INVESTIGATIVE journalist and writer Heather Brooke is an interesting proposition.
• Heather Brooke
A fierce, tenacious campaigner, Brooke is the woman who took on Parliament over MPs' expenses and won. She is a transatlantic-twanged thorn in the side of the British Establishment, a mischief-maker. Or so it would seem, should you only have the Dispatches documentary and the BBC drama On Expenses (in which she was played by Anna Maxwell Martin) to go by. I expect someone spiky and sharp, with an inexplicable penchant for contemporary dance. Will the woman who precipitated the exposure of the greatest scandal of modern politics, who sneered in the face of centuries of tradition and bureaucratic recalcitrance, be brusque, perhaps even a little shirty?
No, Brooke's quietly spoken, mild-mannered, perhaps even a little nervous. And she giggles. She doesn't seem to believe me when I tell her that I've read (and enjoyed) her book, The Silent State, a reaction that seems less to do with scepticism (or experience of lazy journalists) and more a hint at a lack of confidence. What Brooke exudes, at least professionally, is that kind of unsureness you often find in people who are seldom the most popular. It's partly self-protection, partly a willingness to never be in with the in-crowd.
Brooke's Liverpudlian parents emigrated to America in the 1960s. She was born there, growing up in Seattle and gaining dual citizenship. She came to England to study as a teenager, but returned to the US when she was 15. Eleven years later, in 1997, Brooke returned to Britain. She was 26, she'd been working as a crime reporter in Washington state and South Carolina and she was burnt out. Disillusioned with journalism, she enrolled on a Master's in English literature at Warwick University, and from there she joined the BBC as a copywriter. And then, in 2004, working on a book about Freedom of Information (interest in the subject was a holdover from her reporting days), she stumbled across the idea of getting her hands on a breakdown of MPs' expenses. Can there be anyone who doesn't know the story from there?
Brooke's new book, The Silent State, is another salvo directed at what she believes to be the "farcical lack of transparency at all levels of government". Her beef is that information that is paid for by us, the taxpaying public, should be freely available to us – but that at present it's not. PR and spin infect every aspect of government (what Brooke calls "taxpayer-subsidised propaganda"), meaning that we seldom get the information that we are entitled to, and the demise of local and regional newspapers means there is less and less scrutiny of what the state is up to. To sum up, as far as Brooke is concerned, the way things are going, we can't really call ourselves a democracy.
"Any secret society would be proud of what passes for communication in British public life", is her withering assessment of the current state of play in the UK. As for how to change that, her position is predictably forthright: public information is owned by the public, therefore we should have full access to it. Bureaucrats (particular hate figures for Brooke) should not be able to hide behind anonymity and it's the job of journalists to make sure those in power are subjected to proper scrutiny and held to account.
It might be that Brooke's message is getting through. In recent weeks Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been forced to apologise twice for his misuse of figures in statements about Ministry of Defence spending and immigration (errors picked up by journalists at Channel 4 News doing exactly the kind of fact-checking – analysis of raw data – that Brooke champions). North of the Border, though, there's trouble brewing.
"There's something really disturbing happening in Scotland," Brooke says, fixing me with her gaze. "You have a really good information commissioner (Kevin Dunion] up there. He's made some bold decisions and he's transformed Scottish public life for the good, setting legal precedents, including the one about expenses which I used in my case."
Brooke explains that an appeal has been lodged by the SNP government challenging Dunion's authority. If it's upheld it could significantly limit access to government files. As the law stands at the moment, if the commissioner is dissatisfied with the government's response to a request to release information, he can ask to see the files they wish to keep out of public view. If the government's appeal against Dunion is successful, it will mean that they can refuse to show even him the information. For Brooke, it's a step in absolutely the wrong direction.
"It's really Draconian," she says. "It's surprising because Scotland started off as very progressive – it has a better law than England, and it has enforced it better.
"Now it seems that it's going backwards. If I was Scottish I'd be really looking at the politicians who are bringing this case. They obviously think Dunion's getting too big for his boots. People need to be challenged. They exert a lot of power, they spend public money, so they should expect public scrutiny. But they seem not to have accepted that."
You might expect Brooke to be furious, a firecracker filled with righteous anger. She does feel that way, she says, but she's not interested in expressing it: "I try not to rant. I just try to find examples (where things are going wrong] to explain."
Unfortunately for us – from the police to the courts to the workings of our political system – it seems there's no shortage.
Brooke has never been a part of the mainstream media in Britain, and that doesn't bother her. To be realistic, there aren't many papers that in the current climate would have the money to subsidise a five-year investigation – the amount of time she worked on the expenses scandal – no matter how rich the pickings would one day be. But her recognition at the British Press Awards last month, where she received the Judges' Special Award, was a significant moment for her. "I've always worked on the fringe of the British press establishment, carving out this niche for myself. For a long time I was just doing it without anyone really knowing what I was doing or understanding it. Then suddenly to be in that hall with 800 other journalists and for them to be made aware of the slog that I did for five years and for that to be honoured, it was a big deal for me."
The recognition is overdue and deserved. But don't think for one minute it means Brooke is uncritically enamoured with the great British press. She's not. They are, like most British people in Brooke's opinion, reluctant to take on those in power and there are aspects of their practice, such as not routinely naming official sources but, instead, using the cover-all "spokesperson", that she believes does nothing to create a climate of accountability.
"When I came to Britain I was in awe of the British press, afraid of them. But they're not as ferocious as people think. In some instances they are, but when it comes to taking on power they're really deferential. That's what I was surprised by. Lots of people in the parliamentary lobby knew about MPs' expenses, not in detail, but they knew about the system. But they didn't think to battle on it or complain about it or highlight it."
For Brooke, some of this is to do with our national characteristic, an inbuilt respect for authority and reticence to question those in power. Not to mention the understanding that getting tangled in any bureaucratic system – as anyone who's ever appealed a parking ticket or quibbled their council tax will confirm – can bog you down and grind you into submission. "In Britain, it's bred into you, the idea that you can't really change anything, so why bother. When I went to school in America, it was the total opposite view – you, as an individual, can change anything and everything. It's how you're raised. In one society, you're raised to believe that you, as an individual, have the power to change things, and in the other, in order to keep the status quo – I think it's a vestige of the class system – you're expected to accept your allotted role in society."
Brooke has certainly made a difference. Whether it's turn-out or turn-off, who could deny that MPs' expenses will be firmly in the minds of the voting public come 6 May? I wonder how Brooke, who strikes me as someone happy to stay out of the limelight, feels about that?
"Everyone's in a similar boat," she says. "We're all really pissed off and feeling that everyone's as bad as each other, so who can we vote for? There's a temptation not to vote at all as a protest, but it's definitely not a protest. In fact, all it does is keep the people in power in power, and I don't think they should be. I definitely think that we need a change, just to make it clear that business as usual is no longer acceptable."
Brooke is uncompromising, clear, challenging. Love or loathe the idea of someone who proudly declares themselves a "nosey parker", it would be hard to argue that we don't need people just like her.
As for what's next, there's no shortage of ideas. She's written a crime novel, although she's "not sure what to do with it". She's got other ideas for novels too. Meanwhile, there's a proposal for another book, which takes the theme of The Silent State and applies it globally.
"Is the whole information revolution bringing us closer to true democracy, or are we in more danger than ever of slipping into a totalitarian society?" she asks. "I think we're at this really interesting crux where we have the opportunity to finally get to the democracy we've always wanted. Or we could go absolutely backwards."
It sounds like a daunting project, I offer. Another huge battle that will cement her position as the outsider.
"I quite like that," she says mildly. "But I don't like getting into trouble. People say you must be fearless, but, no, actually I did get quite anxious and I don't want to get into trouble. I mean, I've never been arrested.
"I've never been in trouble with the police. I sometimes think, 'Wow, I really did do that?' (expose MPs' expenses]. But I was only writing letters, I wasn't holding a protest in the street or chaining myself to the railings."
NO HIDING PLACE ...
BROOKE argues that as we continue to have to battle for information from the state, through armies of press officers and spokespeople, schemes such as the National DBNA Database and the Summary Care Record amass ever more information about private citizens. According to Brooke:
• So extensive is the new surveillance bureaucracy that even bureaucrats aren't sure of its extent, and nowhere does there exist a directory of all state surveillance systems, many of which fall foul of privacy and human rights laws.
• There are between three and four million CCTV cameras in Britain, at least 1.4m in public spaces. No- one knows the precise numbers because they are not registered. CCTV has taken up the largest chunk of the crime prevention budget over the years, eating up to 70 per cent of Home Office crime prevention funds which a Lords report estimated to be in excess of 500m.
• Police forces are spending almost 40m million a year on spin doctors and news management. Overall spending on PR in 2008 was up 13 per cent from two years earlier. You could put an extra 1,400 officers on the streets for the amount we spend subsidising police public relations.
• Between 1985 and 2005, 401 regional and local papers – a quarter – closed down. Meanwhile, 88 per cent of council produced magazines and newspapers have come into existence since the 1990s.