After making between 600 and 700 requests under Britain’s relatively new Freedom of Information law, Heather Brooke found British democracy “old-fashioned” “paternalistic” and “elitist”, with a penchant for as much secrecy as any African country.
Interviewed at the Pan African Conference on Access to Information in Cape Town last week, where she launched her new book: The Revolution will be Digitised, Brooke described her struggle for access to information in the United Kingdom.
Brooke, who exposed the MPs’ expense-account scandal in the British Parliament, said that in the UK “people in power decide what’s best for everyone”. In one of the world’s oldest democracies, the Freedom of Information law had been enacted only in 2005.
The Cape Town conference ran concurrently with the Highway Africa conference, in partnership with Unesco and the African Union.
At the event, more than 1 000 delegates declared September 28 World Access to Information Day. The African Platform on Access to Information was also launched and endorsed by Pansy Tlakula, the African Union’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information, and Frank la Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression.
Brooke said that the culture of secrecy in many African countries was similar to that of the UK. “Getting information [in the UK] depends on class and wealth and the patronage network, which is similar to that in Africa. It all depends on who you know and where you go.”
Given the run-around
More often than not, her attempts to extract information from the British police had failed, as she was “given the run around in a struggle to find the right person”.
This applied to the broader state apparatus, including the health and education systems. “I couldn’t find out who the hell was in charge. It was a crash course in finding out how Britain works.”
Your Right to Know published in 2006, was based on these experiences.
A dual British and American citizen, Brooke found that the way power was “codified” in the United States was more straightforward than the opaque UK system.
Some years ago, she tried unsuccessfully to obtain information about British MPs’ expense accounts: parliamentarians said they were not required to provide such information. This was in marked contrast to a similar investigation she had conducted in the US, where she was given all the information she required.
However, after five years of probing, she was able to break stories in major British newspapers, including the Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian, about the abuse of expense accounts, particularly with regard to MPs’ second-home allowances, where bogus claims were made.
Official Secrets Act
Brooke said that the British state was now using the Officials Secrets Act to force journalists to reveal their sources of information about the erstwhile News of the World’s dealings with the metropolitan police.
Her new book deals with the difference between hacking and cybercrime and explores the ideology and ethos of hackers. Governments will have to become accustomed to operating in a less secretive fashion as information becomes increasingly digitised, Brooke argues.
In future “they will have less control and power over information. You can’t physically stop it, so you can (try to) criminalise it”.
Brooke also tackles the issue of privacy and personal information. She visited the headquarters of Google and Facebook to find out how much they know about ordinary citizens.
At the centre of knowledge power lies the “establishment” — governments, corporations and powerful individuals — who have more knowledge about citizens and more power than at any other time in history, Brooke writes.
However, circling them is “a new generation of hackers, pro-democracy campaigners and internet activists who no longer accept that the establishment should run the show”.
Brooke lists among the most urgent issues of the digital age the question of the balance between freedom and security; whether privacy exists in an online world; and whether the internet will empower individuals or usher in a new age of censorship, surveillance and oppression.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.