Brooke's fight for democracy moves on from greedy MPs

The journalist who exposed Commons expenses tells Matthew Bell she's still pushing for change

It's ironic that when I meet Heather Brooke to discuss her campaign against secrecy, she is smarting from a previous interview in which she was asked some slightly too intrusive questions. Government secrets are one thing, the personal life of an investigative reporter quite another.

Perhaps it's not surprising we want to know more about Brooke: although it was The Daily Telegraph which published the expenses scoop, it was she who got the ball rolling by demanding to see the expense details of all 646 MPs more than five years ago. At first she was told this would be too expensive but, despite constant resistance, she pressed for it through the Freedom of Information Act and was finally awaiting its release when the data was leaked to the Telegraph. Her campaign has made her a hero of the British press, and last month she won the Judges Award at the British Press Awards. Where does her drive come from?

"I will ask a question which I think is basic, and I have a right to know," she says simply. "What I like to do is to look at systems: are they working, are they not working? Are powerful people exercising their power for the benefit of the populace of are they just trying to maximise their own personal benefits?"

She doesn't talk of any burning sense of injustice or hark back to an epiphany in her early career: as she argues in her new book, public bodies are funded by the taxpayer and we therefore have a right to information about how our money is being spent. In The Silent State, she issues a clarion call for Britons to resist the creeping secrecy in public affairs, from clandestine courts to obfuscatory press offices.

Brooke, 39, hardly fits the Raymond Chandler mould of investigator – a grizzled hack in a mac. But training in the US, where she was a crime reporter, she was used to handling public information such as crime reports and statistics. When she moved to the UK and made similar requests, she was astonished by the obfuscation surrounding public information that, in America, she would access as a matter of routine. "There you can get information legitimately though legitimate channels," she says. "You just go the police station and you get a load of information. You don't have to rely on who you know or doing people favours, or buying information. In Britain it's different; there aren't any public records, for one thing."

Is that quite right? She cites an example: the street where she used to live in east London had a litter problem, so she rang the council to ask who was responsible for litter in her area. The council refused to reveal the name of that person. "They cited data protection," she says. "That's a load of nonsense. That person is a public servant working for me: why should I not know who they are?"

The logic is persuasive and few could deny Brooke has done a public service in exposing the abuse of parliamentary privileges. But has an unfortunate by-product of her work been to erode public trust in MPs? "If telling the truth about what our MPs are doing, which is all that I did, is considered damaging to democracy, then people have a really messed-up view of what democracy is," she says. "That's the kind of thinking you've got in North Korea, where we think we must maintain the authority of the supreme leader."

One of her pet hates is the anonymity of spokesmen: "Whenever possible I name the spokesman who gives me a quote," she says. "They always complain but why shouldn't their name be attached to what they are saying? Just think if Damian McBride had had his name attached to those infamous Downing Street briefings."

The timing of her book's publication, in the run-up to the election, is no coincidence. "If change doesn't happen now, then it never will. People have been energised by the expenses story."

Colleagues have recommended she turns her attention to MEPs' expenses next, but she admits to having no interest in getting bogged down in European bureaucracy.

Nor does she have any intention of returning to America, where she says the serious press has become "almost academic" in its dryness. The opposite is true here, she says, where journalists are "treated like so many naughty school children who can't be trusted with pure unadulterated factual data, so when they get hold of it they go a bit crazy".

Despite this, she has chosen to remain in Britain, and has made it her job to challenge the British notion that we live in the best democracy in the world: you don't have to ask Brooke about her private life to see she is a born lover of mischief, and as such is very much at home here.

The Silent State is published by Heinemann on 8 April at £12.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media & Advertising Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national business publishi...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones