Steve Richards: Public scrutiny of the intelligence services can only improve the quality of their work

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The Independent Online

Put your hands up if you can name the chief executives of our biggest banks. No doubt some of The Independent's frighteningly well-informed readers will be able to announce the names without hesitation, but probably not many. I could not do so.

Next, hands up those who know what the editor of the Daily Express looks and sounds like. Again, some of you will have an image immediately, but probably only a few. While we are about it, raise a hand if you have heard senior intelligence officials explain in the broadest terms what they are up to, and can you name any of them? Again, I suspect that not many names spring to mind.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this week, there was, more than usual, a notable absence of names and voices. When John Humphrys made an excursion to the City of London in order to report on the banking crisis, no chief executive of a bank was available to speak. Mr Humphrys listed those mighty, anonymous figures he had tried to interview. All of them had refused.

Yesterday, after the Daily Express was forced to apologise on its front page for misleading its readers in relation to the McCanns and their missing daughter, Madeleine, the Today programme announced that the owner of the newspaper had declined an invitation to explain what had gone on. In their anonymity, the bankers and the reckless parts of the media can hide.

Yet business leaders, editors, senior civil servants and, indeed, intelligence officials would be more effective, rather than less, if they were obliged to explain themselves on the Today programme and elsewhere. Would the editor of the Express have been quite so apparently reckless in his front-page reports if he knew he would be on the Today programme at ten-past-eight every now and again? Would the banks' leading figures have lent so wildly if, on a regular basis, they were interrogated in the media for their actions?

I suspect that some of the consternation in the intelligence services over the dossier about weapons of mass destruction was over the light it cast on how useless they could be. If the document had not been published, we would never have known about the fantasy world presented to a gullible prime minster, or a prime minister who needed to be gullible in order to have ammunition to back a decision already made to support the United States. I note also that a well-informed report by the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank recommended that senior civil servants should be forced to explain themselves in the media as one way of addressing a conservative complacency in Whitehall.

Of course, there are many other forms of accountability. Chief executives of banks must satisfy their boards and shareholders. Presumably their customers must be kept happy too, although I wonder whether that is much of a factor in their calculations. The editor of the Daily Express is accountable to readers. Senior civil servants are accountable to those above them, although the hierarchy is so convoluted that the degree to which any official can be deemed responsible for anything that happens is extremely limited. The senior intelligence officials are questioned by parliamentary committees, although they tend to do so almost always in secret.

Yet in the modern era it is the media that, more than any other institution, holds people to account. This is not necessarily a good thing. No one is elected to present a programme. It just happens to be the reality. Ask any minister who prepares nervously for an interview when he or she is in trouble and who then awaits with even more insecurity the verdicts of the newspapers the following day. It is obvious. Very few observe politics in the raw. Most voters can name the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party because they have watched or heard them on the television and radio. Increasingly, it is an arena that matters and those that have to be interviewed regularly are kept on their toes by the knowledge that they cannot often say "no" when the request to appear on a programme is made.

The pressure to appear and explain applies disproportionately to politicians. Admittedly there are occasions when the Today programme or, more so, Newsnight make much of the fact that a politician has turned them down, as if these mighty programmes have a right to get a response whenever they want. But, on the whole, politicians are interviewed most of the time. On Sundays, there are at least five programmes that interview politicians. I should know because I present one of them. The ubiquity of politicians compared with, say, bankers gives the impression that they are more powerful than they really are. Yet increasingly, these high-profile elected figures are powerless, or choose to be powerless, in the face of other forces that function in the dark.

Compare the power of a bank chief executive to a junior minister or even a Cabinet minister. In their deregulated recklessness, the banks have caused mayhem, and in some cases, no doubt, enhanced people's lives, by lending vast amounts of money. A newspaper editor has the power to transform the way readers perceive a tragic news story about a missing girl. A Cabinet minister can act only when he or she has secured the approval of the Prime Minister and then, after months of anguished, pointless meetings, often finds that the power lies with some unelected quango and there is not a lot they can do about it.

Yet it is the Cabinet minister who will appear in the media and whose name is likely to be more familiar, compared with their more powerful counterparts in other fields. As David Blunkett once observed, ministers often hold responsibility without power. The reverse applies to chief executives of banks.

In this context, Gordon Brown's national security strategy, unveiled yesterday, has some potentially significant innovations. Mr Brown announced an "enhanced scrutiny and public" role for the Intelligence and Security committee. He promised this would lead to more parliamentary debate on security matters, public hearings about the national security strategy and greater transparency over appointments to the committee so it can perform a more public role.

As with many of the proposals outlined in yesterday's package, we will have to see how this works in practice. But if more light is shone on areas where people function in the comfort of darkness, I have no doubt that the quality of intelligence will improve. There would also be a greater and wider understanding of the significance of intelligence findings. None of this need undermine security. An entire dossier was published on Iraq without placing methods or individuals in any danger.

Until we can all put up our hands without hesitation and declare the names of powerful and currently anonymous figures, they will have a tendency to be reckless or complacent. We need to get to know very quickly who they are and what they are up to.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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