Heather Brooke Challenges Power, Enters Hall of Fame

heather-brooke-smallerHeather Brooke (B.A., 1992) came to the University of Washington with the intention of becoming an astrophysicist. She then found the Department of Communication and left the UW as a journalist. After a stint in South Carolina, she moved to England to become a copywriter. She would eventually uncover an English political scandal and write herself into history books. Now she is being written into the Alumni Hall of Fame.

Born in Philadelphia to parents from Liverpool and raised in Seattle, Brooke arrived at the UW unsure of what her path might be. She tried astrophysics, perhaps because her mother worked at Boeing, but it didn’t resonate. Then, she walked into the office at The Daily.

“I looked around the office and thought to myself, ‘This is it. Forget physics!’” She continued, “Everyone there was so incredibly cool. I was so nervous. I barely spoke to anyone.”

She switched majors immediately and focused on the Department of Communication. She was assigned to ASUW and the Board of Regents, which exposed her to covering those in power for the first time. She also took part in the Olympia Legislative Reporting Program, which provides students with training in public-affairs reporting alongside professional journalists covering government for readers around the state and region.

Doug Underwood, Department of Communication professor, was a mentor for Brooke while she was at the UW. He remembers her as a remarkable student and one who worked hard to earn her stories. Underwood remarked that the Olympia program was likely the first time Brooke was exposed to the kind of investigative reporting she would subsequently do in England.

At the state legislature, Brooke spent late nights and early mornings digging through files and waiting for officials and lobbyists to work stories. She displayed the techniques and attitude of a seasoned reporter at a relatively young age.

Karen Semyan was a friend and classmate of Brooke at the UW. They were both budding journalists in the Olympia program. She remembers Brooke as an uncompromising colleague.

“I had the good fortune to follow along in real time as she developed her voice as a journalist for the school’s newspaper, then later as the legislative correspondent for The Spokesman Review during the 1992 Washington state legislative session,” said Semyan. “Heather has always had a unique talent for sniffing out incomplete information, subterfuge, and bull—t. She just won’t have it.”

Brooke is still guided by RCW 42.56.030, a Washington law that states:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. 

She says, “We should all be so proud to live in a state that has this piece of legislation.”

The reverence for this law and her experience in Olympia would have explosive consequences later on, across the Atlantic.

After graduating from the UW, Brooke worked at The Spokesman-Review in Olympia and then the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina, which gave her a taste of political and crime reporting, respectively. But it wasn’t easy. Brooke felt “burnt out” after covering more than 300 murders as a crime reporter in South Carolina.

“It made me more compassionate, but also less patient with pompous, self-important people. When you’re a crime reporter you see the nub of what life’s about and you don’t have much patience for the falsity of politics.”

Fed up with journalism, she enrolled at Warwick University in her parent’s native England to earn her Master’s degree in English. Then she joined the BBC as a copywriter. Her life seemed momentarily destined for the monotony of a human spell check.

In 2005, Brooke filed one of the first requests under the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act. In it, she asked to view the expense reports of Members of Parliament. The request was blocked, modified and refiled, and blocked again. Brooke spoke about how British authorities were not keen on sharing such privileged information.

“I didn’t often have great experiences. British public officials were not at all used to this idea of the public; the people having a right to know. Or questioning them—holding them to account. I had to fight a lot of battles.”

This ended up developing into a years-long odyssey 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, as well as hundreds of others in Parliament. She spoke about the scandal in a TED Talk, which has over 1 million views on various social media sites.

Brooke has a passion for uprooting injustice and exposing corrupt power structures which have led to seismic change in the United Kingdom. From Olympia to England, she has demonstrated a keen sense of what it takes to speak truth to power and create a narrative around that powerful idea that benefits the global community.

“I really think that all of this stemmed from my time in Washington State and at the UW,” she said. “This is definitely the place where I got the ethos that the job of a journalist is to hold power to account and freedom of information is the way to do it.”

Brooke has won numerous awards for her investigative work, including the Judges’ Prize at the 2010 British Press Awards, the FOI Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, a Freedom of Expression Award from Index on Censorship, and a Key Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Today, Brooke writes for British national papers regularly and teaches journalism at City University in London. She has published three books: Your Right to KnowThe Silent State, and The Revolution Will Be Digitised.

Professor Underwood pondered this about the Olympia program veteran.

“I don’t know if we have ever had someone who participated in the Olympia Program go on to be an international journalist the way that Heather has. She’s remarkable.”

Semyan spoke about how Brooke has devoted her intellect, talents, and energy to such an important cause.

“Her life has been about meticulously exposing corruption in some of the most hallowed halls of power on the planet, the British Parliament,” says Semyan. “In fighting for better information transparency from democratic governments, she has raised awareness and empowered the British citizenry and people the world over to expect more from their elected officials and for themselves.”

Brooke teaches her students in London about the fulfillment of enlightenment values. Stating that enlightenment is not just about enlightening oneself, but that it exists to enlighten other people. It is at this nexus that Brooke is grooming the next group of journalists to investigate power and bring just social change.

Join the UW Department of Communication as we celebrate the groundbreaking work of Heather Brooke as she is inducted into the UW Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame on October 4. To RSVP or learn more about the event, click here.