We Went to See Investigative Journalism Film 'Spotlight' with an Investigative Journalist

Heather Brooke is an award-winning journalist who played a vital role in exposing the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal. We asked her for her take on the film.
03 February 2016, 6:00am

The Spotlight team in 'Spotlight'

Last Friday, director Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight was released across the UK. I'm sure you'll have heard all about it already – it's won a load of awards and is nominated for that big one at the end of this month – but just in case: the movie tells the story of the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the child abuse committed and covered up by the Catholic Church in Boston, which then sparked similar investigations all over the US and eventually the world.

The critics, by and large, seem to love it. They've described it as "skin-prickling" and "very good", alongside other complimentary phrases and adjectives. But what would a real-life investigative journalist think of Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo running around with stacks of paper, shouting about "the truth"?

Heather Brooke is an award-winning journalist who played a vital role in exposing the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal. She fought for the release of the details of MPs' expense claims for years, taking the battle to the High Court, before a whistle-blower leaked the documents to The Daily Telegraph in 2009.

Unlike the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, Heather has worked as a freelance journalist for the majority of her career, taking on all the risk but giving her total control of her work. Her investigation into MPs' expenses wouldn't have happened had she been working at a paper, she says, because editors repeatedly told her it wasn't a story worth pursuing.

I met up with Heather recently to watch Spotlight and to get her take on Hollywood's depiction of what it means to be an investigative journalist.

Heather Brooke (Photo by Rick Morris Pushinksy)

VICE: What are your initial thoughts on the film?
Heather Brooke: I really loved it. The film is a love letter to what investigative journalism is and should be. To have experience in those newsrooms, all the journalists in the film had a memory of the town and all of the bureaucrats and institutions. They really knew Boston. You go into a new media company and they don't have that – its just like year zero. I mean, new people are always bringing new insight to the table, but when you're dealing with power, power isn't changing every other year – its their for the long haul.

There is a quote in the film when Stanley Tucci's character says "the church thinks in centuries", and I think about back to when I investigated Parliament, and again British bureaucracy is something that thinks in centuries. That's where the difference, I would say, is between everyday journalism and investigative journalism: you are trying to look at the system and how it works – is it just? Is it fair? You can't do that in a couple of days.

Can you explain your process of investigating a story?
I'm very concerned with public interest journalism; I'm like a hired gun for the general public. I go around and look at public institutions and see if they're working properly, and see if they are treating the public as equal parts of society, or do they take their tax money and ask them to F off?

Can you relate to the opposition the journalists faced from the Catholic Church?
Yes, a lot of people get really frightened when you shake stuff up, because you are challenging everything they know. You're basically challenging the world as they think they know it. That's the biggest problem I see in Britain: people are so timid about authority here, and they don't question it.

The trailer for 'Spotlight'

Have you always found it easy to keep up the momentum when chasing a story?
I think that all the characters in Spotlight embody traits of great determination, like having exceptional curiosity and obsessive interest. But most of all you're driven by a sense of justice and truth telling. You're willing to overcome the societal constraints of keeping with the status quo. It's an unusual quality that some people have; they are so driven to tell the truth that they will smash everything to do it. They think that it's actually better to cause this chaos and live in reality, rather than in a total delusion.

Have you ever run across town with an armful of documents, shouting at people in the street, trying to get back to the newsroom?
In the expenses case, [getting hold of the expenses records] was a long process that went through a lot of litigation. Finally we won the High Court case and Parliament released the document to us. They came in big cardboard boxes and I got in the cab and raced to the Sunday Times to go through the file. It's a lot more fun with printed documents because you get a greater sense of adrenaline. I also worked on WikiLeaks, and with that I also had a lot more information, but I just had them on a USB stick and it's not the same thing.

What have been your biggest moments of revelation in an investigation?
I had a feeling that the British political system was really elitist and treated people very badly and was not democratic. Every interaction I had with the state seemed to prove this, but I didn't have any evidence to prove it. But my "ah ha" moment was during this tribunal hearing, when I had to sue Parliament. The main witness was the head of the fees office, a guy called Andrew Walker. In his evidence he made it totally clear the attitude that I had always expected existed, and he just laid it out. He had these fantastically awful quotes. Everything he was saying led to proving that the public was not important to them.

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What do you think about the aftermath of the Boston Globe's investigation?
I think these investigations change our whole way of thinking about power. People will never think the same way about Catholic priests again. It was an absolutely gigantic story, much bigger than the expenses one. But they were similar stories in that they challenged childlike ideas that people had about their leaders, whether they are priests or politicians – this idea that they are idealised parents, almost, when they are just people.

There is a lot of knocking on doors in the film. Have you done much door-stepping in your time?
Yes, but not many of them were successful. I did it when I was a crime reporter all the time. It was always very wracking because I always had to doorstep a victim's parents and such. Journalism has always been a very brutal profession; you have to do these horrendous things, especially as a new reporter. You have to be tough, because that's the only way you're going to get through it. Think about how many people don't want you to write the truth – you have to be tough to keep your independence.

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What are the main differences between being an investigative reporter in the UK and the US?
Well, for example, you couldn't make the radio programme Serial in this country because so much of what they use in their broadcast is illegal to broadcast here. Getting into a prison to talk to a specific prisoner and broadcasting the conversation is illegal. Getting a court transcript can only happen when given to you by an approved vendor and the judge looks at it before it's given out and can edit the document. There is a contempt shown towards the public in this country. The fact that they might be an equal part of society is not thought of.

When does the real adrenaline come in for you?
For me, the feeling comes before I publish a story, because there is always a big risk. Fortunately, I didn't take the brunt of the expenses scandal because it was a whistle-blower who published it. My work with WikiLeaks was more frightening. That was a difficult story because I was dealing with a lot bigger fish: the American government and security services. It got a bit hairy. That's why I took a back seat for a while. It was about this mass surveillance that the government was doing on the population, and I wasn't up for investigating the intelligence. I mean, Edward Snowden did it on his own, but I really don't want to go and live in Russia.

Fair enough. Finally, have you ever said, "We're gonna nail these scumbags!"?
No – there was never a photo of Michael Martin [the first Speaker of the House of Commons to be forced from office in over 300 years] on my fridge door with a red cross through it, but he did become my number one enemy. He's now a lord.

Thanks, Heather.


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