Why are we waiting?

Documents and e-mails uncovered by Lord Hutton have exposed the workings of government as never before. But we're not being told everything, says Tim Luckhurst: it isn't real freedom of information
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The Independent Online

At the top of the BBC, a post-factum justification for the trials and tribulations of the Hutton inquiry is gaining currency. This week, a senior executive directly involved in the inquiry told me that "the process has lifted the lid on government". His argument went like this: without the bruising confrontation between Downing Street and Broadcasting House, the nation would never have seen e-mails and documents that have exposed the inner workings of government to unprecedented scrutiny. Hutton has made freedom of information a reality. The public interest has been well served.

However, not everyone agrees. Dr David Miller of the Stirling Media Research Institute says: "It is absolutely plain that we are not getting to the bottom of the Government's case for war with Iraq. We are getting freedom of information on the narrow terms of the inquiry, but Hutton has not extended those terms much. In this case, for the BBC to pose as a defender of the public interest is clearly disingenuous."

The claim may be disingenuous. It certainly ignores the real causes of the controversy. But is it untrue? Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says: "Hutton has provided a real insight into the workings of this Government. This is the first time we have had this level of disclosure since this Government came to power. The frankness of what has come out has surprised me. We have seen the editing comments on the draft dossier. We have seen Jonathan Powell [the Downing Street chief of staff] expressing doubts. You don't see Jonathan Powell's views expressed in public very often. That is revealing. This is stuff that you would not normally get to see for 30 years."

Paul Wilkinson, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, is more cautious. "We are learning a considerable amount about the inner workings of the Prime Minister's office. But government is a lot more than that. To get a complete picture we would need to see how individual departments work. We do not yet know how the personalities of individual ministers interacted to shape decisions. A genuine freedom of information regime would provide that. The Hutton inquiry is the best that can be achieved without a freedom of information regime, but a genuinely liberal information regime would produce a great deal more."

Maurice Frankel warns against any assumption that the new freedom of information legislation due to come into force in January 2005 will create such a system. "The Act contains a general exclusion covering anything relating to the formulation of government policy. Ministers are likely to take the view that the public interest is not served by releasing the details of communications between Alastair Campbell and [the Joint Intelligence Committee chairman] John Scarlett."

So, has Hutton opened up government more fully than will be the case under the new legislation? Professor Richard Aldrich of the University of Nottingham is an expert on the workings of the British security services. He identifies key omissions in the evidence presented to Lord Hutton. "I have not seen any raw intelligence traffic at all. I'd love to see the files on this that were generated by MI5. There will be MI5 files."

Aldrich says that previous inquiries have got closer than Hutton to the core of Britain's secret state. "During the Scott inquiry [into the sale of arms to Iraq] some material that was close to raw intelligence did emerge. The other example is the International War Crimes Commission in The Hague. In the 1990s, there were huge debates about whether Government Communications Headquarters traffic should be released to the court. GCHQ personnel say it was released."

Maurice Frankel says: "I do not think most people will think they are getting the full truth about why we went to war. Nobody is purporting to disclose communications between George Bush and Tony Blair, or the minutes of meetings of Blair's inner circle where the decision to back Bush was taken. We have yet to see much written material relating directly to Blair, and we probably won't. But we have seen exchanges between [the Defence Secretary] Geoff Hoon and his private secretary. This is the best level of disclosure since Scott or the Phillips report into BSE, but those took place under Conservative governments."

Will the experience persuade ministers and civil servants to be more cautious about what they say to each other?

Frankel says: "People in government are not sitting around thinking, 'There will be an inquiry every two weeks. We'd better stop recording things.'"

Aldrich agrees. "E-mails are the 21st-century version of written notes and memoranda. In the 1940s, people in government would circulate telegrams and briefing-documents in folders with restricted circulation lists. The views of recipients would be expressed in handwritten notes on the file covers. You see them at the Public Records Office. Now the focus of internal communications is clearly e-mail."

E-mail traffic inside government will continue, Frankel says. "You can't stop writing e-mails and memos and wait for someone to be available on the phone. It is not feasible to run a government on that basis."

But Aldrich says that growing demands for openness and transparency are causing concern in the security services. "I call this the crisis of intelligence. One has to feel sorry for the intelligence community. Many of the people they are after are increasingly like the James Bond characters of the 1960s: international criminals, refugee-smugglers, terrorists. You can't expect the services to do more operations and covert action, and expect more disclosure and transparency at the same time. I would not want to be working in intelligence at the moment."

The consensus is that Lord Hutton has framed his requests for information very precisely. He has obtained impressive access to information and documents relating directly to what happened to Dr David Kelly personally. Paul Wilkinson says: "To get a complete picture of how government works we would need more comprehensive revelation, but we would have been unlikely to see as much as we have without the Hutton inquiry"

David Miller acknowledges that, within the narrow remit set for the Hutton inquiry, disclosure has been interesting. But he warns against any illusion that the inquiry can reveal big truths. "We are not getting any American stuff. There are claims that a lot of disinformation in the run-up to war was leaked from America to MI6 for release here. We will not see that." Maurice Frankel adds: "Nobody who is paying close attention is under any illusion about that."

Hutton is providing an intriguing insight into what comprehensive disclosure might look like, but the BBC should be cautious about attempting to present it as the real thing. The interest stimulated by the inquiry tells us a great deal about how accustomed Britons are to knowing nothing about the internal mechanics of government until 30 or even 50 years after the decisions made had real significance.