THERE WAS a time when governments would announce an official inquiry to kick a crisis into the long grass. After a decent interval the “crisis” would reappear with a brief media flurry around a report which could usually be safely ignored.
The last couple of years have seen a sea change in this age-old political expediency. The Leveson Inquiry, with its televised proceedings dominated by some of the biggest names in British political and cultural life, intensified the crisis over press ethics rather than defused it.
What transformed the phone hacking saga was the Guardian revelation in July 2011 that the News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone of the dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler back in 2002. Up to that single, shocking moment phone hacking had been essentially a media affair.
Then came the ITV Exposure programme in October 2012 which, instantly, shattered the reputation of Sir Jimmy Savile. What was so shocking about Savile, who died in October 2011, was that most of the population shared the view that he was an eccentric character whose lifetime’s charitable work more than made up for his strangeness.
When it was revealed that a planned BBC Newsnight item on child abuse allegations against Savile had been shelved in October 2011, all hell broke loose. The BBC denied the decision was influenced by scheduled tribute programmes to the dead disc jockey planned for the Christmas schedule — but many were openly sceptical.
“Savilisation” was born — a fear of being accused of any kind of cover-up.
IN NOVEMBER last year, Newsnight broadcast the now notorious item in which abuse victim Stephen Messham was allowed to accuse an unnamed senior Conservative politician of sexually assaulting him while he was in care.
The social network site Twitter swiftly identified the politician as Lord McAlpine who responded to the false accusations by legally pursuing all-and-sundry.
David Cameron moved swiftly to dispel any whiff of cover-up — ever since the phone hacking scandal forced him to dismiss his communications chief and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister has been on the defensive in these situations.
Even after it was realised that Stephen Messham had made a mistake, Cameron remained committed to the North Wales inquiries.
These two inquiries have transformed the Rebecca Television (RTV) series The Case of the Flawed Tribunal. When the series was published last year, the response was zero.
Now the situation is reversed. In November, following a question from Paul Flynn in the Commons, the series became headline news on ITV in Wales. (It was largely ignored by BBC Wales but of that more later).
The RTV series will now feature in the two inquiries.
The first of these is a review of child abuse allegations in the 1970s and 1980s, headed by Keith Bristow, director general of the newly-created National Crime Agency. This will focus on allegations that may not have been properly investigated at the time.
The second, a review of the work of the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal, is to be carried out by High Court judge Mrs Justice Macur.
The question is — how deep will the two new inquiries go? In other words, as far as North Wales goes, has the “Savilisation” effect already worn off?
The government will be sorry they launched these inquiries which, if they had waited just a few days, would never have taken place.
Will they, briefly, go through the motions and come to the conclusion that, after all, everything was done properly?
Hopefully not. Rebecca Television has written to Keith Bristow, the detective in charge of Operation Pallial, which is investigating if child abuse allegations were properly investigated in the 1970s and 1980s.
We’ve also written to Mrs Justice Macur, who’s job is to check that the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal did its job properly.
We want to make sure the Rebecca Television material is considered properly.
But the stakes are high. If Bristow and Macur conclude that there are grounds for a deeper investigation into what happened, the government is going to be faced with a difficult dilemma.
The obvious route is to order another Tribunal to investigate the first Tribunal. The first one cost £14 million — a new one will cost even more.
There’s a precedent, of course — Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday. The first Tribunal, under Lord Justice Widgery, was fatally tarred by accusations that it was an exercise designed to clear the SAS of charges that they had killed innocent civilians.
The second Tribunal, under Justice Saville, cost more than £200 million and concluded that the soldiers had, indeed, gunned down unarmed demonstrators.
The Rebecca Television series shows that there are plenty of questions to be answered. When Paul Flynn asked Theresa May if she would read this material, she assured him that police would be looking into these allegations.