Guardian online have quoted me accurately, whilst this morning’s Independent misrepresented my position, on the Iraq war inquiry.
The Guardian was quoting what I said at an event at the Commons last night, in which Robert Peston of the BBC, Tory MP Alan Duncan and I were garnering ‘cash for questions’ to raise money for the Journalists’ Charity, formerly the Newspaper Press Fund. Not surprisingly, one of the questions was whether I agreed with Gordon Brown’s decision that the Iraq war inquiry should hold evidence sessions in private.
I said to the room full of journalists that they would probably not like what I had to say. ‘There have been several inquiries on this and those who are critical of the government’s policy on Iraq will only accept the findings of any inquiry that says the government was wrong. So the Hutton Inquiry, which completely cleared the government – you didn’t want to hear it.’
There was a bit of jeering from some of the hacks at this point, so I reminded them that we were also cleared by the select committee inquiries. I then said it was not an open and shut case that the inquiry should be held in public, and added, as quoted by the Guardian, ‘it frankly won’t make any difference to them because they’ve made their minds up, these critics of the government, whatever comes out. The question then becomes whether you genuinely want to have an inquiry which finds out exactly what happened and that tries to learn lessons.’
I said that on balance, I thought GB made the right decision, but ‘it is not a straight-forward decision. Unless it is black and white, the modern media cannot cope with it.’
I can see the arguments for both sides – openness and transparency favours a public inquiry; but it may well be that the inquiry will do a better job freed from the frenzy of 24 hour media. GB’s point about the Bloody Sunday Inquiry – still going after eight years – was also well made.
I also think that Sir Robin Butler, who doubtless agreed it was right to have held his own inquiry in private, was somewhat in score-settling mode, and that while some military are arguing for it to be in public, many others would have strongly argued the opposite had GB announced a public inquiry. Like I said, it is not a straightforward decision.
As for the Independent, it carried a piece suggesting I had been closely involved in discussions prior to the announcement and that I had been instrumental in persuading GB to go down the private route. This is not so. Until last Thursday, when I attended a Labour fundraiser at which the PM was speaking, I knew no more than I had read in the papers. That evening, one of his advisors told me he was going to be announcing the inquiry within the next few days, the panel had been decided and agreed, it was a genuine ‘lessons learned’ inquiry and the Opposition were being consulted that day.
Number 10 alerted me at the weekend that the statement was likely to be on Monday. I was told there was a discussion going on as to whether some sessions should be public, with the bulk of evidence in private. I made the point that I thought it should be very clearly one or the other, that whichever it was could be strongly defended, and that if there was anything in between, there was a risk of ending up with the worst of all worlds.
Given the journalist, one of the ones who normally checks, did not do so on this occasion, and others might be tempted to repeat what he said also without doing so, I thought I should clear this up.