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Just Enquiry
January/February 2010


More than six years after Britain invaded Iraq, the battle-lines are being drawn up once again. But this time the theatre of war is no dusty desert. Instead, battles are being fought in air-conditioned London conference rooms where words are the only weapons. The government has now set up no fewer than three public inquiries into its own conduct.

The one that has attracted the most attention is the Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a retired Whitehall mandarin. But on 24 November, the day it started hearing oral evidence, the Chilcot inquiry was virtually written off by the Guardian.

According to the newspaper, the inquiry was going to find it difficult to cross-examine witnesses or decide whether the war was lawful. That was because it had not appointed a QC as counsel to the inquiry and because there were no lawyers among the inquiry team's members.

Within less than a week, the Guardian was forced to admit that these were hardly fatal flaws. "Contrary to expectations," it opined, "the mandarins have not pulled their oh-so-elegant punches."

Retired civil servants often bite the hand that used to feed them, especially when answering questions from one of their own. And having a senior judge to head an inquiry is no guarantee of success. Take, for example, Lord Hutton's 2004 report into the death of Dr David Kelly, the government scientist who was alleged to have told a BBC reporter that the case for war in Iraq had been "sexed up". Hutton took a narrowly legalistic approach to his task, dismissing the reporter's allegations as "unfounded" because they could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt and condemning the BBC's editorial systems as "defective". 

But you can hardly blame a judge for treating a public inquiry as if it were a court of law. And Lord Hutton's supposed failings pale into insignificance compared with those of a fellow law lord.

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