TEDGlobal 2012

Heather Brooke: My battle to expose government corruption

Filmed:

Our leaders need to be held accountable, says journalist Heather Brooke. And she should know: Brooke uncovered the British Parliamentary financial expenses that led to a major political scandal in 2009. She urges us to ask our leaders questions through platforms like Freedom of Information requests -- and to finally get some answers.

- Journalist
Heather Brooke campaigns for freedom of information, requesting one secret document at a time. Full bio

Once upon a time, the world was a big, dysfunctional family.
00:16
It was run by the great and powerful parents,
00:21
and the people were helpless
00:24
and hopeless naughty children.
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If any of the more rowdier children questioned
00:29
the authority of the parents, they were scolded.
00:31
If they went exploring into the parents' rooms,
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or even into the secret filing cabinets, they were punished,
00:38
and told that for their own good
00:42
they must never go in there again.
00:45
Then one day, a man came to town
00:48
with boxes and boxes of secret documents
00:51
stolen from the parents' rooms.
00:54
"Look what they've been hiding from you," he said.
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The children looked and were amazed.
00:59
There were maps and minutes from meetings
01:02
where the parents were slagging each other off.
01:05
They behaved just like the children.
01:09
And they made mistakes, too, just like the children.
01:11
The only difference was, their mistakes
01:15
were in the secret filing cabinets.
01:18
Well, there was a girl in the town, and she didn't think
01:21
they should be in the secret filing cabinets,
01:23
or if they were, there ought to be a law
01:26
to allow the children access.
01:28
And so she set about to make it so.
01:30
Well, I'm the girl in that story, and the secret documents
01:34
that I was interested in were located in this building,
01:38
the British Parliament, and the data that I wanted
01:41
to get my hands on were the expense receipts
01:46
of members of Parliament.
01:48
I thought this was a basic question to ask in a democracy. (Applause)
01:52
It wasn't like I was asking for the code to a nuclear bunker,
01:58
or anything like that, but the amount of resistance I got
02:01
from this Freedom of Information request,
02:04
you would have thought I'd asked something like this.
02:07
So I fought for about five years doing this,
02:10
and it was one of many hundreds of requests that I made,
02:14
not -- I didn't -- Hey, look, I didn't set out, honestly,
02:18
to revolutionize the British Parliament.
02:20
That was not my intention. I was just making these requests
02:22
as part of research for my first book.
02:26
But it ended up in this very long, protracted legal battle
02:29
and there I was after five years fighting against Parliament
02:32
in front of three of Britain's most eminent High Court judges
02:36
waiting for their ruling about whether or not Parliament had to release this data.
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And I've got to tell you, I wasn't that hopeful,
02:43
because I'd seen the establishment. I thought,
02:45
it always sticks together. I am out of luck.
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Well, guess what? I won. Hooray. (Applause)
02:51
Well, that's not exactly the story, because the problem was
02:56
that Parliament delayed and delayed releasing that data,
02:59
and then they tried to retrospectively change the law
03:03
so that it would no longer apply to them.
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The transparency law they'd passed earlier that applied to everybody else,
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they tried to keep it so it didn't apply to them.
03:11
What they hadn't counted on was digitization,
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because that meant that all those paper receipts
03:18
had been scanned in electronically, and it was very easy
03:20
for somebody to just copy that entire database,
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put it on a disk, and then just saunter outside of Parliament,
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which they did, and then they shopped that disk
03:30
to the highest bidder, which was the Daily Telegraph,
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and then, you all remember, there was weeks and weeks
03:36
of revelations, everything from porn movies
03:39
and bath plugs and new kitchens
03:42
and mortgages that had never been paid off.
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The end result was six ministers resigned,
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the first speaker of the house in 300 years was forced to resign,
03:53
a new government was elected on a mandate of transparency,
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120 MPs stepped down at that election,
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and so far, four MPs and two lords
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have done jail time for fraud.
04:10
So, thank you. (Applause)
04:13
Well, I tell you that story because it wasn't unique to Britain.
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It was an example of a culture clash that's happening
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all over the world between bewigged and bestockinged
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officials who think that they can rule over us
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without very much prying from the public,
04:34
and then suddenly confronted with a public
04:36
who is no longer content with that arrangement,
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and not only not content with it, now, more often,
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armed with official data itself.
04:45
So we are moving to this democratization of information,
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and I've been in this field for quite a while.
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Slightly embarrassing admission: Even when I was a kid,
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I used to have these little spy books, and I would, like,
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see what everybody was doing in my neighborhood and log it down.
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I think that was a pretty good indication
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about my future career as an investigative journalist,
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and what I've seen from being in this access to information field for so long
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is that it used to be quite a niche interest,
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and it's gone mainstream. Everybody, increasingly, around the world,
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wants to know about what people in power are doing.
05:20
They want a say in decisions that are made in their name
05:24
and with their money. It's this democratization of information
05:27
that I think is an information enlightenment,
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and it has many of the same principles of the first Enlightenment.
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It's about searching for the truth,
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not because somebody says it's true, "because I say so."
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No, it's about trying to find the truth based on
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what you can see and what can be tested.
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That, in the first Enlightenment, led to questions about
05:48
the right of kings, the divine right of kings to rule over people,
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or that women should be subordinate to men,
05:55
or that the Church was the official word of God.
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Obviously the Church weren't very happy about this,
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and they tried to suppress it,
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but what they hadn't counted on was technology,
06:04
and then they had the printing press, which suddenly
06:07
enabled these ideas to spread cheaply, far and fast,
06:10
and people would come together in coffee houses,
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discuss the ideas, plot revolution.
06:16
In our day, we have digitization. That strips all the physical mass out of information,
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so now it's almost zero cost to copy and share information.
06:23
Our printing press is the Internet. Our coffee houses are social networks.
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We're moving to what I would think of as a fully connected system,
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and we have global decisions to make in this system,
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decisions about climate, about finance systems,
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about resources. And think about it --
06:42
if we want to make an important decision about buying a house,
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we don't just go off. I mean, I don't know about you,
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but I want to see a lot of houses before I put that much money into it.
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And if we're thinking about a finance system,
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we need a lot of information to take in. It's just not possible
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for one person to take in the amount, the volume
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of information, and analyze it to make good decisions.
07:04
So that's why we're seeing increasingly this demand
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for access to information.
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That's why we're starting to see more disclosure laws
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come out, so for example, on the environment,
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there's the Aarhus Convention,
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which is a European directive that gives people
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a very strong right to know, so if your water company
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is dumping water into your river, sewage water
07:24
into your river, you have a right to know about it.
07:27
In the finance industry, you now have more of a right
07:30
to know about what's going on, so we have
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different anti-bribery laws, money regulations,
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increased corporate disclosure, so you can now track assets across borders.
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And it's getting harder to hide assets, tax avoidance,
07:44
pay inequality. So that's great. We're starting to find out
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more and more about these systems.
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And they're all moving to this central system,
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this fully connected system,
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all of them except one. Can you guess which one?
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It's the system which underpins all these other systems.
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It's the system by which we organize and exercise power,
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and there I'm talking about politics, because in politics,
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we're back to this system, this top-down hierarchy.
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And how is it possible that the volume of information
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can be processed that needs to in this system?
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Well, it just can't. That's it.
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And I think this is largely what's behind the crisis
08:26
of legitimacy in our different governments right now.
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So I've told you a bit about what I did
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to try and drag Parliament, kicking and screaming,
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into the 21st century, and I'm just going to give you
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a couple of examples of what a few other people I know
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are doing.
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So this is a guy called Seb Bacon. He's a computer
08:44
programmer, and he built a site called Alaveteli,
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and what it is, it's a Freedom of Information platform.
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It's open-source, with documentation, and it allows you
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to make a Freedom of Information request,
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to ask your public body a question, so
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it takes all the hassle out of it, and I can tell you
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that there is a lot of hassle making these requests,
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so it takes all of that hassle out, and you just type in your question,
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for example, how many police officers have a criminal record?
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It zooms it off to the appropriate person, it tells you
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when the time limit is coming to an end, it keeps track of all
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the correspondence, it posts it up there,
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and it becomes an archive of public knowledge.
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So that's open-source and it can be used in any country
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where there is some kind of Freedom of Information law.
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So there's a list there of the different countries that have it,
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and then there's a few more coming on board.
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So if any of you out there like the sound of that
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and have a law like that in your country,
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I know that Seb would love to hear from you
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about collaborating and getting that into your country.
09:50
This is Birgitta Jónsdóttir. She's an Icelandic MP.
09:54
And quite an unusual MP. In Iceland, she was
09:58
one of the protesters who was outside of Parliament
10:02
when the country's economy collapsed,
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and then she was elected on a reform mandate,
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and she's now spearheading this project.
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It's the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative,
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and they've just got funding to make it an international
10:18
modern media project, and this is taking all of the best laws
10:20
around the world about freedom of expression,
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protection of whistleblowers, protection from libel,
10:27
source protection, and trying to make Iceland a publishing haven.
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It's a place where your data can be free, so when we think
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about, increasingly, how governments want to access user data,
10:37
what they're trying to do in Iceland is make this safe haven
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where it can happen.
10:43
In my own field of investigative journalism, we're also
10:45
having to start thinking globally, so this is a site called
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Investigative Dashboard. And if you're trying to track
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a dictator's assets, for example, Hosni Mubarak,
10:55
you know, he's just funneling out cash from his country
10:58
when he knows he's in trouble, and what you want to do
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to investigate that is, you need to have access to
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all of the world's, as many as you can,
11:06
companies' house registrations databases.
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So this is a website that tries to agglomerate all of those
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databases into one place so you can start searching for,
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you know, his relatives, his friends, the head of his security services.
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You can try and find out how he's moving out assets
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from that country.
11:25
But again, when it comes to the decisions which are
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impacting us the most, perhaps, the most important
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decisions that are being made about war and so forth,
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again we can't just make a Freedom of Information request.
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It's really difficult. So we're still having to rely on
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illegitimate ways of getting information, through leaks.
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So when the Guardian did this investigation about
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the Afghan War, you know, they can't walk into
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the Department of Defense and ask for all the information.
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You know, they're just not going to get it.
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So this came from leaks of tens of thousands of dispatches
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that were written by American soldiers
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about the Afghan War, and leaked,
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and then they're able to do this investigation.
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Another rather large investigation is around world diplomacy.
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Again, this is all based around leaks,
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251,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, and I was involved
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in this investigation because I got this leak
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through a leak from a disgruntled WikiLeaker
12:29
and ended up going to work at the Guardian.
12:32
So I can tell you firsthand what it was like to have access
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to this leak. It was amazing. I mean, it was amazing.
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It reminded me of that scene in "The Wizard of Oz."
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Do you know the one I mean? Where the little dog Toto
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runs across to where the wizard [is], and he pulls back,
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the dog's pulling back the curtain, and --
12:48
"Don't look behind the screen. Don't look at the man behind the screen."
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It was just like that, because what you started to see
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is that all of these grand statesmen, these very pompous
12:56
politicians, they were just like us.
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They all bitched about each other. I mean, quite gossipy,
13:02
those cables. Okay, but I thought it was a very important
13:05
point for all of us to grasp, these are human beings
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just like us. They don't have special powers.
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They're not magic. They are not our parents.
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Beyond that, what I found most fascinating
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was the level of endemic corruption that I saw
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across all different countries, and particularly centered
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around the heart of power, around public officials
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who were embezzling the public's money
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for their own personal enrichment, and allowed to do that
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because of official secrecy.
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So I've mentioned WikiLeaks, because surely what could be
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more open than publishing all the material?
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Because that is what Julian Assange did.
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He wasn't content with the way the newspapers published it
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to be safe and legal. He threw it all out there.
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That did end up with vulnerable people in Afghanistan
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being exposed. It also meant that the Belarussian dictator
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was given a handy list of all the pro-democracy campaigners
14:01
in that country who had spoken to the U.S. government.
14:05
Is that radical openness? I say it's not, because for me,
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what it means, it doesn't mean abdicating power,
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responsibility, accountability, it's actually being a partner
14:16
with power. It's about sharing responsibility,
14:20
sharing accountability. Also, the fact that
14:23
he threatened to sue me because I got a leak of his leaks,
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I thought that showed a remarkable sort of inconsistency
14:28
in ideology, to be honest, as well. (Laughs)
14:31
The other thing is that power is incredibly seductive,
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and you must have two real qualities, I think,
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when you come to the table, when you're dealing
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with power, talking about power,
14:45
because of its seductive capacity.
14:47
You've got to have skepticism and humility.
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Skepticism, because you must always be challenging.
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I want to see why do you -- you just say so? That's not good enough.
14:55
I want to see the evidence behind why that's so.
14:58
And humility because we are all human. We all make mistakes.
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And if you don't have skepticism and humility,
15:05
then it's a really short journey to go from reformer
15:08
to autocrat, and I think you only have to read "Animal Farm"
15:11
to get that message about how power corrupts people.
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So what is the solution? It is, I believe, to embody
15:22
within the rule of law rights to information.
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At the moment our rights are incredibly weak.
15:30
In a lot of countries, we have Official Secrets Acts,
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including in Britain here. We have an Official Secrets Act
15:36
with no public interest test. So that means it's a crime,
15:38
people are punished, quite severely in a lot of cases,
15:41
for publishing or giving away official information.
15:46
Now wouldn't it be amazing, and really, this is what I want
15:50
all of you to think about, if we had an Official Disclosure Act
15:53
where officials were punished if they were found
15:57
to have suppressed or hidden information
16:00
that was in the public interest?
16:03
So that -- yes. Yes! My power pose. (Applause) (Laughs)
16:05
I would like us to work towards that.
16:12
So it's not all bad news. I mean, there definitely is
16:15
progress on the line, but I think what we find is that
16:19
the closer that we get right into the heart of power,
16:22
the more opaque, closed it becomes.
16:25
So it was only just the other week that I heard London's
16:29
Metropolitan Police Commissioner talking about why
16:32
the police need access to all of our communications,
16:36
spying on us without any judicial oversight,
16:40
and he said it was a matter of life and death.
16:43
He actually said that, it was a matter of life and death.
16:45
There was no evidence. He presented no evidence of that.
16:48
It was just, "Because I say so.
16:53
You have to trust me. Take it on faith."
16:56
Well, I'm sorry, people, but we are back
16:59
to the pre-Enlightenment Church,
17:01
and we need to fight against that.
17:05
So he was talking about the law in Britain which is
17:08
the Communications Data Bill, an absolutely outrageous piece of legislation.
17:12
In America, you have the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.
17:16
You've got drones now being considered for domestic surveillance.
17:20
You have the National Security Agency building
17:23
the world's giantest spy center. It's just this colossal --
17:26
it's five times bigger than the U.S. Capitol,
17:29
in which they're going to intercept and analyze
17:32
communications, traffic and personal data
17:34
to try and figure out who's the troublemaker in society.
17:37
Well, to go back to our original story, the parents
17:40
have panicked. They've locked all the doors.
17:45
They've kidded out the house with CCTV cameras.
17:49
They're watching all of us. They've dug a basement,
17:52
and they've built a spy center to try and run algorithms
17:54
and figure out which ones of us are troublesome,
17:57
and if any of us complain about that, we're arrested for terrorism.
18:00
Well, is that a fairy tale or a living nightmare?
18:04
Some fairy tales have happy endings. Some don't.
18:08
I think we've all read the Grimms' fairy tales, which are,
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indeed, very grim.
18:14
But the world isn't a fairy tale, and it could be more brutal
18:17
than we want to acknowledge.
18:22
Equally, it could be better than we've been led to believe,
18:25
but either way, we have to start seeing it exactly as it is,
18:27
with all of its problems, because it's only by seeing it
18:31
with all of its problems that we'll be able to fix them
18:34
and live in a world in which we can all be
18:37
happily ever after. (Laughs) Thank you very much.
18:41
(Applause)
18:45
Thank you. (Applause)
18:48
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Heather Brooke - Journalist
Heather Brooke campaigns for freedom of information, requesting one secret document at a time.

Why you should listen

Heather Brooke is a freelance journalist, freedom of information campaigner and professor of journalism at City University London. In 2005, she filed one of the very first requests under the UK's Freedom of Information Act, asking to see the expense reports of Members of Parliament. The request was blocked, modified and refiled, and blocked again...but the years-long quest to view expense documents, and the subsequent investigation, led to 2009's parliamentary expenses scandal. The scandal led to the first forced resignation of the Speaker of the House in 300 years.

Brooke worked as a political and crime reporter in the US before moving to Britain, where she writes for the national papers. She has published three books: Your Right to KnowThe Silent State, and 2011's The Revolution Will Be Digitised. It was while researching her latest book that she obtained a leak from Wikileaks of the full batch of 251,287 US diplomatic cables and worked with The Guardian newspaper on an investigation.