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Five books on Holding Power to Account

Heather Brooke, author of Your Right To Know: A Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, offers five picks on holding power to account.

Animal Farm

…it is an allegory about power and its seductive and corruptive influence on people regardless of their initial good intentions. As one moves up the ladder and accrues power, the tendency is to forget principles – instead the ends come to justify the means. Once principles are cast aside, however, it is a short way towards becoming exactly the thing one fought against. What you see in Animal Farm is an imaginative depiction of exactly how this happens.

Inherit the Wind

…the play is about the ability of people to communicate ideas without persecution or obstruction. The way the Reverend Brown uses censorship and suppression maintains his position at the top of society. He actively stops people from thinking differently in order to maintain the status quo – the point being that by controlling information you control people.

All the King’s Men

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. … 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.

My Traitor’s Heart

I like this book because it is an intensely moving story. Again, it is about a journalist and power. Rian Malan felt the injustice of apartheid when he was growing up and wanted to do something to change it. He was from a well-known Afrikaner family in South Africa, but instead of going into politics he became a journalist. I mentioned his book in a recent lecture to journalism students at City University [London] because Malan talks about the importance of the newspaper in fighting for justice. In South Africa it was often the last port of call for wronged people. They would turn up in the newspaper office, desperate to tell their story. They wanted people to bear witness to what had happened to them.

The White Hotel

…I like the way you can explore issues through fiction. DM Thomas is exploring the Holocaust, though you don’t realise that initially. It ends with the massacre at Babi Yar, a site outside Kiev where 30,000 Jewish people were killed in one and a half days by the Nazis. One could write that as straight history, though it is hard because of the lack of documentation or eyewitnesses. Instead, the author uses his art to build an emotional impact. It’s another way of telling a story of this great lesson about power that we all seem to need to learn over and over again. Namely, that we must be ever vigilant and never let power concentrate in any one person or institution.