Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category

Editorial Intelligence ‘Thought for the Day’ breakfast

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

With guest speakers Heather Brooke, expenses campaigner and author of ‘The Silent State’ and Sacha Deshmukh, CEO, ENGINE Business .

Electoral Secrecy

Monday, May 10th, 2010

I wrote a piece in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday about the secrecy and utter lack of accountability surrounding those public officials charged with overseeing UK elections.

Why election officials are a law unto themselves
Mail on Sunday, 9 May 2010

Anyone trying to find out what preparations were made for Thursday’s General Election would have encountered a wall of silence from the public officials in charge.

I know because I made these enquiries last year. I wanted to know how local councils were registering people to vote and whether the number was going up or down and why.
I wanted to know if there was any truth to a Data Sharing Review instigated by the Cabinet Office that stated voter registration was down due to worries that marketing companies would get voters’ names from the electoral role and send junk mail.

The review recommended scrapping the publicly available electoral roll so only state officials and some private companies could access it. The Government took up this recommendation and there is a consultation in place to abolish it.

This is of great concern. In a democracy it is essential that people can see who is registered to vote and where. Why? Well for a start, officials rarely expose voter fraud, it is normally ordinary people or the Press – it was a reporter who found there was only one occupant at a Tower Hamlets address where eight Bengalis were registered to vote.

If the public are going to be denied ready access to the public electoral roll then there ought to be very good reason. Instead I found the ‘evidence’ used in the report was non-existent. From my queries to local councils I discovered the recommendation to abolish the roll was based on fiction. Voter registration was not going down. This was made clear by the turnout at Thursday’s Election, up from 61.4 per cent in 2005 to 65.2 per cent.

But I discovered something more disturbing. The officials charged with compiling electoral registers and running elections were accountable to no one.

Open Rights Group

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Speaking to the Open Rights Group about the lack of transparency in publicly owned information, state sanctioned surveillance and the use of copyright as a form of censorship. And plugging The Silent State, of course!

Heather on HARDtalk

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

BBC iPlayer: HARDtalk

Britain’s political establishment is still recovering from last year’s scandal surrounding Members of Parliament and their expenses. As accounts of lawmakers’ claims were revealed in the press, public anger grew and their popularity nosedived.

Heather Brooke is the journalist and campaigner whose investigations exposed the opaqueness of the expenses system. She talks to Sarah Montague about the culture of secrecy in Britain and the importance of making public information more accessible.

Parliament calls for investigation into Pravda rags

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

In Chapter Two of The Silent State I write about the decline of local journalism and the simultaneous rise in local council freesheets – or ‘pravda rags’ as I call them.

These propaganda sheets have largely come into existence since the 1990s with 88% not existing prior to this time. Concurrent with this subsidised propaganda, nearly one quarter (401 regional and local) independent newspapers have closed down.

This is disastrous for local democracy as it means there is no longer an independent journalist scrutinising the council. As I state in the book, transparency and direct, individual accountability is what keeps those in power honest so we must be very worried that many councils are now operating without either.

It seems MPs are listening and today The Times reported that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee believes council “freesheets” should be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading.

The committee criticised the freesheets, saying it was “unacceptable” that they often posed as local newspapers and acted “as a vehicle for political propaganda”.

Hear hear!

Censorship in Scotland

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Something very disturbing is happening in Scotland. At one time it was a beacon for transparent and democratic government. Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, made bold rulings on the people’s right to know including a decision that all Members of the Scottish Parliament would have to disclose their expenses. It was this decision that I used as a legal precedent in my own case against Westminster MPs.

Now it seems some Scottish politicians are regressing. The SNP Government is going to court to try and strip the Scottish Information Commissioner of his power. Ministers, including First Minister Alex Salmond, want the Court of Session to rule that the Commissioner doesn’t have the right to ask the Government for information as part of his FOI investigations. This comes after Mr Dunion launched a freedom of information probe after ministers turned down a request to see government files. When the Government refused to provide the files, the Commissioner issued an “information notice” against ministers, demanding they provide more details.

As the Sunday Herald reports:

Since he was appointed as Scotland’s first Information Commissioner, Mr Dunion and his staff have adjudicated on hundreds of appeal cases where people were unhappy with responses from public bodies to FoI requests.

As a routine part of the process, the Commissioner and his staff ask to see what information has been withheld and then decide whether the public body made the right decision.

The Government’s challenge centres on whether the Commissioner has the power to make such requests or, if necessary, order access using an Information Notice. The Government is also arguing that the original FoI question at the heart of the case is invalid as it requests documents, not information.

Mr Dunion told the Sunday Herald: “The appeal relates to what I can ask for as part of an investigation. That is what is being challenged by the Government.”

The cases include requests for correspondence between Mr Salmond and SNP donor Brian Souter, as well as between the First Minister and tycoon Sir Angus Grossart, government adviser George Mathewson and pop star Sandi Thom.

I’ve a lot of time for Kevin Dunion. I’ve met him on several occasions and he strikes me as the sort of regulator who actually takes his role of protecting the public interest seriously. He is one of the few who is willing to stand up for what is right regardless of political pressure or powerful interests. He should be lauded, not harassed. What can the people of Scotland make of their elected leaders’ attack on such a true man of the people? I know if I was Scottish I’d be pretty angry.

Awards are like buses

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

You wait ages for one and then three come along at once. So it’s been with awards the past week.

On Tuesday I was surprised to find that I’d won the Judges Award at the annual British Press Awards.

Then on Thursday I received a Special Commendation Award at the Tenth Annual Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression awards.

Both of these awards were, in a way, specially created as my work doesn’t fall into ready-made categories of ‘scoops’ or stories. It was wonderful that in spite of that, enough people saw what I’d done and thought it worth honouring. I’m still reeling from all this adulation to be honest.

Then today I received a call from the USA telling me about a third award (you see they really are like buses). It hasn’t been announced yet so I’ll have to keep you in suspense until tomorrow afternoon for that one.

What a week!

New website:

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

My new website is now up and running: All new posts and future blog updates will be posted on the new site along with information about my new book The Silent State.

Information from the YRTK site will be moved across with re-directed links in the coming weeks.

Please check out my new site and let me know what you think. Thanks to Dave Uprichard at One Trick Pony for the new design.

Investigation journalism – Norwegian style

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Heather Brooke and Julian Assange speaking at SKUP

I attended the Norwegian SKUP conference of investigative journalists this past weekend. There were about 560 journalists from all across Norway in attendance plus a handful of international speakers including myself, the Guardian’s investigations editor David Leigh and one of the founders of Wikileaks: Julian Assange.

I was blown away by the sheer number of journalists in attendance as I’ve never been to a UK conference with anything close to this number of journalists. In Scandinavia the tradition is for reporters to cooperate and share knowledge. In the UK we are still getting over the hyper-competition of Fleet Street where journalists tend to view each other with suspicion and the instinct is keep knowledge to oneself. While this has some advantages, in the current climate it makes more sense for journalists to band together, particularly when it comes to common interests such as libel, freedom of expression and freedom of information.

Most of the talks were in Norwegian so I can’t offer much enlightenment on them though I did hear about some amazing journalists: one of whom was exposing his ninth miscarriage of justice, another wrote a book about Norway’s most famous bank robbery.

The speaker who impressed me the most was Julian Assange. I tweeted quite a lot from his session (@newsbrooke) but one thing he said struck me: that despite releasing primary source material to anyone and everyone via Wikileaks – the biggest scandals didn’t become stories until written about by an experienced journalist at a mainstream newspaper. He cited the release of a leaked US military manual in relation to Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo abuses along with a few others. An army of citizen journalists didn’t know what to do with this and passed it by. It was only the experienced reporters at big media institutions who wrote about it and made it a story.

It seems there is hope for the traditional Press after all.

Book serialisation in Mail on Sunday

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Sections from The Silent State are being serialised in two editions of the Mail on Sunday. The first excerpt was published 20th March 2010. How I blew up the Duck House is a condensed version of the final chapter in the book which tells the story about my epic battle to disclose parliamentary expenses.

But that is not all the book is about. In fact the expense expose is just one chapter. In the next excerpt, published March 28th, the focus will be on something else entirely. Give it a look.