Article: The Future of Investigative Journalism

March 3rd, 2012 by heather

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.

Report Review
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., 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.

Upcoming Events in March

February 28th, 2012 by heather

I’ve been rather remiss in updating my blog. Here are a few upcoming events:

Saturday-Sunday March 17-18 – Guardian Investigative Journalism Masterclass
Time: 10:00-5:00pm

Paul Lewis and I are back to teach journalists, lawyers, campaigners, authors and others the tricks of the investigative journalism trade. We’ve added a beefed up section on understanding company accounts and tracking assets as well as a section on keeping sources safe from online and other forms of surveillance. Our previous courses sold out quickly so if you want to attend sign up soon.

Location: Guardian offices, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU
Book a place or get more information

Saturday 10 March 2012 – TEDxWarwick 2012
Time: 10:00am – 6:00pm

I’ll be speaking in the morning half of this all-day event at Warwick University. TEDx is a spin-off of the prestigious TED talks, a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. The theme of the conference is Global Challenges and I’ll be giving a talk entitled, ‘The beginning of the end of the free internet’.

Location: The Arts Centre’s Butterworth Hall
Book tickets & more information

Thursday 08 March – Bath Literary Festival
Time: 6.15pm – 7.15pm
Everything is Digital

This is my second year at this book festival in the beautiful city of Bath. I’ll be talking about The Revolution Will Be Digitised, taking questions from the audience and signing books afterwards.
Location: Bath Guildhall
Book tickets & more information

Date: Wednesday 29 February 2012 – LSE Literary Festival
Time: 6.30-8:00pm
Censorship in an Age of Freedom

I’ll be at the London School of Economics Literary Festival speaking on censorship with author Nick Cohen (You Can’t Read This Book) and director of POLIS Charlie Beckett. We’ll be talking about the censorship and secrecy that abounds in an age of information overload. With a multitude of online voices do we know more than before? Are we closer to the truth? Or are we becoming more susceptible to propaganda and spin?

Location: Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building
Book tickets & more information here
This event is now fully booked but there may be returns and I will certainly be happy to sign books afterwards.

Wednesday 29 February 2012 – Open Justice
Time: 09:00am – 2:00pm
Justice Wide Open: Open justice in the digital age

I’ll be speaking at this Centre for Law, Justice & Journalism seminar. This is a free, half-day event accredited with 3 CPD points and will discuss issues around access to courts and judicial information in the 21st century. More information on the event here. The event is currently full but you can go on the waiting list.

Location: College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 0HB, UK

Article: Accused leaker Bradley Manning in court

December 20th, 2011 by heather

In its punitive treatment of accused leaker Bradley Manning, the US government has missed an opportunity to live up to its values of freedom, says Heather Brooke

After 18 months, accused leaker gets a day in court
Index on Censorship, 16 Dec 2011

After nearly 18 months’ incarceration and punitive treatment described as “torture” by human rights activists, accused leaker and former US Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning will finally get a day in court.

This is not a trial, but an “Article 32″ hearing, the US military equivalent to a civilian pre-trial hearing, where the defence can evaluate the government’s case and obtain facts through pre-trial discovery. It begins on 16 December at Fort Meade, Maryland and is expected to run right through the weekend for approximately five days. Despite press interest, only a small number of seats are available for the public and reporting restrictions are in place to prevent live coverage.

Saturday will mark Manning’s 24th birthday, the second birthday he has spent in custody since his arrest in May 2010 for allegedly leaking a US Army video that showed soldiers gunning down Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists. He was later charged with 22 violations of military law for allegedly leaking records and transmitting defence information. He faces life in prison if convicted. The hearing will determine whether or not he goes ahead for a full court-martial.

The length of time Manning has been in pre-trial confinement is controversial, but more so has been his treatment while confined — seeming more like punishment than justice. While in the military brig in Quantico, Virginia he was in maximum custody and controversially placed on prevention of injury (POI) watch, which meant he was in solitary confinement, forced to spend 23 hours in a cell six feet wide and twelve feet in length.

His lawyer David Coombs reported Manning was woken at 5am weekdays and 7am on weekends and was not allowed to sleep any time between then and 8pm. If he attempted to sleep during those hours, he was made to sit up or stand by the guards. Guards checked on him every five minutes by asking him if he was okay. He had to surrender his clothes at night apart from boxer shorts. He was not allowed a pillow or sheets, nor any personal items in his cell, and was prevented from exercising apart from one hour when he would walk in a figure of eight motion.

The harsh conditions were denounced by human rights groups, including Read the rest of this entry »

Article: US Govt secretly snoops on your email

December 20th, 2011 by heather

How the US government secretly reads your email
The Guardian, 11/12 October 2011

Secret orders forcing Google and Sonic to release a WikiLeaks volunteer’s email reveal the scale of US government snooping

Somewhere, a US government official is reading through a list of those who sent or received an email from Jacob Appelbaum, a 28-year-old computer science researcher at the University of Washington who volunteered for WikiLeaks. Among those listed will be my name, a journalist who interviewed Appelbaum for a book about the digital revolution.

Appelbaum is a spokesman for Tor, a free internet anonymising software that helps people defend themselves against internet surveillance. He’s spent five years teaching activists around the world how to install and use the service to avoid being monitored by repressive governments. It’s exactly the sort of technology Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised in her famous “Internet Freedom” speech in January 2010, when she promised US government support for the designers of technology that circumvented blocks or firewalls. Now, Appelbaum finds himself a target of his own government as a result of his friendship with Julian Assange and the fact WikiLeaks used the Tor software.

Appelbaum has not been charged with any wrongdoing; nor has the government shown probable cause that he is guilty of any criminal offence.

That matters not a jot, because, as the law stands, government officials don’t need a search warrant to access our digital data. Searching someone’s home requires a Read the rest of this entry »

The battle for information control

October 17th, 2011 by heather

A short interview I recorded for the Future Tense radio show on ABC Radio National.

Listen here.

Article: Journalism’s unique selling point is the public interest

September 28th, 2011 by heather

As Lord Justice Leveson prepares to investigate newspaper conduct, I joined three other writers to discuss ‘How far can the press go in the public interest?’

The press will die if it fails in its duty to serve the public interest
The Times, 27 September 2011

The ethics of what should or shouldn’t be published can be distilled down to a simple rule: is it in the public interest? Put simply, the public interest is not the tittle-tattle that interests the public but anything that informs and enlightens society.

The pursuit of this high-minded ideal is not exclusive to reporters: a lot of academic and scientific research fits that bill. But journalism is different because as a rough trade it deals with the ugly realities of human nature: sex, scandal, crime, corruption – all the emotional vagaries that make up the “crooked timber of humanity”. It’s not about peddling pretty pictures; that’s public relations or propaganda. Because of those ugly realities journalists have to use subterfuge or deception to dig out the truth. Where activity is not in the public interest and criminal then let it be prosecuted, but we should be wary of prosecuting speech or regulating the press.

First, it is impractical to introduce national regulations on the press as information now flows globally. What people can’t read in the newspaper they will get from Twitter, which, as a US company, is governed by the more tolerant First Amendment.

Second, we should note that the greatest abuses in history were never a result of too much speech but rather too little. It is only through free speech that we have any hope of tackling the real enemy of the people: the concentration of power.

Where speech is false, then the best way to tackle it is with more, not less, speech. Jemima Khan showed this when she put paid to rumours that she had sought a superinjunction not by bringing a court case against Twitter, but by tweeting the truth herself. Public figures may be more accountable in the internet age but they equally have more opportunity to get out their side of the story.

Journalists, too, have come under more scrutiny than ever before, thanks to the internet.

Rather than a race to the bottom, this explosion of speech creates a renewed need for public interest journalism. In the age of information overload, when everyone can tweet or blog, how can we know what is important or true? We look to reputation.

Journalists are, or ought to be, the public’s hired guns sent out to collect information, question it, verify it and distilit to what is important and true. This takes time and skill, and is the only thing a journalist does that marks him or her out as a professional. It’s also the reason why anyone would choose a well-known newspaper’s website over an unknown blog.

The survival of journalism in the digital age rests on its one unique selling point: serving this public interest. Fail or forget to do that, and it has no future.

Upcoming Events

September 25th, 2011 by heather

Tuesday 27 September – 6pm-7pm – Bristol Festival of Ideas
I’ll be speaking about The Revolution Will be Digitised and signing books afterwards.
Book tickets and more info here.

Wednesday 28 September – 6pm-7pm – Chatham House
People, Politics & Power: How Digitization is Changing Our World

Richard Sambrooke (former director of BBC News and BBC World Service) will chair this event at Chatham House. Suddenly a seemingly powerless individual can, through interactive global networks, effectively challenge powerful individuals and institutions. The speaker, an award-winning writer, journalist and freedom of information activist, will argue that those in the establishment may see this new empowerment of individuals as dangerous and destabilizing, and as a threat to national security, believing in consequence that the internet must be controlled. Others view this phenomenon as providing a gateway to a transformed political arena. The speaker will contend that the greater danger to humanity is not free speech but the concentration of power.
Book tickets and more info here.

Separating the man from the cause

September 23rd, 2011 by heather

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in today’s (London) Times.

The WikiLeaks ‘hero’ is actually morally bankrupt
The Times, 23 September 2011

One question I’m often asked about my long investigation into MPs’ expenses is whether I was ever threatened with retribution. The answer is no. The closest I came was John Prescott getting snarly on Newsnight and an angry letter from a former MP staffer.

Strangely enough, it was investigating Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks frontman, for a book about the digital revolution that put me in the crosshairs of an angry online mob. At first I was impressed by this seeming warrior for transparency, democracy and accountability. In his “unauthorised autobiography”, published this week, we hear the old war stories of his early hacking days when he used the handle Mendax, from Horace’s Splendide Mendax – nobly untruthful. Yet I came to discover there was little that was noble about Assange’s mendacity.

He may have started WikiLeaks with the best of intentions, but to lead a campaign for openness while acting like an authoritarian patriarch with little respect for the truth does not bode well.

He looked upon WikiLeaks donations in the same way some politicians look upon the taxpayer, as a funding source for personal needs. This first became apparent after he was accused of sexual assault by two women in Sweden and he tried to use donations to fund his personal legal defence. Other WikiLeaks volunteers opposed this, and for this they were deemed traitors. Assange’s method throughout has been to conflate the cause with the man and by so doing try to make himself above question.

In his world, those who challenge him for his dubious behaviour aren’t holding him to account but part of a dark conspiracy. I witnessed many Wikileaks volunteers who dared question Assange, denounced by him as either stooges of intelligence agencies or spurned lovers (men or women, it didn’t matter). Online whispering campaigns would start up seeding these ideas. People who gave Assange their time and money would find themselves suddenly sidelined and briefed against for daring to question an immoral action by the founder. Long before Daniel Domscheit-Berg wrote his book, Assange was telling people that his former partner was a paranoid schizophrenic and an intelligence agent. When Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir voiced her disapproval of Assange’s decision to publish informers’ names in the Afghan war logs, he told reporters it was because ‘she’s in love with me’. It was the same with all those who worked with Assange whether at the Guardian, New York Times, Norway’s Aftenposten or most recently Canongate. What could never be countenanced was that Assange was responsible by his own actions.

When I got hold of the full set of US diplomatic cables, I discovered first-hand Assange’s capacity for dissembling, spin, threats and blatant untruths*. While Assange showed bravery, the way the Afghan logs were published with informers’ names left in was ethically irresponsible. He claimed I’d obtained the leak of his leaks through “criminal deception”, which was an utter untruth*. He told another reporter that he “knew where I lived” and the insinuation was that I’d better watch out. He threatened to sue me for depriving him of his “financial assets” (no writ yet). I heard from hacker friends that he’d been smearing my reputation, and his tiny army of cultish Assangistas launched a hate campaign online.

These people wanted their hero and they could not countenance the truth: that the man they’d chosen as their saviour was morally bankrupt. His fight for freedom of information wasn’t based on any moral principle but rather from a barely understood psychological compulsion.

So I, for one, want to separate the man from the cause. If one is going to be a campaigner for truth then telling it occasionally wouldn’t go amiss.


* Due to English libel law, newspapers in the UK are loathe to ever use the word ‘lie’ and so you will see that ‘lies’ and ‘utter lie’ are published as ‘untruths’ and ‘utterly untrue’. These two words may seem indistinguishable to the reader but in English libel law they matter. A lie is: to speak untruthfully with intent to mislead or deceive whereas an untruth is: the state or quality of being untrue; a statement or fact that is untrue. The key difference is that a lie is an untruth told with deliberate intent to mislead. In this article, ‘lie’ is actually more accurate. However, English libel law is one of the most restrictive of free speech in the world. It puts the burden of guilt on the defendant (the writer) who is presumed guilty and must prove innocence. It is for this reason that England is favoured by the rich and powerful as the place to bring libel actions as a means to stifle and suppress criticism. Assange was initially a great campaigner against England’s libel law, at least until he became powerful and then began threatening libel actions of his own against those who criticised him.

Article: Police attempting to criminalise investigative journalism

September 9th, 2011 by heather

Investigative journalism must not be criminalised
Guardian, 9/10 September

Police questioning of journalists such as the Guardian’s Amelia Hill who seek to uncover corruption is a worrying trend

The questioning under caution of the Guardian reporter Amelia Hill by the Metropolitan police is part of a worrying trend: for the police appear to be using their power not to root out corruption or bribery, but to stop a reporter doing her job, namely to winkle out the truth about an issue of public importance.

Hill reported a number of stories about the phone-hacking scandal, including the revelation of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by News of the World. It was this story that finally compelled police and politicians to fully investigate a scandal that some had known about for years. Commentators have seen Hill’s questioning as part of a wider attempt to criminalise contact between journalists and off-the-record sources.

But there is nothing unusual about police and reporters hanging out together. In the old days of crime reporting this was commonplace and it was not unduly difficult to strike a balance between keeping the public informed without endangering investigations. But in the age of public relations and spin, such free conversations are looked upon by the authorities as highly dangerous – not to policing so much as to those in power. Such free conversations might lead to challenging questions.

The danger with a centralised police PR operation is that information is used not to benefit the public but to benefit those in power, often to the detriment of the public. It is for this reason that officers “leak”, because they want to solve their cases and they know they can only do so with the help and co-operation of the public.

The situation Hill has apparently been questioned about calls to mind two recent cases. Philip Balmforth was a former police inspector and vulnerable persons officer responsible for Asian women in the Bradford area of West Yorkshire. He was praised in a House of Commons early day motion signed by 56 MPs in March 2008 for being a “knight in shining armour” who “does everything he can to protect people and give them time to assess the situation they are in”. Yet a week after he was praised in parliament he was facing a disciplinary hearing for “damaging the reputation” of West Yorkshire police, all because he spoke directly to a journalist.

“I had a speech ready for every journalist – after being told the publicity had to stop,” Balmforth told me. “The speech was: ‘You must contact the press office.’ But many in the media would ask for ‘off the record’ background to the problem, which I would willingly give, subject to contacting the press office before using it (who would always refuse).

Balmforth spoke out in the Times challenging the official figure given by the government’s forced marriage unit that there were 300 cases of forced marriage annually, saying he dealt with that many in West Yorkshire alone.

We should be grateful to Balmforth for alerting us to the problem of forced marriage. Instead he was stripped of his position by the police force. He has now retired.

Another police officer who dared to question one force’s use of covert surveillance was himself put under surveillance and his friend Sally Murrer, a journalist at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested and threatened with life in prison.

Read the rest of this entry »

We are not at war with Oceania

September 6th, 2011 by heather

There is a disturbing type of aggressive public relations being used to try to re-write history. I noted several examples of heavy-handed PR in The Silent State: public officials getting harassed, bullied and in some cases criminally prosecuted by their public service employers for speaking directly to the public (instead of through central press offices). It seems there is another tactic gaining strength whereby PRs attempt to silence those uttering inconvenient truths ‘Scientology-style’ by hunting down criticism and aggressively seeking to have it withdrawn.

This week I received an email from the Guardian’s Reader Editor seeking clarification for the opinion piece I wrote about the reluctance by some universities to disclose underlying research in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. They’d had a complaint – not from Stirling University, the subject of the piece, but from the University of East Anglia which occupied a whole ONE SENTENCE of my article. The offending section reads thus:

This is not the first time a university has tried to hide from FoI. The University of East Anglia breached the Freedom of Information Act when handling requests by climate change sceptics (the university escaped prosecution because the case came to light outside the six-month time limit for cases to be brought).

For those who don’t recall, the University of East Anglia got into trouble when someone hacked into its server and leaked a number of documents, detailed data and private e-mails exchanged between climate scientists to the public. The emails gave the impression the University was not exactly keen on the public’s right to know and was actively breaching access to information laws by suppressing or destroying information subject to requests.

One email from Professor Phil Jones, then the director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) stated: “If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone”, and another email in which he had written “Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?”.

Most of the hand-wringing by the university seemed to focus on the leak itself rather than on the disturbing content which showed officials actively trying to evade their FOI responsibilities. The Information Commissioner was called in to investigate and found primie facie evidence that the access laws had been breached. However, the ICO was never able to make a formal finding or complete its investigation because it discovered a loophole in the law that tied its hands. While it is a criminal offence to alter, destroy or suppress information subject to FOI requests, the statute of limitations on this crime is a measly SIX MONTHS. For this reason alone, the ICO could not proceed. Instead they did what they could and issued a decision notice on the breaches of other aspects of the Environmental Information Regulations (the FOI equivalent for environmental info). The Notice also refers to the criminal offences:

The emails suggested that some requests for information were considered an imposition, that attempts to circumvent the legislation were considered and that the ethos of openness and transparency the legislation seeks to promote were not universally accepted. This is of considerable concern to the Commissioner and in keeping with his duty to promote observance of the legislation he will now consider whether further action is appropriate to secure future compliance.

The complainant made an allegation that an offence under regulation 19 of the EIR had been committed. Although the emails referred to above indicated prime facie evidence of an offence, the Commissioner was unable to investigate because six months had passed since the potential offence was committed, a constraint placed on the legislation by the Magistrates Court Act 1980.

Since then the ICO have ruled that UEA must disclose certain climate data by UEA and they have now complied. UEA also had to sign this undertaking.

And finally there were a number of enquiries: the Muir Russell Report and various reports of the Science and Technology Select Committee which exonerated most of the important people. Here’s how another article in the Guardian described the findings of the Russell Report:

…the inquiry conducted detailed analysis of only three cases of potential abuse of peer review. And it investigated only two instances where allegations were made that CRU scientists such as director Phil Jones and deputy director Keith Briffa misused their positions as IPCC authors to sideline criticism. On the issue of peer review and the IPCC, it found that “the allegations cannot be upheld”, but made clear this was partly because the roles of CRU scientists and others could not be distinguished from those of colleagues. There was “team responsibility”.

The report is far from being a whitewash. And nor does it justify the claim of university vice-chancellor Sir Edward Action that it is a “complete exoneration”. In particular it backs critics who see in the emails a widespread effort to suppress public knowledge about their activities and to sideline bloggers who want to access their data and do their own analysis.

Most seriously, it finds “evidence that emails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them [under Freedom of information law]”. Yet, extraordinarily, it emerged during questioning that Russell and his team never asked Jones or his colleagues whether they had actually done this.

Secrecy was the order of the day at CRU. “We find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness,” says the report. That criticism applied not just to Jones and his team at CRU. It applied equally to the university itself, which may have been embarrassed to find itself in the dock as much as the scientists on whom it asked Russell to sit in judgment.

The university “failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements” – FOI law in particular – and “also the risk to the reputation of the university and indeed the credibility of UK climate science” from the affair.

The university has responded by abolishing the role of director of CRU, held by Jones until last November. Indeed CRU itself has lost its former independence. Acton said Jones would now be “director of research” for CRU, working within the university environment department.

Knowing all this you can imagine my amazement at the sheer gall of UEA to then demand this correction:

Original Message
Subject: Heather Brookes on Freedom of Information

Dear Chris,
Heather Brooke’s opinion piece: “Freedom of information is for businesses too” (2 September 2010) perpetuates the myth that the University of East Anglia has breached the Freedom of Information Act.

She bases her assertion on a previous Guardian piece which we wrote asking you to correct.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has confirmed that it has not investigated whether section 77 of the act had actually been breached – ie whether the university had broken the law. As a point of detail, we also pointed out that the case in question related to emails and not to climate data as mentioned in the article of 28 January 2010.

I hope you can correct this.
Regards, Annie

University of East Anglia