Friday, 22 July 2011

How many inquiries do we need?

8:50PM BST 21 Jul 2011

After the past three extraordinary weeks, do you know how many inquiries have now been spawned by the hacking scandal? The answer – unless I have missed some – is 13. As well as the Leveson inquiry, in two separate parts, there are: two criminal inquiries, Elveden and Weeting; two parliamentary inquiries, one now concluded, by the home affairs and media select committees; inquiries by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Inspectorate of Constabulary; a probe by the former parliamentary watchdog Elizabeth Filkin into relationships between the police and the media; an inquiry by the Met’s directorate of professional standards; a News International internal inquiry; a Press Complaints Commission review; and, finally, my own personal favourite: an inquiry into how the Commons security authorities can best interdict future supplies of shaving foam. All British scandals tumble eventually into farce. What a tribute to the information age that this one is toying with it already.

On top of all this, there is talk of further action by the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London Assembly, the Serious Fraud Office and HM Revenue and Customs. And that is without the inquiries likely to begin in America. Soon, I predict, there will be more people investigating the News of the World than actually worked for it, and the only official bodies not scrutinising the despicable crimes of the rogue Murdoch regime will be the Drinking Water Inspectorate and the Care Council for Wales.
Yet as the scandal begins to cede the top slot on the news, I sense that more and more people are asking: has
this gone too far? Four days ago, as John Yates, the Met’s assistant commissioner, was forced to resign, even the crime correspondent of the Guardian, the paper whose admirable journalism and persistence opened the Augean stable doors, called the affair a “mad witch-hunt of a story” which had claimed “another decent copper”.

The danger of this extraordinary brood of inquiries is twofold. First, they crash against each other like dodgems in a rink. Witnesses are already refusing to answer questions because it might prejudice their case before other inquiries. Second, they will leave nobody in power or in the police with time to do their actual jobs – jobs that concern more important matters than phone hacking. John Yates ran Britain’s counter-terrorism effort, which has now been decapitated. Let us cross our fingers that no terror attack occurs while his successor is still learning the ropes.

Mr Yates, by his own admission, didn’t look carefully enough at the Guardian’s new allegations of hacking. But he did have the country to protect from al-Qaeda at the time. And as I watched him being attacked by that well-known pillar of virtue, Keith Vaz MP, as an “unconvincing” witness to Mr Vaz’s home affairs committee, I thought: I would rather have 50 John Yateses than one Keith Vaz.

Older readers may remember that while John Yates has been found guilty of nothing, Mr Vaz is the man who received one of the longest Commons suspensions on record – for actively obstructing, not just neglecting, an official investigation. On the day that Sir Paul Stephenson, Yates’s boss, resigned as Met commissioner after taking free stays at the Champneys health spa from a friend, Stephen Purdew, Mr Vaz appeared on television to praise Sir Paul for “accepting responsibility”. Mr Vaz neglected to mention that he, too, is a personal friend of Mr Purdew’s, attended his wedding, endorsed one of his other spas and has himself stayed at Champneys.

Throughout the crisis, too, a certain Alastair Campbell has been touring the television studios in his exciting new role as an apostle of truth and enemy of Rupert Murdoch. Mr Campbell has provided much amusement for politicians and journalists – but has the poor man not even an atom of self-awareness?

Last week, almost entirely unnoticed amid the Dresden-like firestorm, there emerged perhaps the most significant evidence yet about an earlier phase of Mr Campbell’s career. The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war published the testimony of a senior MI6 officer that “there were from the outset concerns” in the intelligence service about “the extent to which the intelligence could support some of the judgments that were being made” in Tony Blair’s famous WMD dossier. Note those words: from the outset.

What that shows us is not just that our worst fears over the dossier were correct. It also shows just how misplaced may be our hopes in the current slew of hacking inquiries. Over Iraq, there were a mere five inquiries – none, interestingly, operating under oath, though the hacking inquiry will. Clearly, the lies and misjudgments that caused the deaths of 150,000 people are not quite as serious a matter as journalists intercepting voicemails.

But the striking fact is that despite all those inquiries, last week’s potentially conclusive piece of evidence has only just come out – nine years after the dossier was published. We hoped that earlier inquiries would yield the truth about Iraq and punish those responsible. Broadly, they did not. They did reveal a great deal of valuable information but in their own findings, the inquiries glossed over that evidence, and held back from the conclusions it warranted.

Nor is that in any way unusual. Of course, some much-anticipated judicial inquiries do achieve what is widely accepted as justice. But many others have been, by consensus unsatisfactory – Lord Devlin’s 1950s inquiry into British massacres of the Mau Mau; Lord Denning on Profumo; Widgery into Bloody Sunday; Scott on arms-to-Iraq; and Hutton.

Still others, while less controversial at the time, have proved damaging: the last big inquiry into the police, Lord Macpherson’s into the death of Stephen Lawrence, wielded too broad a brush, painting the entire Met as institutionally racist. The destabilising effect of Macpherson’s judgment on force morale, and therefore on crime, was considerable. And inquiries can cost enormous amounts of money. The second inquiry into Bloody Sunday, by Lord Saville, lasted 12½ years and cost almost £200 million.

Inquiries do, of course, go down paths that can be deeply uncomfortable for everyone, government included. But broadly, each of these inquiries found more or less what the governments who set them up wanted them to find – that no one was wrongly killed on Bloody Sunday, that the Iraq intelligence had not been misrepresented, that the Met was insufficiently progressive and needed a kicking.

The various Iraq inquiries were additionally used by the Blair government, and its supporters, as ways of attacking its enemies. As a witness in them myself, and watching the grilling of my source, David Kelly, I developed a particularly low opinion of the partisan hectoring of the foreign affairs committee, under its Labour loyalist chairman Donald Anderson (a worthy predecessor of Keith Vaz).

It is quite clear what the Government wants this inquiry to find. Though press, police and politicians are almost equally at fault, Lord Leveson’s remit is simply to “inquire into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press”. Leveson has also been asked to investigate the “relationships between national newspapers and politicians”. But several anti-hacking campaigners and the lawyer for Milly Dowler’s family protest that there is no mention of officials and special advisers such as Andy Coulson and Alastair Campbell.

Leveson’s first task is to “make recommendations for a new, more effective policy and regulatory regime” on the press: in other words, how they should be forced to behave. As far as the police and politicians are concerned, however, he will only make recommendations for their “future conduct” – how they should merely be asked to behave.

Yet hacking was not a failure of press regulation. There already is a rather strong regulation against hacking people’s telephones – the law. And no future press regulator, however strong, could possibly have the power to kick down doors at newspapers, seize emails and question journalists under caution. Those are police powers – powers which the police had, but refused to exercise.

Over virtually every issue that judges have inquired into, it was the media that got more of the facts, more quickly, than any Lord Justice. Now, however, with regulation coming and the likes of Keith Vaz in the driving seat, getting the facts will be harder. Not for nothing is the phrase “judge-led inquiry” one of the scariest in the language.

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