Thursday, November 10, 2011

Top five books on holding power to account

Heather Brooke is a journalist and freedom of information campaigner. Her books include The Revolution Will Be Digitalised.

One of her top five books on holding power to account, as told to Daisy Banks at The Browser:
All the King’s Men
by Robert Penn Warren

Your next book is the novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, which tells the story of the fictional politician Willie Stark.

This is a great mix of politics and journalism. It shows the way the two work together in a symbiotic relationship where they both need and hate each other. The newspaper guy is Jack Burden and he goes to work for Willie Stark – who starts off as a fresh-faced, incredibly idealistic and very ambitious man-of-the-people politician.

Willie Stark is based on Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928-32.

Yes, he was a great populist politician. The narrative is his rise and inevitable fall. Again, it is a story about power and how Willie Stark changes as he gains it – his values corrode so that by the end of the book he is as bad as the politicians he initially decried.

Because he only wants to retain his power.

Exactly. You see the corruption of Jack Burden as well. He starts off wanting to use his journalistic skills to help Willie Stark, but then as Willie becomes a powerful politician Jack also becomes corrupted and turns his reporting skills to digging up dirt on Willie’s enemies. At the end he, too, questions his own integrity.

That is the problem with a lot of journalists. They are meant to fight for truth and justice, but in reality there are power deals and choices about what to reveal and what not.

That is always a danger for journalists, particularly when you cover powerful people. In order to get access you start making compromises. You forget who it is you are working for. You are meant to work for the public at large, but what you are possibly doing is working for the interests of the powerful – because they give you the stories. That is the crisis point where we find journalism today.

Most media organisations today are big corporations; the editorial staff is thinly resourced but their production quotas are high. You just can’t do good journalism if you have to produce three or four stories a day. So journalists end up rewriting what is given to them. They don’t do what a journalist needs to do, which is verification – finding out if what is said is actually true. Good journalism is about taking nothing at face value, being intensely sceptical, finding from outside sources whether or not what is being said is true.
Read about another novel Brooke tagged.

One critic argues that while it's not the best Louisiana novel, All the King's Men is The Great Louisiana Novel. The book appears on Melanie Kirkpatrick's list of her five favorite novels of political intrigue and H.W. Brands's five best list of books on truth or just in print; Robert McCrum called it a book to inspire busy public figures.

--Marshal Zeringue