Inquiry hearings in public? No problem – leave it to Butler

Update. What did I tell you? Prime Minister Gordon Brown has told the man heading up an independent inquiry into Iraq that he can decide to hold public sessions if he chooses. Students of public inquiries will marvel how the right kind of pressure can produce results. One of the grandest of grandees, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Cabinet Secretary when Tony Blair came to power, looks like forcing a U turn in double quick time over Gordon Brown’s controversial decision to hold an entirely closed inquiry into the Iraq war. To drive his point home, he’s even given the BBC’s Nick Robinson a few extracts of a speech he’s due to make in the Lords this afternoon. Butler, who held an inquiry in 2004 into the quality of intelligence that led to the invasion, is planning to make the deadly accusation that the government is “putting its political interests ahead of the national interest.” It’s hardly possible to make a stronger charge, particularly coming from a mandarin’s mandarin.Lord Butler believes that the inquiry, to be chaired by one of those who sat on his inquiry – senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot – must do more than “learn the lessons” from the war. There must, he will say, be a “truth and reconciliation” element to it as well. And – wait for it – our own Lord Hutton is supporting Butler’s call. To be fair to the retired law lord, his inquiry into the death of weapons analyst David Kelly blazed a trail by publishing a whole raft of revealing documents on its website. These days, inquiries are at least as important for the information they publish as for the verdicts they pass. Will Brown U turn in time to spike Butler’s guns? Watch for news from this morning’s lobby to find out. Does full disclosure promote “truth and reconciliation” or harm it? That’s the familiar conundrum at the heart of the government’s fears of a public airing – as far as it affects their own reputation.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London