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Official Enquiries

Another official enquiry, another definitive report.

There can be no doubting it: Britain leads the world in Enquiries and Reports.  It always has and it always will.

We Brits love Official Enquiries.  I’m not sure why, but we stand ready to conduct a judicially sponsored enquiry at the drop of a judge’s wig or sometimes a civil servant’s bowler.  Perhaps it’s because we have so many of both, judges and senior civil servants, all retired with nothing to do but sit by a telephone waiting for it to ring and to hear those exciting words emerging from the ether: “Hello, Your Honour, it’s the Prime Minister’s office.  We’re thinking of launching an enquiry and will need a judge to chair it.  Are you available right now?”

No matter what the subject matter is: crooked football executives, child molesters, military invasion post-mortems, pornography – you name it there will be a top person willing, nay eager, to set up, direct and chair a panel to investigate the matter, with all the advantages of the support paraphernalia of premises, witnesses, policemen, barristers, writers and secretaries – and millions of pounds to spend.  No expense can be spared in exposing the truth.

And the truth is invariably exposed.  The trouble is that it is always long years after the events being ‘enquired into’ have taken place and rarely represent little more than confirmation that has already been reported by the media.  For all its faults – and these, too, have been the subject of an enquiry – the press always gets to the heart of the matter long before any judicial or government sponsored body.

The latest Official Enquiry is the one chaired by Dame Janet Smith to enquire into the nefarious sexual offences committed by Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey and presenter, while he was employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation.   By now, everyone knows what Savile and others were up to back in those sexually free-wheeling days.  For two years, the newspapers hardly had room for any other news.   Nor was it hard to conclude from the coverage that Savile got away with his crimes because BBC managers, although they knew of them, did nothing, their excuse that Savile was a ‘star’ turn on the television (and a prodigious patron of charitable causes and therefore ‘untouchable’).

I knew that.  My mother knew that.  My cleaning lady knew that.  My Labrador knew it.  But the government felt obliged to summon a judge to report on the matter in depth.  Not surprisingly, Dame Janet has reached the same conclusion at which the rest of us had arrived some time ago.  There will now be what are known as ‘recommendations’; that is, blindingly obvious preventative measures to ensure that “nothing like this is allowed to happen again”. These will create headlines for a day or two.  Newsnight, the BBC’s current affairs programme, will fearlessly and objectively engage in a round of mea culpas.  And that will be that until the next Enquiry, either a brand new one or one that is already underway and ‘long awaited’.

Into the latter category falls the Chilcot Enquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a privy counsellor and former civil servant, into the causes and effects of the Iraq War and the government’s decision-making that led to Britain becoming one of the combatants.  Sir John has been nothing if not assiduous.   The Enquiry began on 24 November 2011, was supposedly completed on 2 February 2014, and may be published in my lifetime.  Perhaps even in Sir John’s, which would at least obviate the question on how the Chilcot Enquiry could be so published if the chairman were six feet under and thereby unable to explain himself.

Six years on, the Chilcot Enquiry is chronologically, if in no other respects, one of those that falls into the ‘long awaited’ category.  Or would, if anyone could remember who Sir John is, why he was appointed, what happened before, during and after  the Iraq War and what we might expect from the Chilcot findings.

Political commentators gleefully expect the prime minister of the day, Tony Blair, to be pilloried for having taken Britain into war on the flimsiest of excuse, and quite possibly illegally.  Since then, though, Mr. Blair has done quite enough to sully his reputation without the slightest assistance from Sir John.  But there we are, the wheels of Enquiry-dom must be allowed to grind on.  Grinding on is precisely what they are doing, leaving the press to wonder idly about the nature of the reputation-protection jiggery-pokery that is holding up the whole enterprise.

Next up?  Football, athletics, cricket, child abuse, the Metropolitan Police, race prejudice in film-making (or anything else), prison reform, Brexit, immigration, the price of sausages – who knows?

Whatever the topic, one thing is for sure: the report will be long-awaited.

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