Adrian Hamilton: The charade of public inquiries

Those who shout 'cover up' at any government-ordered investigation fail to understand the political imperatives

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Whenever there is a public clamour over an issue, be it the decision to go to war, the Murdoch scandal or UK complicity in the torture of terror suspects, there is an anguished call for an inquiry to shed light on the circumstances and to name and shame those responsible. Whenever the government feels under pressure from public and media anger, their knee-jerk response is to do just that and set an inquiry up. Only the two sides are looking for entirely different results.

For a prime minister, be it over Iraq, Murdoch or torture, the whole object is to use an inquiry to kick the issue into the long grass while the anger burns itself out. The last thing a government wants is a final report that raises the temperature again by naming culprits and apportioning blame. Yet that is the primary objective of those seeking the truth about war, riots, corruption or illegality.

The dramatic thing about yesterday's news about the Gibson inquiry into rendition is that the two sides have clashed right at the beginning and that, having heard the terms of reference and the secrecy in which many of the proceedings will unfold, lawyers and advocacy groups have gathered to say that they are simply not going to participate in what they see as a sham.

This is the last thing the establishment wants. The inquiry has to have the legitimacy of hearing all sides if it is to succeed. And it has responded fiercely. Sir Peter Gibson, the former appeal judge who is heading the inquiry, is a "man of the utmost probity and independence", they mutter, as if this was a personal attack on him. The inquiry, declares Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary who now chairs the intelligence and security committee, marks a huge leap forward. The heads of both MI6 and MI5 will be forced to give public evidence under oath. All sorts of groups and people will be able to put in evidence and have it seen and heard in public.

He's not entirely wrong. Those who immediately shout "cover-up" at any government-ordered investigation fail to understand the political imperatives of an inquiry. It is not to suppress facts or defend every government action. It is to avoid embarrassment and take the heat out of public anger. They have learnt – as the critics should have – that the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly was all the more effective for being so open and so methodical.

Hence the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, after an initial effort by Gordon Brown to ensure its hearings were in private, has shone an intense light, and provided much good copy, on the workings of government. The final report, when it comes this autumn, may well be a disappointment to those wanting to see Tony Blair and those responsible in the dock, but its concentration on process will have served its purpose in giving an air of open examination.

The other way of determining the course of inquiries is to pick your men and women carefully. Anyone wanting to know how the British establishment works should look to these sorts of appointments. In the case of an inquiry the chairman is usually a former judge (Sir Peter Gibson; Lord Hutton; and Lord Justice Leveson, now heading up the inquiry into the press) or the Civil Service (Sir John Chilcot and Lord Butler, charged with assessing the intelligence behind the decision to go to war) – men of impeccable "independence" but very much from the upper reaches of the establishment.

The committee members come from the same background. On the Chilcot committee, there are two ex-ambassadors and two knighted historians, Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman, both of whom wrote in favour of the Iraq invasion. Lord Butler had an ex-ambassador (Sir John Chilcot again), a former head of the armed services, and two politicians, both of whom had voted for war.

Lord Leveson has three retired members of the political press, two of them ex-FT hands and one from the Daily Telegraph, and not a single journalist from the popular press who might understand what has been going on. In the Gibson inquiry, you have the head of the Civil Service Commission, Dame Janet Paraskeva, and the former political editor of The Times, Peter Riddell. None of them is there because they will do the Government's bidding but they are all people who can (usually) be relied on not to rock the boat with awkward questions or radical views.

So are the refuseniks in the Gibson inquiry right to decline to have anything to do with it? If you assume that the intelligence services will never give up its men or its secrets to justice, then boycotting the proceedings could deprive those with a cause an unrivalled opportunity to put it to the public where it might be heard. But if you assume that the question of British complicity in allowing suspected terrorists to be seized, rendered to countries where their treatment could be hidden and then tortured for information is an act of such illegality and shamefulness that it must be exposed in full, they are probably justified in undermining the legitimacy of an inquiry which will never do that.

Tthen you have to ask whether inquiries of this sort are really anything more than a political tactic to get governments off the hook.



a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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