An interesting issue on how secrecy laws tend to corrupt reportage

May 17, 2012 |

In an interesting story on PM last night Heather Brooke was interviewed on PM regarding the hacking scandal in the UK.  Her take was far from sympathetic of what News Limited (as well as other media outlets) did in hacking emails and phones but she did make the point that there is a mass of relevant information which should not be hidden behind secrecy as is the case in the UK.  She is the author of The Revolution will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War.

The transcript of the piece is found here.  It provides:

MARK COLVIN: The former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World Rebekah Brooks was one of six people charged last night in relation to Britain’s Operation Elveden. That’s the operation that’s looking into the bribery and suborning of public servants like police and tax officers. Many more charges are expected over time from Operation Weeting – that’s the one that’s looking into the hacking scandal more generally.

So it might seem a bad time to be arguing for journalists to get more access to public information. But that is exactly the argument of Heather Brooke, author of The Revolution Will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War.

British-born but American educated, she thinks that radical transparency is actually a way of preventing press abuse. Heather Brooke’s here for the Sydney Writers’ Festival: I put it to her that some would be sceptical of her argument when sections of the media – in Britain especially – had been shown to be so corrupt.

HEATHER BROOKE: (laughs) Well, I always thought that the press in Britain were so sensationalistic mostly because they couldn’t access information legitimately and so the only way they could get information was they either had to get it through favouritism or a kind of collusion with the powers that be, or illegitimately.

MARK COLVIN: By bribery as we now know.

HEATHER BROOKE: Well, and I always wondered, like how do journalists do their jobs in Britain? Because when I worked as a – I used to work as a crime reporter amongst my different jobs in America – and the way you could cover crime there is it was all through public records. You know you could get all the crime reports, you could get all the jail arrests, you could see all the fire reports, everything – you just went in and you looked at them.

In Britain all that stuff is secret. Even to this day you can’t access any of that information. So if you’re a reporter in Britain, like how do you cover crime?

MARK COLVIN: You’re even very limited in what you can report from certain courts.

HEATHER BROOKE: Yeah exactly. Well you know now we have some idea how they’re doing it. They’re basically taking police out to lunch, taking them to bars, drinking with them.

MARK COLVIN: Slipping them brown envelopes.

HEATHER BROOKE: Yeah, there’s cases to show that.

MARK COLVIN: Tens of thousands of pounds, we know that now.

HEATHER BROOKE: And so… but I guess for me the point is what was the motivation to do that? Was it to just get basic information to write stories in the public interest, or was it to find out what Prince Harry was doing on his time off; who he was going to, which night clubs he was going to? Which, you know some might argue there’s a public interest in that, but it’s a bit more dubious.

But I don’t know, there’s an interesting thing as well, that if you’re going to have to spend money to get information, you want a story that’s going to bring a lot of eyeballs onto your site; you’re not going to do it for some sort of very worthy public interest story. And so it does kind of in a way incentivise sensationalism.

The reason that freedom of information is good for the press is that it makes the cost of doing public service journalism lower and so it’s more likely that you can do it.

MARK COLVIN: Because we now know that Glenn Mulcaire the private investigator was paid over £1 million over a number of years.

HEATHER BROOKE: Wow! (laughs) he had a good job.

MARK COLVIN: Yeah but that’s expensive journalism isn’t it?

HEATHER BROOKE: Yeah and that’s the thing. I mean I think a lot of what he was doing was basic – was just basic fact finding. I mean finding out did people have criminal records; finding out where people lived; doing reverse phone directory searches. So, as I say for example in America all that stuff is legal and legitimate – in Britain it’s not, so instantly you’re pushed into this blackmarket.

I was just writing about a piece in Dispatches that went out on Monday in Britain and it was all about private investigation firms. And their business is not with the media, their business is with corporations, corporate intelligence.

So I do feel in a way that this focus on the press is a little bit misplaced because if we’re really concerned about violations of privacy, the press is not our problem – the press publishes what they find. The thing that we need to be concerned about are the people that don’t publish what they’re up to and that would be the intelligence agencies and corporations.

MARK COLVIN: And how much more do they know about us, generally, then they would have say 20 years ago?

HEATHER BROOKE: A lot more. This is the other sort of dark side of digital information. So on the one hand it’s fantastic we can all type in Google and suddenly we can find everything out. On the other hand, it means that all of that Google information for example can be harvested by a government and they can start running algorithms and from those algorithms they can start predicting who they think is a trouble maker, or who do they think might be a potential terrorist.

MARK COLVIN: Can they predict how you’re going to vote yet?

HEATHER BROOKE: Well there’s huge industries, particularly in America. One of the people I talk to in my book was running the Obama data part of the campaign and that’s all that they do they just buy up huge amounts of data from all these huge data brokers, contact point USA and things.

MARK COLVIN: So they work out from the kind of magazines you subscribe to for instance.


MARK COLVIN: People who subscribe to gun magazines are I believe much more likely to vote Republican.


MARK COLVIN: And so they triangulate all that, they get down the area you live, they can work out how much money you earn every year, all that kind of thing and work out a lot about you.

HEATHER BROOKE: They can. And the worrying thing about that is so much of it is subjective – they’re making predictions based on past behaviour or other people’s behaviour. But particularly when a government starts doing that and starts labelling people as being potential criminals, I mean that’s when you really think okay, I’m starting to get into Minority Report here – you know, I’m going to be arrested for pre-crime.

But we are actually already seeing that, when people get put on watch lists, or no-fly lists, not because they’ve ever been charged or convicted of anything, just because they were talking to these people who we think are bad people or they have a relative who was friends with a person who we think is a terrorist even though he’s never been convicted.

MARK COLVIN: There are two sides in any war; how do we defend ourselves in an information war?

HEATHER BROOKE: The first point is to be aware of what you’re doing online. We all leave this digital footprint when we’re online and we need to think about who owns that information that we are leaving online.

I mean I don’t want us to become privacy fetishists where we just get all precious, you can’t take my picture if you’re standing in a public street – like don’t take my picture – it’s like it’s a public street, come on!

I don’t think we should be like that, but certainly when it comes to governments’ quest to start controlling the internet – and this is not just authoritarian governments like China or Russia – it’s governments like Australia, like America, like Britain, who increasingly are following the path of China and thinking you know what we do actually want to know what everybody’s doing online, we do want access to all your Skype conversations, all your Twitter information, all your Google searches and then we’re going to start harvesting all that and running algorithms on it to think about whether we think you’re a potential future trouble maker or maybe an opposition; somebody who’s going to cause us issues in the future.

When we see bills that come forward like in America with the SOPA PIPA, these piracy acts or these bills that are about controlling the internet, we need to really know that that’s what’s happening. It’s a power battle and it’s a battle over the free internet.

The piece is interesting as it shows how privacy is compromised with the digitisation of information.  Her perspective is distinctly American where data protection legislation is rudimentary compared to Australia’s which still less than optimal.

Leave a Reply

Verified by MonsterInsights