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Seminar report: Freedom of information and the informed citizen

28 Apr 2017

The numbers of countries which have Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation has been increasing in recent years, and in the UK, the legislation came into effect in 2005.

Heather Brooke is a leading journalist who has been utilising FOI requests for investigative reporting and is known as a pioneer who revealed the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, one of the biggest political stories in the UK, after a legal fight over four years.

She names her way of reporting ‘Clean Hands Journalism’ and argues that conventional journalism which depends on transactions with sources sometimes becomes ‘grubby’ and often ‘immoral’. She says she does not want to be compromised by her relationship with her source.

She gave details of how she has reported about MPs’ expenses, PR personnel in police forces and regional analysis of criminal prosecutions by following her ‘clean hands’ approach.

She grew up in the US and started her career as a newspaper reporter who covered the Washington State Legislature. She published her first ‘scoop’ about legislators’ travel expenses based on their receipts which were disclosed proactively in 1992. Brooke explains that her MPs’ expenses investigation was the "exact replica of that story I did in Washington State".

However, she noticed that she could not access the same kind of documents when she moved to the UK. She says that the British public ‘didn't have the right to know’.

Brooke then made a series of FOI requests about MPs’ expenses immediately after the FOI law came into force. As the UK Parliament rejected disclosing the claims on the grounds of privacy, she appealed to the Information Commissioner and then the Information Tribunal. In May 2008, she eventually won at the High Court, and the Parliament announced that full documents of all MPs’ expenses would be published.

However, in the process of digitising the information about MP expenses, a massive amount of raw material was leaked. The Telegraph bought the data and started a month-long coverage and campaign which resulted in a large number of MPs’ resignations, including the Speaker.

Brooke also points out the important role of open FOI request platforms which are run by citizen groups like WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli in a digital era.

On the other hand, she expresses concern about the growing amount of digital information. She says that information "keeps getting more and more voluminous and too difficult for the public to access legitimately" and concludes "I'm slightly hopeful, slightly pessimistic" about the future.

Heather Brooke, investigative journalist, author and Professor of Journalism at City University, spoke at a Reuters Institute seminar on  22 February 2017.