Public inquiries have a tendency to bring out the worst in all the clowns involved in the Westminster circus.
Even the words “public inquiry” bring me out in the hives. At school, my 15-year-old self sat counting the minutes through interminable French lessons with the arch nemesis of every comprehensive pupil: the dreaded Tricolore textbook.
Well into my twenties I assumed on the basis of my classroom education that our continental cousins spent their entire time wandering around La Rochelle, lugubriously asking each other the cost of vegetables. It wasn’t until I visited France that I shook my youthful projections and discovered that the land was actually a delightful haven of wine and cheese.
In a similar way, the otherwise golden memory of the Tonemeister’s glorious reign is blighted by the pervading gloom and tedium created by the never-ending round of public inquiries which always hovered over the political narrative like the stench of rotting legumes.
Take the inquiries into Iraq. My god, how many were there? Hutton, Butler, Chilcot – and that’s outside the scrutinies of the Commons select committees.
They all follow a predictable pattern.
Demands are made for a public inquiry. The government grudgingly accepts. An adjudicator to oversee the inquiry is selected, to breathless media reporting of him being “incorruptible” and “independent-minded”. He sits through months, if not years, of evidence on the basis of which he concludes that Blair is not a war criminal, he didn’t murder David Kelly, and was probably not resident in the East End whilst Jack the Ripper was doing his thing.
Howls of “whitewash!” led by bloggers and the media ensue, followed swiftly by calls for another inquiry in which the judge is urged to come to the “correct” conclusion, and it starts all over again.
To be clear: I do not, necessarily, object to the principle of public inquiries, simply what they provoke in those either involved or commenting on them.
Leveson, in my opinion, has been the worst yet. It’s everywhere, absolutely everywhere. If 24-hour news made the previous inquiries tedious – “Right, now over to the Chilcot inquiry where we’ll leave you for three hours whilst we head off down the pub. Later, suckers!” – Twitter has made Leveson unbearable.
It’s coming at you from all sides. And because it’s celebrities, politicians, newspaper editors being largely uninteresting and rarely illuminating at some great length, it feels a lot like a long running, straight-to-DVD rom-com being reported in surround sound by the very few people in the country who have not been called on to give evidence.
It’s like being locked in a Star Trek convention and you’re the only one not in uniform.
I suppose we should be grateful that it’s revealed some deeply unlovely behaviours in the occasionally sanctimonious fourth estate for a change, instead of reserving that manure exclusively for the politicians, but the hypocrisy is mind-boggling.
Okay, a load of journos lost their jobs – some undeservedly – as a consequence of the hacking revelations. But the same people who are lecturing us on schadenfreude over the sackings were often the ones who reserved absolutely no sympathy for MPs' staff who lost their employment as a consequence of their bosses having their fingers in the public purse during the expenses scandal. Consistency? Bollocks.
And then there’s the march of the armchair legal experts. Suddenly, everybody on the internet is an qualified authority on the finer points of media law – afterall, watching Rumpole of the Bailey repeats makes you Judge John Deed, right?
This is 24-hour news gold; when the news teams return from the boozer and switch off the Leveson live feed, we’re at the, “Let’s hear what people on Twitter are saying” stage. Please God, no! I’m familiar with unformed opinions of someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about – believe me, I’ve had enough myself. But that’s precisely why I’m not on the telly. I’m not interested in what I “reckon”, why should anybody else be?
Most buttock-clenching of all is the evidence of the editors and the politicians. Gord saying that he was profoundly unbothered that The Sun chose not to endorse him the morning after his 2009 conference speech, anyone? Rebekah Brooks coming over all Scottish enlightenment on us and claiming that the decision to back Cameron was made on the basis of what Gordon Brown said in that speech after a full dissection of all the policy proposals?
In a sense, I actually have a bit of sympathy for both sides in this one. Modern media management is, indeed, a murky world and if Brown was less than keen to allow the press to reprint allegations of him doing Incredible Hulk impersonations, and if Brooks didn’t want to disabuse her readers that The Sun’s economic editorial policy really does come from Nikki, 19, from Slough, then I can see that.
It’s just bloody embarrassing for everyone concerned, and the view around my end of Vauxhall is that the relationship between press and politician has always been somewhat opaque, so there’s little point in reinventing the metaphorical wheel again and at endless length.
Perhaps part of the problem – as Leveson himself has indicated – is that the terms of reference which seem to be, “Looking into the media. And stuff” are too broad, and the potential pool of witnesses are so large, that the entire exercise has become something of an unwieldy monster.
Still, once he reports to our inevitable dissatisfaction, let’s just call for another, eh?