Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Return of the Public 2

Alan Keen, one of the MPs caught up in the expenses shambles, had occasion to ask in April of this year whether the journalist Heather Brooke had some sort of 'vested interest', because he had seen her being interviewed. It was Brooke's attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act to access MPs' expenses that led directly to recent revelations about the antics of our elected representatives. Funnily enough Alan Keen and his wife have been a focus of particular interest in the scandal. I believe the expression is a 'wolf couple'

The exchange between Alan Keen and Roy Greenslade is reproduced below (taken from Ms Brooks's website, which in turn derives from Hansard's record of oral evidence from 21 April) -

Q484 Alan Keen: There is a woman who has frequently been on television and in the press who appears to me to be a campaigner for freedom of information, an American I think.

Mr Nick Davies: Heather Brooke?

Q485 Alan Keen: Yes. Does she earn a living from this?

Mr Davies: She is a journalist. She is a specialist in freedom of information. I think she is actually British and she worked in America and used their Freedom of Information Act, came back to this country just as ours was about to come into force so wrote a book which is a guide.

Q486 Alan Keen: I have seen her being interviewed.

Mr Davies: You are wondering whether she has some vested interest.

Q487 Alan Keen: Yes, because I have seen her on television being interviewed.

Mr Roy Greenslade: I know her quite well. She teaches the students at City. She is a single interest journalist in the old tradition of having one niche interest and following it to its logical conclusion. She lives, in monetary terms, on the margins.


'She lives, in monetary terms, on the margins.' At a time when increased subsidies for journalism are on the agenda, we should surely ask how Ms Brooke and journalists like her can be brought in from the margins.

As a one-off perhaps Parliament should vote her an award for the work she has done in the public interest in this matter - some percentage of the money handed back by MPs, perhaps?

After that we need to look again at the mechanisms by which journalism is funded. If public money is to be used to support journalism, then the public ought to have direct control over the commissioning process. If Heather Brooke, or someone inspired by her example, wants to pursue, say, the links between the financial sector and the political class, then the public should have an opportunity to fund them in the painstaking work of bringing the full story to light. We cannot rely on the investigative zeal of the BBC or of the private media groups.

They will take the view, on our behalf, of course, that we are not interested in such dry and technical matters and watch impassively as hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money is used to shore up a financial sector that has hijacked the political process.

There is, as Ms Brooke has noted, a certain piquancy in Mr Keen's suspicions about a 'vested interest'. It is time that we reasserted the primacy of the public interest as discovered by the public in open debate. The monopoly enjoyed by the likes of Mr Keen has clearly not served our common interests.

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