Heather Brooke is fashioned like one of those Amazonian carvings on the prow of a ship, breasting the ocean of deceit and greed with her cinnamon hair flying, eyes blazing and long chin thrust forward. Defiance seems to be her natural stance and, like a ship’s figurehead, she would strike fear into the enemy.
She is the journalist who smelt a rat over MPs’ expenses and for five years doggedly used the Freedom of Information Act to try to prise out the details. But for The Daily Telegraph's scoop, which effectively robbed her of personal victory but made her a campaigning heroine, not many people would have heard of her.
Instead, her crusade has been the subject of a BBC drama documentary, On Expenses, and last month she received a judges’ special award at the British Press Awards in recognition of her long fight for more open government and the part she played in uncovering the scandal. She intended her acceptance speech to be entirely gracious, but emotion got the better of her at the end. “I’m ----ing proud!” she erupted.
They used a clip from the film where a stunned Brooke, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, is seen opening this newspaper on day one of the running story. Choked by anger and exultation, she tearfully concedes that the exposé – “my scoop” – has been done “so bloody brilliantly”.
“I do think they did it brilliantly,” she says. “I didn’t start crying, though. I am a bit harder than that.” A bit? Ploughing a pretty lonely furrow, Brooke could not have kept up her assault on the Commons authorities and taken her cause to the High Court unless she had a core of steel. She’d been a crime reporter in America (“death was my business”) before turning her searchlight on the British parliamentary expenses system. As she sniffed victory, a mole passed a disk of the breakdown of MPs’ expenses claims to The Daily Telegraph, where the raw material was spun into journalistic gold. She ought to be the most bitter woman in Britain.
“I was a little bit irked that they never acknowledged my existence in this story,” she says. “But I mostly felt vindicated. For so long I’d been banging on about how the system was totally corrupt. Not many people believed me when I said there was something rotten in Parliament. They said I was alarmist. So when it started coming out, I said: ‘Yes!’ Now people can see exactly the danger of having a secret system like this.”
Well aware of her role in the great unmasking, she more or less invited herself to the awards ceremony. The chairman, Bob Satchwell, says he was going to invite her anyway – but she beat him to it with a ballsy request to be there. The special prize, the public recognition, have made her virtually untouchable. “The way the Establishment deals with people like me,” she says, “is to ignore them. When you become unignorable, they will try to smear you, and that’s what I feared for a long time. Now I have somehow vaulted into this space where it’s difficult for someone to smear me because it would look as though they were being vindictive and spiteful.”
Brooke’s big obsession is the “great British disease” of secrecy and her remit goes well beyond the MPs’ expenses scandal to the courts, public bodies and the insidious growth of surveillance. She is particularly exercised by propagandist local councils and the routine concealment and distortion of information. “There’s no respect for the truth or the public. The citizen’s word is meaningless, and that is dangerous.” The anonymity of people who work on public bodies makes her apoplectic. She reserves a delicate scorn for lazy (implying most) journalists.
Watching a preview of the film On Expenses, her English husband, Vaci, a computer programmer, remarked: “They’ve got your character off pat.” He enjoys quoting his character’s description of her as: “Without doubt, the most determined, mule-headed, stubborn, bloody-minded person I have ever met.” But she insists there was no real-life scene where he gave her an ultimatum and demanded: “Are you always going to be like this?”
“He was more supportive than my screen husband. He always liked the fact that I was a journalist. He is quite an unusual man, I would say. I never thought I would get married. I didn’t think I was that type of person. It’s only because I met somebody like him that I considered it.
“I didn’t want to compromise my life in any way. Not very many men are up for that. If they are, they are usually a bit weedy and walk-overy, and you don’t want to be with them anyway. Whereas he is an amazing mix: somebody who doesn’t take any ---- but is also very accommodating.”
It is not, somehow, a surprise that she is forthright about not wanting to have children. “There was never a dilemma for me. It’s something I quite actively don’t want to do. There are plenty of other people who want to do it, so let them get on with it. I like to write books and cause trouble. I want a lot of space. I am a freedom-loving person and as ideas strike me, I want to be able to go and do them.” From here, she intends to tackle the threats to democracy worldwide. “I have embraced my obsessive nature,” she laughs.
So what really forged this warrior queen of freedom of information? She dresses her tall, hourglass figure as if she enjoys being noticed but parts uneasily with personal details. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1970 to British immigrant parents from Liverpool. Her father was an engineer and her artistic mother a technical writer for Boeing. An overtalkative only child with a passion for finding things out, her seminal storybook was Harriet the Spy. “I kind of knew my vocation from the age of about nine. I spied on people with my friends. That is a pretty good indication you are either going to be a spy or a journalist.”
The family returned to the Wirral, but Brooke, a transatlantic hybrid with dual nationality and a funny accent, was not happy at her English comprehensive school. When her parents’ marriage foundered, She returned, aged 15, with her mother to America. As an intern on The Spokesman-Review, a small-town daily newspaper in Spokane, Washington State, she developed a taste for investigating the expenses claims of politicians – a relatively straightforward exercise there.
At her next newspaper, in South Carolina, she reached burnout point from the unremitting coverage of accidents, disasters and murders. But what finally got to her was the superficiality of ambulance-chasing. “You’re never getting to the depth of why this happened. You’re grazing the surface. I like to find out why things happen. It’s like you’re a triage nurse, going to tragic scenes and then off to do something else.”
She decided to take a break and “drift around” in Britain for a while. Drifting, in her terms, meant doing a Masters in English at Warwick university, temping, copywriting and freelance sub-editing. One day, when she was standing at a bus shelter in east London, her campaigning spirit was reignited. “I saw this council poster saying ‘Claim the Max’ in 12 different languages. It was beside a pile of beer cans that had accrued over the past year from tramps who had sat there. There was no money being spent on clearing litter, but plenty on how you could claim the maximum from the state. I thought: What kind of country is this?”
Finding out brought her face to stony face with the sort of obfuscation that led her to write Your Right to Know: A Citizen’s Guide to Freedom of Information and now The Silent State.
Brooke is proud of her outsider status but, like most outsiders, craves the warmth of peer recognition. As she surveys the political upheaval she triggered, does she have any sneaking sympathy for MPs who apply the Nuremburg Defence and plead they were only going by the rules? “No. None at all. We don’t elect them to be wallflowers or shy, retiring types. We elect them to be leaders.”
She never met the former Speaker, Michael Martin, whose demise she hastened. But if she did, she would probably have to thank him for the career boost. “I couldn’t have done that without him. His intransigence escalated that story beyond anything I could have imagined.”
Although her dream was always to write fiction, fact-finding has taken over. “Whether I’ll get the chance to write fiction I don't know. I could do political conspiracy thrillers, couldn’t I? With an investigative journalist as the heroine.”
Book: The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy Available from Amazon.co.uk
Movie: TVO drama "On Expenses" about Heather Brooke