Last week was a strange one. We all knew it was coming, but the double whammy of a commons vote on university tuition fees and the release of the Hutton Inquiry has created ripples that will be felt for years. If Blair had come off badly in either, let alone both, he would have been out of a job within weeks.
I caught the tuition fees vote in all its ridiculous glory on TV. The shuffling of the tellers from left to right telling you that the ‘ayes’ had it before the words were uttered. The question was, by how many. It was close — so close that when the numbers were read out there was a sharp intake of breath around the chamber.
But there wasn’t time to think about the closeness of the vote because a couple of hours later somebody was on the phone to Trevor Kavanagh at the Sun to leak the findings of Hutton. The morning headlines were dominated by the leak rather than the vote and the a few hours later it was official. The BBC got a drubbing, the Government a complete letting off.
The official release of the report didn’t make great TV. Hutton’s judgement was an hour and a half of him reading from a pile of A4 sheets of paper, not once did he look into the camera. Try as the director might to vary the image with cutaways to the audience, it was essentially a very boring event.
The fisticuffs between Blair and Howard in the Commons were more entertaining. I suppose you can’t really blame Howard for a bit of desperation. That morning as he arrived in the office to see the report in advance and started turning the pages he would have realised very quickly that any chance of winning the next election was slipping away through his fingers.
His response (and that of Charles Kennedy) has been to call for a further independent inquiry. I suppose I already knew there was a paucity of ideas in Westminster but to me that shows a complete lack of imagination. The independence of any one person is a myth. Each of us has our own influences and mindset that will shape our judgement. And the same is true of judges.
In this case ‘independence’ was vested in one man, 72 years of age, a self confessed obsessive and loner who has been in the same profession for nearly half a century. I have no doubt that he has one of the finest understandings of the law in the land, but remember this wasn’t a court case, nobody was accused of a criminal act. It was a case of defending reputations and finding out who to trust and I would argue that a man of the law might not be the best person for the job.
For starters he’s never worked for an organisation. Never been part of a culture where you have a shared sense of norms and values. As a friend pointed out to me, the judgement treats the BBC and the Government as if they were exactly the same. It doesn’t take into account the fact that each has a very different culture. There are totally different expectations both unwritten and unspoken in each institution. And there are cultures within those cultures. The difference between working on the Today programme and Newsnight is massive. The difference between working for the MoD and Number 10 is also huge.
On Sunday afternoon Kevin Marsh sent out an email to subscribers to the Today programme that shows something of the culture of the BBC and of the Today programme in particular. It’s hard to imagine something similar coming from Number 10. It wouldn’t fit with the carefully crafted image of earnest, besuited, by-the-book policy making that they’ve developed since moving into the cul-de-sac just off Whitehall.
Over the next few years, the institution most likely to lose the trust of the public is the law. It’s expensive and increasingly seen as crooked, greedy and arrogant. Interestingly the institution charged with reform of the legal system, The Department for Constitutional Affairs is one of the lowest profile departments in government. I doubt it will remain that way.
The government may have won in this particular case but by diminishing trust in the BBC (and the media in general) Hutton has inadvertently riled an entire profession. As Kevin Marsh’s email says they’re ‘not going away’. If anything they’re more determined to get their own back. After seven years in power, any government has skeletons in its closet. Hutton means the intensity of journalists trying to open doors to find them will only increase.