Public inquiries have been an important clearing house in the battle for truth. They’ve settled arguments about who was responsible for national scandals and tragedies and, crucially, taken the pen away from people in power and given it to victims and campaigners. In the age of social media, when anyone can hold the pen, can the idea of the public inquiry survive?
Episode 3 in Season One of ThinkIn with James Harding, The Battle For Truth.
- Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a member of the Chilcot Inquiry
- Yvette Williams, Justice for Grenfell campaigner
- Eamonn McCann, journalist and activist
- Kate Lamble, presenter of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry podcast
- Chris Cook, contributing editor at Tortoise
James Harding: Hello, and welcome to a ThinkIn with me, James Harding. In this series of ThinkIns we’re setting out to examine the battle for truth. We relive one moment in the news that’s come to define an issue or an argument. Let’s say Twitter banning Trump – and what that tells us about free speech. Or Dominic Cummings, his trip to Barnard castle and the press conference that followed it – and what that tells us about the mainstream media’s coverage of politics. Or for example, the creation of Facebook’s own supreme court – and the power of the platforms. And then in listening to the arguments, I hope that we come to a clearer sense of what to think.
Today, we’re considering Grenfell Tower and the contest between truth and justice.
“Emergency responder: Fire brigade?
Caller: Yeah. Hello. Hi. There’s a fire in flat 16 Grenfell Tower.
Emergency responder: Sorry. A fire where?
Caller: Flat 16 Grenfell Tower.“
“Tonight at six a huge fire engulfs a tower block in London. At least 12 people have been killed, dozens injured, and the death toll is expected to rise.”
“It’s thought Grenfell Tower was home to more than 500 people. The fire started at one in the morning and emergency services were there within minutes.”
“And as of this morning I’m afraid to say there are now 79 people that we believe are either dead or missing. And I have sadly have to presume are dead.”
“Disorientated and terrified, those who could struggled to safety. Others stuck to this established advice. Stay where you are.”
“That’s why I am today ordering a full public inquiry into this disaster. We need to know what happened.”
“As council leader, I have to accept my share of responsibility for these perceived failings…”
“Pressure had been mounting on the council, following intense criticism of the way the disaster had been handled from day one…”
“But as a precaution, the government has arranged to test cladding in all relevant tower blocks. Mr. Speaker, shortly before I came to the chamber, I was informed that a number of these tests have come back as combustible.“
“He is the retired judge whose task is to determine the truth about one of Britain’s worst disasters. Sir Martin Moore-Bick today viewed the flowers, left for the victims of Grenfell Tower…”
As I hope you’ll hear in this episode of the Battle for Truth, we’re going to grapple with the role of the public inquiry after a tragic event. What used to be the official reckoning with a painful truth. And it forced me to think about how the pursuit of truth might in fact, derail and delay the pursuit of justice, how disconnected it all can be from social, institutional change.
As you’ll hear, we examine the extent to which a public inquiry is a device to diffuse public anger, a politician’s tool to kick a crisis of public trust into the long grass. We come, I think, to the helpful view that these – quote unquote – public inquiries are too often government inquiries. I.e. those in power set the terms and so the outcomes.
And we consider whether the internet age has turned the idea of the public inquiry on its head.
All I hope you’ll find to a point. What should a Covid inquiry do?
To help me get to grips with all this – the public inquiry, truth and justice – I’m joined by Yvette Williams, who’s a Justice for Grenfell campaigner. By Kate Lamble, who’s the presenter of the BBC’s Grenfell Tower inquiry podcast. By Sir Lawrence Freedman, who’s the emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College and sat as a member of the Chilcot inquiry into the war in Iraq. Eamonn McCann, who’s a journalist and activist and who campaigned for decades for the Bloody Sunday families. And my colleague, the contributing editor at Tortoise, Chris Cook.
In the past, after a tragic event, the narrative has often been seized by those in power. The police in the case of Hillsborough. Or the army after Bloody Sunday. And then years of campaigning leads eventually to a public inquiry, which – at least in those two cases – finally vindicated the campaigners’ version of events.
But with Grenfell, you get the feeling it’s different. The accepted narrative originally came from campaigners – in fact, it was all over social media from day one – one of institutional indifference discrimination, social cleansing, and gentrification. Blame focused on the council.
And then the public inquiry. It’s so far moved away from that, and towards a failure of building regulations.
James Harding: Yvette, you were there that night. What would you think has the public inquiry got you any closer to understanding who or what was responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire?
Yvette Williams: I think we are getting some way to the truth. However, it would be a travesty if the story of Grenfell was told in the future as merely a housing or cladding issue. I think building sector corruption is huge in this.
But there is a huge lead up to how that fire at Grenfell happened. And it’s important that in telling the truth that the whole truth and nothing but the truth is told around it. The terms of reference for the inquiry is too narrow. It should be much broader. And I think we have a huge host of other factors that risk not being looked at.
James: And just to explain that if you would, Yvette, is it that what’s happening in the inquiry? Is that it is identifying truths. I.e. it’s identifying significant facts, but not giving a perspective or context? I.e it doesn’t see the wood for the trees?
Yvette: Yeah. And I think parts of that is the order, the chronology of how the inquiry inquiries were set up. So actually phase two and the lead up to the fire was crucial to be heard first because that would then put what happened on the night of the fire into that context, and be able to explore those other reasons around outsourcing of public companies, you know, deregulation, et cetera, that needed to come first for people to then get a true, real understanding of what happened on the night. And actually, the inquiry starts with Act Two, Scene One, rather than starting at Act One. And I think that has caused some confusion.
James: Your campaign is called Justice for Grenfell. It’s not truth about Grenfell. Do you feel as though you pretty much know the truth about Grenfell, your issue is how do you get justice?
Yvette: I think justice is the key component and justice looks very different to different people. For instance, the bereaved families, for them, prosecution, and people facing, you know, the rule of law, and the outcome of that makes up a huge part of justice.
James: I just want to understand exactly what your frustration is with the public inquiry then, because it seems as though you’re saying: “Look, you wish a public inquiry could do more, but we know the public inquiry is not – in that sense – a criminal court, or even a court of justice.”
It’s intended to try and understand what happened, get to the truth of what happened and if possible, learn some lessons. What’s your frustration then with the public inquiry’s response to Grenfell?
Yvette: What was actually promised here at the beginning, once Theresa May had said, “There will be a public inquiry.” I mean, people were not confident in that.
They were giving me assurances that a criminal investigation would run side by side. And I think that made people have more confidence in the inquiry process. We are then halfway through phase one, where we are then told: “Actually the criminal investigation is going to conclude after the end of the inquiry.”
And I think that’s where trust and confidence kind of decreased again in the public inquiry. Because I think given the choice, they perhaps would have preferred the criminal investigation to come first and then lessons learned afterwards. I think the other key thing about the inquiry is that we’re hearing some shocking things, you know, failed fire tests that were pushed through, failed certificates, et cetera.
And we were given the understanding, again, that as urgent things came up during the inquiry, that the government will deal with those things one by one, as they came up. And we have seen with this cladding scandal, that hasn’t happened.
James: Yvette thank you. I’m going to come back to you in a moment if I might, but I wanted to ask Kate Lamble…You’ve sat, I think Kate, through every hour of the Grenfell Tower inquiry so far. And I just wonder whether my characterisation at the top is fair: that the blame has been shifted, if you like, from the council to contractors and the overseers of building regulations. Is that fair to say that the drift of the narrative really has shifted?
Kate Lamble: Part of this is due to the way the inquiry is set up. So, we’re just about to come to the phase of the inquiry, the module of the inquiry, that’s going to hear from the RBKC, the local council, the tenant management organisation which ran the building.
So, it’s not that we won’t hear from those witnesses, and that we won’t hear that there were shortcomings in that part. But so far it has focused firstly, on what happened on the night of the fire, which largely involves failures from the firefighters. And secondly, we’ve had this long discussion about the refurbishment of the building. So, the architects, the designers, the manufacturers, the testing, and the certifiers. All of whom were involved in the materials, which were placed on the building, which had been found to be the main cause of the spread of the fire.
And so, when we talk about blame, I don’t think it’s as simple as one person or one organisation being to blame. Essentially, if you look at Grenfell, there’s millions and millions of tiny decisions that happened – both in the refurbishment and on the night of the fire – that contributed to what happened.
So, if we look at phase two and the refurbishment of that building, it’s basically been essentially the searing indictment of the construction industry as a whole. So, we’ve been hearing evidence about the refurbishment since January last year, and we haven’t had one witness who did a good job from beginning to end.
So, we’ve had the all four manufacturers of the main products put on the outside of the tower, had issues with their testing. Both the certification bodies have admitted errors. The architect said it was an afterthought to check whether the materials were compliant and so on and so forth.
So, it’s a complicated web of contractors and sub-contractors and decisions taking place over years that fed into this one disaster.
James: And Kate, what do you say to people who worry that the nature of the public inquiry is that it does focus on those specifics, that it, as you say, identifies those tiny decisions, it paints that complex web, but as a result, it misses out on a structural lack of care, a systemic lack of care. And it’s incapable of making a political judgment, an overall judgment on the failures in positions of authority that led to the Grenfell Tower fire.
Kate: There’ve been calls since the opening statements of phase one – so, all the way back in 2018, one of the first things we heard from the lawyers, which represent the bereaved survivors and the residents – for the inquiry’s terms of reference to take into account wide issues of race and class. From the very beginning, people have been calling for that.
The inquiry has said that the terms of reference – what they’re allowed to look at – has been set by the government that they’re not in control of that. And that they’ve asked the government whether they should look at that. I mean, that’s not to say that these issues won’t come up. When we talk about, you know, just after Easter, we’re going to hear about the complaints that residents sent to the tenant management organisation and how those were taken into account.
We’ve already heard some things. When we talk about residents who complained about building works that were done on the outside of the house and how they felt ignored when people came round to look at it. So, these issues come up. But they certainly bubble under and they’re not being looked at in a way that many people would like them to be.
James: And Yvette, is this your point about the terms of reference of the inquiry itself? That the government to a certain extent set certain things as out of bounds?
Yvette: Yeah, on the surface, they give the impression that they are consulting with the bereaved survivors, and community. People took a long time to kind of respond to that knowing at the end of it, that it is still kind of government controlled and that they have the last say. And I think there’s something about the word “public”. Is it a public inquiry? Should they be called public inquiries or are they government inquiries?
James: As you’re speaking Yvette, I’m watching Lawrence Freedman listening to this with what looks, Lawrence, like a certain weary familiarity, because of course the truth about these public inquiries or, as Yvette puts it, these government inquiries is that they’re called in to examine deadly and tragic events.
And by their nature, those events are complicated. I suppose, I wonder whether we could just get your perspective on the Iraq inquiry. What did you feel when that started was the question that you were being, asked to answer?
Sir Lawrence Freedman: We were set up as the lessons learned. And that was clearly not what most people were interested in. I mean, what most people were interested in was the decision-making: how we got into it.
There’ve been other inquiries on whether the government had lied on WMD. All of them said that wasn’t the problem. The intelligence agencies believed what they were saying. That was our conclusion too.
And then there was a question of the aftermath, which was very messy. But again, it was about how had we been so unprepared? How had we got into another country and not had a good idea about what to do once we arrived? With tragic consequences, as we know.
So, I think the government wanted, I mean, initially Gordon Brown, who set it up, wanted it to be totally secret.
James: In secret Lawrence? As in an entirely private inquiry?
Lawrence: The model was the Franks inquiry into the Falklands, which was a group of privy councilors (who became privy councilors to do this) who met in private and came up with, not a bad account of what had happened with some rather dodgy conclusions at the end.
Well, we realised right from the start, that we couldn’t be party to that. The hearings, at the very least, had to be in public.
And I think for most people it was the hearings that were the most significant in part because we’re not trained cross examiners, but we put the questions and of course a lot of people unburdened themselves. Something was on their mind and they wanted to say what they thought had happened.
And then we decided to produce what we called a “reliable account”, which I think is what in the end we did, but took a heck of a long time to do it. And we did have the problem that we were dealing with classified materials. A lot of our effort was getting these materials declassified. So, it’s very different from Grenfell I think.
We’re not judicial, we weren’t judicial I think that makes a very big difference.
James: And just, just explain for me would you Lawrence the difference between a public inquiry and a judicial inquiry?
Lawrence: Well, probably inquires can be judicial. You just don’t have a judge. If you look at Bloody Sunday, which was the judicial inquiry, that’s why when we took a while, but they took forever. We were looking at nine years, they were looking at nine hours. Because you know, as soon as it’s judicial, you’ve got lawyers asking the questions, everybody who’s a witness has got a lawyer with them and interested parties can have their lawyers along to ask their questions. And so, it goes on. It’s a very different exercise.
James: Forgive me for interrupting. So there is one similarity, the one line that people would draw between the Grenfell inquiry and the Chilcot inquiry – the inquiry into the war in Iraq –is this suspicion that some people have that these inquiries are a political device. That they essentially take the heat out of the public fury in the moment.
There’s a promise that lessons will be learned, but the truth is by the time those lessons are learned, you know, the world has just moved on, the issues have moved on. And I’m interested to know amongst you and the others who sat on that inquiry: how worried were you that that was, in effect, what you were being used to do?
Lawrence: Well, I mean, remember we were set up a long time after the actual events, the main events. We set up as British troops left in 2009. But we were looking at the big issues with 2002 and 2003 and a lot of lessons that actually have been learned anyway, by the time we came along.
So, that’s why I thought the “reliable account” was important. Yeah, of course the Iraq inquiry was not set up with huge expectations. So, let’s be honest. People assumed that we were there to produce a whitewash. And that’s why we took so long because we decided we just had to get the evidence out.
We could have produced a short report. We could’ve reported in a couple of years, but everybody would have said: “Where’s this?” “Where’s that?” “Well, why are you showing us this?”
I think we just had to do it in a way that showed we’d been forensic: that we’d got out the information. We made a point of declassifying as much as we could, getting it on the website in order that if people disagreed with us we could say: “Okay. Well, do a better job. Here’s the evidence with which you can work.”
That I think it’s the lasting value of the inquiry. We did have some lessons, the Ministry of Defence and others have taken them up quite actively: mainly on how to avoid groupthink and how to ensure people, things are challenged, and so on.
But basically, the lesson people had already drawn is: don’t do that sort of thing again.
James: And what about time in all of this Lawrence? Because the curious thing is we’re holding these series of conversations on the battle for truth. Most of it today is about speed. Is about the fact that in the world of Twitter and private social networks, lies and untruths are just ripping across our networks.
The complaint against public inquiries is the opposite, isn’t it? It’s that they’re just so slow that by the time they actually come up with their vaunted truths, it’s too late.
Lawrence: I don’t think it has to be like that. I genuinely think if you’re looking ahead to a Covid inquiry, I don’t see any reason why you can’t have interim reports, drafted analyses, draw-in researchers, because there’s so much material out there and it’s sort of, you know, it doesn’t have to be found. It has to be collated and interpreted. So I don’t think it has to be like that.
James: Just out of interest, for example, even with Chilcot or potentially even with the Grenfell inquiry, would you have set the parameters or set requirements that there are staging posts along the way?
Lawrence: It was my view that that was an option for us, but for a variety of reasons, it was quite difficult to do not least in terms of how the hearings were organised, which came too early.
Unlike what Yvette Williams is saying about Grenfell, we made it up what our remit really was. We were given years and years to look at any aspect of what had happened. You could do a different sort of inquiry with the same potential scope as you go along a lot quicker.
I think we need to get out of the model of an inquiry as sort of the great and the good presiding over an extended period and then coming up with profound comments right at the end. I think you can do it as you go along.
James: That’s interesting. I just want to bring Kate Lamble in just on this point about speed and time that Lawrence was mentioning because presumably the Grenfell inquiry could do what Lawrence is saying and start delivering some findings on an interim basis.
Kate: The Grenfell inquiry specifically tried to address this problem. So, the reason why they looked at what happened on the night of the fire first is because they say they felt that recommendations about how the emergency services acted, if they could bring those in as quickly as possible, they had the potential to save lives.
And so that’s why they did that at the phase at the beginning. They’ve already brought out 46 recommendations on that subject. A year on, only four of them have been implemented in full. And that’s because another problem that we have with public inquiries is that the inquiry itself cannot implement the recommendations.
They’re reliant on government to do that. And it’s the government’s choice whether they implement these recommendations. So, the Grenfell inquiry has already put in place many, many recommendations, including very important things. So, for example, there was one for disabled residents in high-rise buildings, you might have trouble getting out. [So there was a recommendation] for them each to have a personal emergency evacuation plan. That recommendation was made by the inquiry. The government chose not to implement it in full because they thought there would be too much paperwork.
James: Interesting, Kate. Thank you. I’m going to come in a moment to Eamonn.
And thank you for your patience Eamonn, but I do just want to pursue this point with Lawrence, the point that I made to Yvette about the distinction between justice and truth, and whether in the event of a public inquiry, it’s the case that truth can actually just get in the way of justice. It can defer or delay criminal proceedings or court proceedings, and in the case of the Iraq inquiry it can so dominate the debate about Iraq that any other forms of reputational or legal redress are shunted aside.
Lawrence: Maybe it’s just because I’m an academic that I thought truth was really very important and that we needed to get it out. There were mythologies already, still there developing around Iraq. Sometimes they were right. Sometimes they were wrong, but our account had value in that.
One similarity, I think, is that the families of the troops that had died were a very active voice in favor of an inquiry. And we met with them at the start and certainly right at the end. So, they were quite a big influence. And they said to us that the truth mattered to them. You know, also the families had different views. Some were just very angry. Others felt this is what their children, their sons had wanted to do, but didn’t quite understand how it had happened. That they’d lost them.
James: Eamonn McCann, you campaigned for years to get the Bloody Sunday inquiry and people would say that eventually, finally – maybe you would say – that it did deliver the truth. But did it ever deliver to your mind justice?
Eamonn McCann: No, I don’t think it did deliver justice. And I also don’t think that it delivered the whole truth. I think there were swathes of the truth excluded. And I think one of the reasons for that – over seeking a particular reason for that – it had to do with the political nature of the event and of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. And it was politicized from the outset in that the inquiry had been set up and it was openly set up as part of the Irish peace process.
Timing is very interesting in relation to the Bloody Sunday inquiry. It was announced by Mr. Blair in January, 1998. And, of course, the Good Friday Agreement came in April, 1998. Now, not, not in any way, a coincidence. Absolutely not. And I covered it as a journalist, as well, in the end, as a full-time activist.
And I know that the Taoiseach, the prime minister of southern Ireland, had told Mr. Blair, “Look, if you want this peace process to work, you’ve got to handle Bloody Sunday.”
And maybe that’s one peculiarity of Bloody Sunday and the Bloody Sunday inquiry. That there was a political narrative into which it fitted and had to fit. It was seen as part of the process of reconciliation.
The other aspect of Bloody Sunday, I think, which doesn’t match that many of the other atrocities and difficulties and killings and loss of life that have been the focus of inquiries. It was just, Bloody Sunday happened in broad daylight. This wasn’t something that people had to report. It happened on a very crisp, clear winter’s afternoon. I remember completely blue sky.
It happened in a very contained area. It happened maybe in a circle of 150 yards that cover all of the killings. And because the shooting happened immediately after a civil rights march about ten thousands strong… We had then come down to what turned out to be the area of the killings, Bloody Sunday and people scurried of course, to get behind walls and get into homes or flats, I mean, as soon as the shooting started.
Every killing and wounding on Bloody Sunday was witnessed, easily, by scores of people, sometimes in very close quarters. And I saw people being killed on Bloody Sunday. I mean nobody had to tell me what happened in relation to those particular killings. I was lying in the gutter, looking at them, about 50, 60 yards away.
One of the key things that seems to me about the Bloody Sunday experience is that nobody in Derry and none of those who participated in that march had to wait for a judicial inquiry to tell them what had happened. What they were waiting for was to see whether it would tell the truth. They knew the truth already, sort of in a lot of detail.
James: Forgive me. That’s the reason why I wanted to just pursue this point that Yvette started with, which is whether or not even if you pursue the truth – and if you feel as though you know the truth – whether or not the public inquiry serves as an act of catharsis, if you like, it ensures that those responsible acknowledge the truth.
And there is something no doubt, enormously important and valuable in that, but it’s not the same as justice. It’s not the same as people being held responsible for what they did. No.
Eamonn: No. And, and of course the only person being held responsible – and course we mustn’t anticipate what will happen in that trial – is one Lance corporal. One lowly soldier is being held responsible and has been charged in relation to an incident in which 13 people died, and 15 people were wounded, one of whom died shortly afterwards. Only one soldier.
I mean, charged with any offense at all, man, this is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. And that was a result of, I mean, there were 435 days of evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry spread over five years, there were 900 people gave oral evidence. There were 1500 additional written statements handed in.
So, there’s an incredible mass of evidence. And, of course, that’s why it took another five years for Lord Saville and his colleagues actually to produce a report. What Saville didn’t do – and I think this was very important that he should have done it, but didn’t do it – was to check the chain of command. Who actually ordered, who organised Bloody Sunday, who gave the command?
What was the role of I mean, I could run through the names (I don’t know if it would be libelous at the moment) that were actively, directly involved in that.
James: I think that’s important. You’re saying that even when you have a public inquiry, which as dramatically as the Saville inquiry did seem to fundamentally change the dynamics around the British government and Bloody Sunday – you did have the British prime minister, you know, apologizing in parliament, acknowledging responsibility. It was a huge change even then to many people – it’s not a whole version of the truth. And I suppose, you know, just taking it back to Grenfell and taking it back to where we started with Yvette. Something very significant has changed between 1972 and what happened at Grenfell, which is of course social media. What would have happened in ‘72 would have been that everyone would have had film and footage and would have had an account.
And so what I’m trying to figure out is: what’s the role of a public inquiry when that version of the truth that circulated in Derry that you witnessed was publicly available? What’s the role of the public inquiry, then, if it’s not in some ways, if you like, to reestablish a version of the truth that may be either more bureaucratic or more in frame and the terms set by the establishment rather than the public themselves?
Yvette, come in and I’ll come back to Eamonn.
Yvette: I wanted to pick up on something Eamonn said that you don’t always get the whole truth and that is, to actually look at a good example of a public inquiry, which is the Lawrence MacPherson inquiry. That does come up with good recommendations at the end. And, you know, we get an amended Race Relations Act, you know, we get public sector equality duty, all those things in place.
However, we don’t get all the truth there because a decade later they then find out that they had undercover police spying on their campaign. So, what kind of truth are we getting from public inquiries?
James: But, but, but very interesting Yvette, you talk about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the findings of Lord McPherson. What interested you? There was the real world impacts the consequences that came from the inquiry.
I wanted to bring in my colleague, Chris Cook if I might, because, you know, Chris has covered Whitehall, covered government in its different workings for many years. And I wonder Chris, whether or not you think my posture on this is unfair?
But my kind of starting suspicion is that these public inquiries essentially diffuse a difficult political situation, which is why politicians reach for them. But when it comes to lessons learned, they don’t fundamentally change the way in which the establishment Whitehall government works. Is that unfair? Do you think they can have a real impact?
Chris Cook: I think if you take a long look over the 20th century and you go back to things like the Griffiths report, which was the report into the collapse of Ronan Point – a block of flats – which thank goodness I think no one died actually, but it was a 22-storey building in Silvertown in east London, which just fell down basically because someone’s gas stove backfired. No one died basically, because it wasn’t yet full because it’s a brand new building.
The Griffiths report is from 1968, I think. And it’s a whitewash. Blokes come in who discuss the person whose oven wasn’t properly maintained. They discussed at great lengths, the maintenance of the oven. They talk about how it’s a bit of a shame that, you know, mistakes were made. All a bit of a shame. We shouldn’t do this any more, bit of a rum do.
And we still have several thousands of the buildings that are put up to the same design of Ronan Point, up around the UK today. We never really dealt with it.
These early inquiries have tended to be whitewashes. I mean, there may be some selection bias here because we only talk about the ones that we redo, but there was a long history of the, of the establishment, genuinely closing ranks.
And I can understand why when Lawrence started his work, why people would probably be a bit apprehensive about whether he would tell the truth because there was this long history of this stuff. But they have got better and better and better. I would also highlight the Freedom of Information act has an important role in this.
So, Hillsborough in particular, people put in FOI requests. People looked at the documents they’d asked for and had a: “Oh boy, like, Oh, okay. Okay. Like this is really bad.” And the, the process of being able to ask for the documents was part of the campaigning mechanism that people were able to use to build the case for the inquiry.
So, the inquiry was, it was effectively an outcrop of campaigning by FOI. It’s not just that we have a less deferential society than we had. We have a more open government than we had. We have higher standards about what we expect. Lawrence is able to go out in public without being abused because he’s done his job. And whereas actually, if he hadn’t done his job, he would be vilified.
Martin Moore Bick has high pressure because his name is well known. So, it’s a higher pressure society for engagement in public life than now, than it was 50 years ago. When the Griffiths report could come out and be a whitewash, when Widgery could come out and be a whitewash.
James: And Chris I meant to ask you just one question though. I would have to just follow up on Yvette’s point about McPherson and the Lawrence inquiry, which is this sense that actually things did change in government. That there are inquiries that do have a real-world impact. What are the circumstances, what are the terms of an inquiry that enable that to happen? Or is it simply the character of the people on them?
Chris: So, I think there are a few things. The most important one is that there’s actually a clear idea of what success would look like – Saville and Chilcot are harder inquiries because they’re not trying to solve a discrete problem that we can all agree as a problem, right? That is to say if you think that the problem was ever invading Iraq and that can never have worked, what are you going to learn from this?
Similarly, if you think the Operation Banner army operations in Northern Ireland were justified and important and they had to do what they had to do, there are a lot of people who could never be convinced on this stuff, right? You go and look right now in the Protestant villages for the soldier F banners, which are basically anti-Saville banners in effect, right?
The Grenfell inquiry has real chance to do something really good though, because it’s really clear we’re all against fire. We’re all really clear that we want this to never happen again. It’s a more straightforward, it’s obviously not a straightforward thing, but it’s more straightforward politically to coalesce around that.
The thing I’m really struck by with following the Grenfell inquiry though, is how little more we know now than we knew a month after the fire. That’s, I don’t mean to say that we don’t, you know, we’ve known we’ve learned an enormous amount and I don’t wish to depress Kate by suggesting that following the inquiry hasn’t been worthwhile.
But at the end of the first month, we kind of knew, yes, there were problems in relation to the management of the, of the organization, but whatever happened at Grenfell was a very specifically terrible problem. Failure of design regulation. Building that happened across the country. It’s a very extreme version of a national problem, exacerbated probably by the fact that we think that residents weren’t listened to with their genuine concerns weren’t heard. And I feel like we’re in the same place now.
James: Kate Lamble do you want to respond to that? And in particular, actually, do you want to respond to the, I suppose, the fundamental point I was putting to Chris, which is there’s this terrible phrase when public inquiries are called that we must sort of “lance the boil”. That somehow, you know, the sort of public’s fury must be addressed, but in the process, we may come up with the pedantic pursuit of the truth, but a fundamental diversion from justice that, you know, politically, this is convenient.
There’s a catharsis for the public, but nothing’s resolved. And I wonder whether in sitting at the inquiry, whether you have a view on that?
Kate: I think the first thing to say is that. If you were just using a public inquiry as a way to diffuse temporary anger, it’s not the world’s greatest plan because as of October to December, this year we know that we’re going to have to hear from the government who over many, many years made decisions about these regulations themselves.
There will be questions to Eric Pickles about the findings that they had from the Lakanal House inquest and why those weren’t acted on. There will be questions about the warnings that they had about the materials and the dangers that are there.
Well, we’ve heard in the inquiry that the DCLG as it then was – the Department of Communities and Local Government – knew that combustible materials were being marketed for high rise buildings at the time.
So, if you’re making a short-term decision in this way, having your findings examined in public in the national media is probably not the greatest plan.
More widely, I spend a lot of time talking to people to the bereaved to family members about what they want from the inquiry. And they mentioned three things: they mentioned truth. They say they want change. And they say they want justice to be seen to be done. Right?
The inquiry is limited in what change it can make, it can make recommendations, but it can’t make the change itself. It’s limited in justice being seen to be done because essentially what people mean by that is individuals in the dock, right?
And in the case of Grenfell, you’re much more likely to get corporate charges – fines for people. But when you talk to people, they also say that if they can’t see individuals in the dock, what they want is for a culture to be brought to light that caused this and the truth, that’s the truth. And that’s what’s important to people.
And they also talk about how important it is for them and the catharsis they get from being able to sit in a room and look people in the eyes as they give evidence. With the feeling that they can see that these people, as they give evidence, as they talk about the decisions they made, can see the people that they impacted through those decisions.
And they talk about how important that is. That’s why there’s a particular controversy about the inquiry going online, going virtually in the time of Covid at the moment, because people want to sit there and they want to make that eye contact.
James: Eamonn, do you recognize that? Do you recognize that there’s, there’s a social function to these public inquiries in terms of, you know, people that are, whether this was your experience in Saville people actually being able to recognize and, and be seen in their experience of campaigning for justice and truth?
Eamonn McCann: In general terms, yes. I mean, people did welcome the fact that they were heard. But on the other hand, I mean the Bloody Sunday inquiry was the most overtly political of any of the incidents that we’re talking about. It was a very considerable reflection with the population here in Derry, and they in the aftermath, regarded the soldiers, and some of the individuals, soldiers who were most, if you like, demonized by one side, [were regarded by the other side] of the community as being heroes.
From where I sit, I can see the soldier F flags. You know, with the parachute regiment’s insignia on them, flying around Derry. And if you go through and in some of the unionist villages, they’re festooned. And they either say it’s all lies and it’s completely innocent or, in greater numbers, they will say: “Whether he shot these people are not, there was a war on. And what about all the other atrocities which were committed?”
And that, of course it was a circular argument which could go on a forever. You know, if you’re looking for truth and justice, it seems to me that the one big thing missing after the Saville inquiry is that the fact that the higher up in the ranks that you go – both political and military – the less likely it is you have suffered in your reputation at all. And that’s, as I mentioned before, it results in soldier F as the one person, one person, a lance corporal.
And this has been said by some of the families who have campaigned for so long, and some of them are very anti British, it’s a constant thing and common thing to hear said around Derry that soldier F has been treated unfairly. The whole establishment – political and military – should bear responsibility for this, rather than one person.
So, when you say sort of it hasn’t reached the truth, it’s nuanced and complicated. You know, what truth do you want?
I mean, there’s just a prime minister of the day – Edward Heath – who in advance of the soldiers going ordered them across and then told the Lord Chief Justice, when you go there and conduct a new inquiry, remember that we are facing not just a military war, but a propaganda war that exposes the possibility that the whole thing’s a fit up.
You know? And I don’t believe, I don’t think it’s a waste of time. I think a lot of good came out of it. And so you can see why people would think that.
Lawrence: I mean, it’s a real problem with getting up the chain of command, even with Iraq. And part of that was because so many people and it’s such a turnover at the top with generals and brigadiers and so on.
Can I say something about the looking them in the eye?
One of the things that happened with our hearings, a lot of the officials and ambassadors, it so humanized them. I mean, you know, these are people, you could see these people have been wrestling with really difficult problems. And were upset about what had happened and you know, wanted their story down.
James: And your point is that that humanizes both those in authority, those in power and humanizes, those who’ve been victims who suffered there, that there’s a value to that?
Lawrence: You’re not going to have a problem humanizing the people who’ve suffered. What you realize is people in authority don’t necessarily have as much authority as you think they have – and that they would like to have.
One of the things that happened after the inquiry is the Edinburgh festival. They had this sort of tent where people went in for an hour and they read it and they have their thoughts. I couldn’t get to the festival early enough to participate in this, but I chatted to the people who’ve done it and they find it fascinating. People will say they understood a lot better when they read about the bureaucratic comings and goings, how this happened was a “bad day in the office” sort of thing. People look at the conspiracies and sometimes they’re there and people have plotted, but a lot of the time they’ve just screwed up. Or, things have just got too difficult
James: On that note, Lawrence, we are, as you suspected earlier in the conversation, this discussion is to a purpose. Which is: there is a debate now about the need for a Covid inquiry. It’s no secret say, I think that a Covid inquiry is sorely needed, but as I thought about it more, the more I’ve worried about whether or not it serves a political purpose, but doesn’t end up serving the public.
And so I wondered whether given everyone’s different experience of this, if you were thinking about, you know, Yvette’s point at the top. So much depends on the terms of reference that are set for this inquiry and the requirements that are made of it. If you were framing a Covid inquiry now, how would you do it?
And I might, if it’s alright to start with you, Lawrence, having been through Chilcot. If you were thinking now about a Covid inquiry, what would you expect of it? And when?
Lawrence: So, in some ways it’s already started. There’s masses of stuff. Select committees have produced reports. There’s no shortage of material.
What I would do. I would have something, as I mentioned before, that was pretty, open, agile, flexible and would have different streams. It wouldn’t be a single inquiry. You’d have a number of inquiries under the same umbrella: looking at the provision of equipment and perhaps looking at contracts, looking, at why there were problems with testing and tracing. Looking at..oh, you know why things went right with the vaccination. There are good stories in this as well as bad.
So, I think you could set it up quite quickly. I think you would give it a lot of different tasks and you’d have different bits doing that. And then some overall control putting it all together and producing reports as they went along.
James: Chris Cook.
Chris: So, I mean, I think I’d agree with Lawrence. Also, I’d also be quite optimistic that it could be effective. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be, particularly if large portions of it were effectively operational questions. There are lots of things about this that are…lots of the conclusions will be sort of technical. They won’t be apolitical, but they will be conducive to being sort of accepted by all parties.
I am quite optimistic about getting a good inquiry out of Grenfell to actually. So I reported on the day of the fire, there’s this thing called Reynobond, PE 50, which is this aluminum clad paneling that goes on the outside. There’s this thing called cladding.
You know, I spent the day of the fire looking at other fires should so sort of check my instinct that this was the thing. And there was this parallel set of reporting going on, which was basically taking the testimony of people like Yvette, actually, who had r eally strong clues about what they thought was going on and what happened.
We were kind of on different tracks, a lot of reporters and a lot of the local people about what we were investigating. But I feel like over the last few years, we’ve got closer and closer and closer together.
James: Chris thank you. Yvette, do you want to respond to that? The idea that actually through the process, through the process of reporting, through the process of discussion, but even through the public inquiry process, people are coming together around an understanding of what happened.
I’d love you to answer that, and I’d also really be interested to hear how you would draft the terms of a Covid inquiry.
Yvette: I do think people are coming together more in terms of their thinking, but I think Grenfell is going to miss a huge piece of what needs addressing in our society. You have to understand that the people that lived in Grenfell, the former residents, and also the victims, the majority of the victims are from African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian backgrounds and large Muslim demographic in there as well.
And if you look at how they’re treated in society, just generally. Those people, the lens they look through they have no confidence at all in establishment or government. They see it, you know, that old school network, but you know, jobs and profits for their mates, all that kind of stuff. And I think the Grenfell inquiry had a moment, to change that.
James: But, but what you, what you describe of it is exactly what people will suspect happens in the Covid inquiry. So how do you make sure that that doesn’t happen?
Yvette: Right. So I wrote some things down and she was going along. I think the first thing is, think about the chair that you’ve put in and the panel. It’d be good to see a diverse panel.
When we ask for diverse panels, we don’t mean just put in any Black or Brown face. We’d want somebody with lived experience. I think there’s a whole socioeconomic piece. I’m looking at where the key workers were. And I think that also brings up for me race again, especially off the back of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Why we’re still in a society where disproportionately Black and Asian and minority ethnic communities come off the worst.
James: And Kate Lamble sitting, as you do, listening to the Grenfell inquiry.
If you can imagine your next assignment sitting, listening to the COVID inquiry, how should it be run?
Kate: So, I think one thing that made a big difference at the Grenfell inquiry to increase confidence was at the beginning, it held pen portraits. People were able to come up, talk about the loved ones that they lost and to put them at the center.
So, I still remember from the very beginning, every time I hear technical evidence, I think about the person that I know who loves Steven Seagal movies, or the person I know who was a great cook. Or, you know, the person I know who’s involved in sound system at carnival. That sticks with people and is very important for putting people and those it affected at the center of things. We’ve heard about speed, about rolling recommendations being important, about it being important for an inquiry to have teeth.
But I also think, Chris talked about how at the beginning, sort of in the days after the fire, he was like, “Oh, I did some Googling. I figured out was the cladding kind of hasn’t changed.” For me, I disagree.
The detail that inquiries have, even though speed is important is also essential. The detail that the inquiry goes into allows you to go through the 999 calls and the advice that was given to people on a case by case basis. And that allows us to understand why it’s really important that actually 999 callers were never given training of how to give advice to people with English as an additional language. The training and the implementation of that, that we know can make a difference is very important. And that’s why detail is important.
So, I also produced more or less the Radio 4 series. And during the Covid crisis, I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of pieces on testing. I can tell you practically everything about it. The suggestion that we would go into public inquiry, and I would find out a detail that I didn’t already know is unbelievable, right?
We have to take the time to understand it. It’s frustrating and it’s part of the process, but it’s one of the most fundamental issues of getting to the truth.
James: Kate thank you.
Before I try and pull it all together, I just want to come back for one final thought from you Yvette. And it goes back to the initial question that I asked about whether truth and justice are different things.
I think we’ve talked a fair bit about what the truth might end up looking like in terms of the Grenfell inquiry. What would justice look like?
Yvette: Oh, I think let’s still go back a little bit. I think there was still something in “justice delayed is justice denied.” I can understand that the inquiry is uncovering a lot, but why could a criminal investigation not have uncovered the same things?
And then the implementation of the recommendations? So, the bereaved families, they can’t bring their loved ones back. So,they need something to hold on to. And I think that is a clear for me, a clear picture of justice.
James: Thank you. The nature of these ThinkIns is they’re rather like an editorial conference at the end of it.
You’re trying to at least hope you’ll come out with a clearer, certainly a better informed point of view.
I certainly have that and actually in my own way I have to say thank you because I’ve also got a better sense of what I think about public inquiries. I’ve had, as I suppose you could hear, the sense that when you call for public inquiry, you should do so with a heavy heart.
Not just because you’re investigating a tragic event. But because you know, the risks of a public inquiry. That there’s a possibility that you are going to diffuse the immediate public anger and delay the answers for a good long time.
You know, that there is a risk and you’ve got to be extremely alive to the possibility that you’re going to disrupt the potential of going to court. That the criminal justice process is going to in some way, be interrupted by the public inquiry itself.
And I think the point that Eamonn and, and Lawrence made – and it’s obviously particularly clear and the case of Grenfell too – that this chain of command point, this higher ups point. That rather than exposing the powerful, in some way this blizzard of detail will somehow so contextualize the crisis, the tragedy, the terrible event, that rather than exposing the powerful it exonerates them.
And so, I suppose I’m much, much more reluctant when I think about public inquiries to call for them as kind of readily as many journalists do.
But I would come away with two really big and helpful thoughts.
One is I think the distinction that you made Yvette between a public inquiry and a government inquiry is really significant here. And I suppose if we’re looking to a Covid inquiry, when the government itself is the subject of the investigation, we really need to think about what are the guarantors that this is the public’s inquiry, not quote unquote, “a public inquiry”.
And then the second thing that I found extremely helpful: these distinctions that Kate made about truth, justice and change. And that those three things are of course different and their interests are not all necessarily equally served by a public inquiry. Change is important of itself. But if there’s not coordination between the inquiry and government, it’s a problem.
Truth might only be in the end, partially served. And I take, Eamonn, your point that we’d be naive to think we end up with a consensus, you know, there’s still going to be polarization. There’s still going to be what-aboutery.
But I do appreciate the value of, you know, what Lawrence called a “reliable account”, right? Because it means that the world is less susceptible to untruths in the future and, and less susceptible to lies, becoming accepted as facts. So I think there’s something very valuable.
I still feel that the real issue here around public inquiries is the issue that we began with, that it may advance the cause of truth, but it might hold up delay or deny the possibility of justice.
And I think that’s the most difficult thing about the conversation we’ve had today, but I hope that it’s been interesting for you to compare notes on public inquiries. It’s certainly been fascinating for me in terms of thinking about getting a better understanding. So finally, I just wanted to say a big thank you to Chris, to Eamonn, to Lawrence, to Kate, to Yvette.
Thank you for making the time to have this conversation and be part of this ThinkIn.
Since we’ve recorded this ThinkIn, I’ve kept coming back to that point of Yvette’s about public inquiries really being government inquiries. It’s made me think more about how to make them independent, but at the same time, ensure that they’re not ineffectual. Ensure that they really are joined up and they have an effect or what happens to institutions and to government. I guess that’s the task of the Covid inquiries to make sure they’re independent, but not ineffectual
Thank you so much for listening. As you’ll know, this ThinkIn came out of a series that we held in our newsroom at Tortoise, a series of ThinkIns on the Battle for Truth. We hold ThinkIns everyday at Tortoise, you can easily book them in the app. And our thinking, our journalism, is better informed by your involvement and engagement.
I really appreciate how much our members are helping us get a better, deeper, more thoughtful understanding of the world and the times that we’re in. Look forward to seeing you at a ThinkIn soon.
Thank you for listening to the Battle for Truth. I’m James Harding. My producer is Katie Gunning. Tom Kinsella wrote the original music, and its a podcast from Tortoise Studios, which is run by Ceri Thomas.