The fallout from the Leveson Inquiry’s recommendations has been writ large on the front pages of this week’s newspapers, sharply contrasting with previous inquiries where the rustle of tumbleweed pointed the path to the long grass. The emerging Royal Charter on press conduct and regulation has provoked strong feelings from various stakeholder groups; described by hacking victim Gerry McCann as “a compromise of a compromise”. For me, the reactions to Leveson’s Royal Charter point to something bedevilling many inquiries – how to make sure that an inquiry does exactly what it sets out to do, with as few unintended consequences as possible.
Leveson was originally intended to be an investigation into press standards and ethics; we are now seeing the debate broaden out to touch on issues like press freedom and the role of victims in the justice system. Opinion pieces like Amol Rajan’s article in Monday’s Evening Standard raise fascinating and valuable points about the “how’s and why’s” of legislation and natural justice, but this kind of thinking seems some distance from questions of what is reasonable for a newspaper to publish.
Similarly, an unexpected outcome of the 2013 Mid Staffordshire Inquiry has been the reaction of the public to NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson. Sir David’s tenure does not come under scrutiny in any of the 270 recommendations made by the inquiry report, yet a number of MPs and media outlets have called for his resignation. The practical recommendations actually made by inquiry chair Robert Francis QC appear to be less resonant with some sections of the public than achieving an outcome lying beyond the inquiry’s scope and remit.
Successive inquiries into the 2003 Iraq War (the Hutton and Iraq Inquiries), for example, are prime examples of how inquiries can be pulled into the political arena. Indeed, the Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot is due to report later this year, a full ten years after troops were deployed to the Gulf state, and its findings have the potential to be politically damaging even to the current Government administration. It is perhaps not surprising that key issues looked at by inquiries gain political import, but this can rapidly divert focus from the substance of an inquiry’s report to the political theatre it precipitates.
One of the main viewpoints emerging in the post-Leveson Royal Charter landscape is that media outlets don’t feel they had a fair chance to be heard: the Tuesday editorial of The Times, for example, called it “a deal done without the involvement of the British press”. Would wider and more thorough consultation with the press have generated a more palatable outcome for everyone? Equally, did the politicians who drafted the Royal Charter feel that the Leveson Report was sufficiently consultative to empower rapid decision making and drafting? For me, the salient idea here is that putting legislation aside, Inquiries are a fundamentally collaborative and communal process – and an important factor in how seriously we take them is how far each stakeholder group feels they have had a fair chance to be heard.
From a design perspective these issues, and many more besides, could be mitigated by some degree by clarity at the outset of the process. With well thought out terms of reference, a clear idea of what the inquiry should achieve and plenty of space given to the views and feelings of each stakeholder group, purpose and intent can be more clearly demonstrated. Inquiries are a journey through truths to the best future we can achieve – and clear planning can get us there safely.