Hutton Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:16 pm on 4th February 2004.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 7:16 pm, 4th February 2004

My Lords, although it may sound a rather strange thing to say, it is a little too early to comment properly on the Hutton report. So much has been written and said about it, from so many different points of view, that it has become difficult to appreciate the report in all its complexity. We therefore need a little distance in time.

Now that the Government have set up a new inquiry on the gathering and use of intelligence, the findings of the inquiry will shed a new light on the questions that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, addressed or bracketed out, and it will influence how we shall read his report in a few months' time.

It is in this spirit of caution and tentativeness that I wish to raise two simple, but central, questions. First, why has the report aroused so much controversy and failed to reassure a large section of the British public? Not only the media, but also ordinary men and women, and even professional politicians, remain somewhat sceptical about the report and even use such silly and offensive expressions as "a judicial whitewash". Secondly, and more importantly, where do we go from here? What lessons can and should be learned from the findings of the report and the issues that led up to the inquiry in the first instance? I shall address these two questions in that order.

The report became controversial for two kinds of reasons, some external and some internal. Since the inquiry was conducted in public, everyone had access to the relevant evidence and everyone, naturally, reached their own conclusions. Some sections of the media reached their conclusions before the inquiry started. Since the report's conclusions were rather different from those that most people had come to expect, many felt disappointed, even bitter, and began to suspect an invisible, conspiratorial hand. We generally tend to approach life, especially political life, with the assumption that no party to a dispute is ever entirely innocent. Therefore, we expect a public report to criticise all the parties involved. When that does not happen, our instinctive ideas of fairness, as well as our assumptions about public life, come under strain and we refuse, wrongly, to accept the report. We suspect a whitewash.

In Britain, as well as elsewhere, there is a widespread culture of cynicism about those in power, a culture that has, sadly, been nurtured by the media, with at least some contribution by the politicians themselves. A report that gives the politicians the benefit of the doubt and accepts them as men and women of honour and integrity goes against this cynical grain and becomes a target of cynical distrust. We need to fight this corrosive trend.

While these and other external factors account for the dissatisfaction with the report, there are also internal reasons. Like all reports, the Hutton report is underpinned by certain assumptions that influence the inferences that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, made from a given set of facts and the conclusions that he reached. So far as discovering facts is concerned, he is scrupulous and thoroughly objective. He is right to insist that Andrew Gilligan's early morning broadcast on 29 January was false and utterly misguided and that his subsequent conduct and changes in his testimony, with two different notes of his conversation with Dr Kelly—all these related things—impugned his integrity and made him an unreliable witness.

Everyone should also agree with Hutton's findings that the Prime Minister behaved with impeccable honour, that Gilligan's charges against him were wholly unfounded and silly, and that the BBC should have apologised as soon as the complaint was made.

When facts do not speak for themselves so obviously and need to be interpreted, Hutton, I think, slips into a kind of thinking that can be easily misinterpreted. He talks of "subconscious influence" and of "mitigating circumstances". These sorts of expression, by which he negotiates his way from facts to conclusions, are inevitably subjective and vague. Furthermore, since he generally invokes these factors in relation to the Government but rarely in relation to the BBC or even Dr Kelly, some readers of the report might feel that he was somehow applying double standards or not being wholly even-handed. These critics may be wrong, and I think they are in some respects, but the report itself cannot be entirely absolved of all blame. While welcoming the report, especially its exoneration of the Prime Minister and the Government of the charges that were levelled against them, I am not sure that one can defend or endorse all its detailed conclusions.

Hutton assumes that there were only two sides to the dispute—the BBC and the Government—and that Dr Kelly's death had to do with the behaviour of either or both of these institutions. He ignores the role of the media which aggressively hounded Dr Kelly, door-stepped him, chased him everywhere and made him look like a criminal on the run. Professor Hawton, the professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, told the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, that the main reason why Dr Kelly could have taken his life had to do with the loss of self-esteem brought about by a number of factors, the most important being his exposure to the media. Dr Kelly was a private person, but even if he were not he would have found it extremely difficult to cope with the treatment that was meted out to him by the aggressive media.

Some criticism of the behaviour of the media was surely needed, because the media do need to find ways of respecting the privacy and vulnerability of people in public life. I can say that with some personal experience. When my own report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain came out it was grossly misrepresented in the Conservative media and I and my fellow commissioners were hounded and pilloried. We went through a crisis of confidence. I can easily imagine how Dr Kelly would have felt when the press pack started to hound him.

Where do we go from here and what are the lessons we can learn? I want to end with two general suggestions. First, the kind of conflict that we saw between the BBC and the Government should be avoided in future. The conflict did no good to the BBC and alienated large sections of the British people from the political process. Rather than take an aggressively confrontational approach, we need to find ways of exercising timely self-restraint and wisdom. Over the past few years many of our major institutions have been losing their legitimacy in the eyes of the British people; for example, the press, the monarchy, Parliament, the political parties and even the police.

Now the BBC is added to the list, and soon it might be our intelligence services. We cannot go on like this. If we did, we would find all of our institutions discredited or de-legitimised in one way or another and our democracy and public life in general would suffer. All of our institutions need to engage in some form of intense introspection on how they are run and how they behave, both within their own organisations and towards each other.

Secondly, with all the good will in the world, the kind of confrontation that we saw between the BBC and the Government is likely to occur in the future, not only between them but also involving other sections of the media. That would inevitably call for some type of sensible resolution. I am not sure that a judicial inquiry headed by a single judge is the best answer because of the inevitable psychological and moral assumptions that every judge brings to his task. Perhaps we could think of a two or three-judge inquiry to cancel each other's biases and to inspire greater public confidence in the findings of the inquiry. One might even wonder whether a judge is always the best person to conduct such inquiries. We might think of senior trusted public figures who would be intimately familiar with both public life and the world of journalism. We might be able to persuade them to head such inquiries. We might even move away from such public inquiries and turn instead to a suitably strengthened Press Complaints Commission.

Whatever we do, our urgent task now should certainly be to reduce the heat and polemics of our public life and restore a climate of sanity and mutual trust between our institutions so that they begin to see themselves as partners in the collective enterprise of restoring public confidence in our political process.