Your recent article ‘Getting at the naked truth’ raises interesting points about the merits of public inquiries.
It is quite correct that a long-term increase in government accountability has driven a boom in public inquiries. This has coincided, however, with a widespread decline in public confidence in a range of institutions. One survey found public confidence in each of the media, business and charities fell by more than 10% last year alone. Under these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that maintaining trust and confidence is now a major challenge to every public inquiry and why, increasingly, the conduct of an inquiry itself comes under intense scrutiny.
For those who have fought long and hard to be heard, a public inquiry is much more than a fact-finding exercise. It is a chance to achieve catharsis, to get some vindication and reassurance, and to see public accountability. No public inquiry has these outcomes in its terms of reference, but chairs, secretaries, solicitors and counsel would be all be well-advised to explore ways of delivering them, where possible.
It is inevitable that people who have campaigned for years (or in the case of the blood scandal, decades) will come to ‘their’ inquiry with high expectations. It is equally inevitable that not all expectations can be met. Transparency, however, is one area where all public inquiries should strive to deliver. By definition, people who have suffered, been failed and then, for a prolonged period of time, have not received the answers they were entitled to, will need to be shown and not just told that the truth is finally coming out.
A traditional communications approach is not always compatible with a statutory legal process. But it is vital that inquiries do what they can to demystify a process which baffles journalists (let alone the general public), to give the law and the facts the best possible chance of speaking for themselves and to avoid replicating the type of secrecy which core participants may associate with the institutions that failed them.
Balancing the needs of the law with the needs of public opinion is rarely easy. But a way must be found to mitigate the risks of an inquiry losing the very trust and confidence it was set up to restore. Good communications can support the legal process in achieving this.
Charlotte Phillips, director of communications, Crest Advisory, London