So, did Hutton get the law wrong? Greg Dyke thinks so. In an interview on The Today Programme last Friday (30 January), he said: “I don’t accept all the report. Our legal team were all very surprised by the nature of the report.” Hutton was “quite clearly wrong” on some points of law, Dyke later added.
This, dear readers, is what is called giving a story legs. It may not surprise you to learn that most journalists – while acknowledging the BBC’s errors – are baffled by Hutton’s conclusions. The depth of disquiet among senior lawyers at Hutton’s conclusions was striking.
As Lord Lester told us last week: “I’d be very surprised that anyone who practises in media or libel law would think that Hutton got it right.”
So which points are in dispute? Log on to www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk and check out paragraphs 280 and 282. Here’s an extract from paragraph 280: “The right to communicate… information is subject to the qualification… that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media.” Hutton then goes on to cite Reynolds v Times Newspapers.
BBC supporters retort that Reynolds confirmed the defence of qualified privilege; that the media can publish information that subsequently turns out to be untrue, provided it has acted responsibly. It’s the ‘acting responsibly’ part where the BBC is weaker – but then, most journalists would argue that the BBC’s actions should be seen in their totality, to borrow a phrase.
(There is, by the way, a minor irony in the fact that Clifford Chance, which acted for Reuters on the Interbrew case, is now on the other side of the argument as solicitors to the Hutton Inquiry.)
Whatever your feelings on Hutton, it’s undeniable that inquiries have become embedded (to borrow another post-Iraq word) into the politico-judicial culture. They may be much more transparent nowadays, but whatever happened to day-to-day accountability of the Government? Whatever happened to those unfashionable mechanisms of select committees, parliamentary questions, a decent freedom of information act and a robust and uncowed media?
It’s taken several months and £2m in lawyers’ fees to find out that the Government was apparently blameless. It’s just a shame that Blair never issued a libel claim in the first place. At least he would have been cross-examined – something that signally failed to happen during the inquiry. What would a jury have found, I wonder?