shows the value of freedom of information. The high percentage of claims that settle out of court is worrying as it hides the extent and exact nature of allegations of police misconduct.

Also surprising, was that many police forces didn’t actually know how many times they’d been sued or even how much taxpayer money they’d paid out in public liability compensation. How can we have an informed debate about police conduct and the ‘compensation culture’ when the data is unknown? (I’ll be posting up the full database of responses soon.)

In the UK, we have little knowledge about the machinery of government – those records and data created and maintained by the state in the course of its public service duties. Yet this is the data that citizens must have if they are to meaningfully hold the state to account.

How professional and competent are the police? This is a question that gained new relevance in light of the fatal shooting by the Metropolitan Police of an innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menzes. In order to answer this question I made Freedom of Information requests to all 55 police forces asking for data about the number of claims received, their progress and final payouts over the past five years.

The results were intriguing and showed that record-keeping continues to be a problem for many police forces. A sizable majority could not say how many claims had resulted in court action, not did they always know how much they had paid out in settlements and it took quite some digging for some forces to even know how often they’d been taken to court!

The reliance on government-imposed mandates at the expense of direct accountability became clear. If it’s not required by Whitehall, many forces simply don’t see a point in keeping accessible data, even if it is clearly in the public interest – such as the amount of taxpayer’s money they’re paying out for police misconduct. For example, Kent Police provided no information at all stating that “we do not at present collect or collate this information and therefore are not in a position to provide it.” Cheshire Police told us that wrongful arrest was “every day sort of stuff” and they “don’t have any need to keep [the data] in the format you asked for.”

Another surprise was that Cleveland Police, which is in the top 3 for both compensation and claims per 100,000 – stated that since 2004 they have stopped recording the number of court actions.

Many forces were loathe to be compared with each other. Durham claimed that its data was “unique and should not be used as a comparison with any other Force response you receive.”

Some forces claimed the only way they could determine if a claim had resulted in court action was to look through hundreds of files at a cost that ranged from 10 minutes per file (Wiltshire Constabulary) to 60 minutes (Strathclyde Police).

The Metropolitan Police, North Yorkshire Police and Greater Manchester Police force claimed (incorrectly) that the data was already published in their annual reports and failed initially to provide page numbers to hundred-page documents. While Warwickshire Police incorrectly used the data protection act to hide the amounts paid out in compensation.

Only 23 per cent of claims make it to court and several forces succeeded in keeping 100 per cent out of court. This is either good or bad news depending on one’s point of view and the exact nature of the claim.

Court is expensive so there is a value-for-money argument in settling cases. But if the claim is a legitimate complaint of police misconduct then there is a public interest in knowing the details so that any systemic problems can be identified and fixed. If every allegation is brushed under the carpet and the claimants paid to keep silent, then problems aren’t known and can’t be fixed.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has brought a claim against the police to know if the force required a confidentiality agreement to be signed before agreeing to pay out.


Police forces which failed to respond to the FOIA request

South Yorkshire Police
West Yorkshire Police
Hertfordshire Constabulary
Humberside Police
Leicestershire Constabulary
Nottinghamshire Police
Surrey Police

Kent County Constabulary responded but said “we do not at present collect or collate this information.”
Dorest Police said: “It’s a bit of a mess really, the numbers don’t add up.”