Many years ago, back in 1971, the publishing magnate Robert Maxwell was forced to resign his position on the board of directors of the Oxford-based publishing company Pergamon Press, following suggestions of malfeasance in connection with his role during an attempted strategic takeover of the company. A Department of Trade and Industry inquiry into the buyout of Pergamon declared Maxwell ‘unfit to hold the stewardship of a public company.’
Given the fact that we are talking about a man who subsequently went on to loot the pension funds of his company to pay off debts at the Mirror Group, hindsight might credit the DTI with some considerable prescience. Nevertheless this was not how things seemed at the time. The litigious Maxwell took the DTI to court, and in 1971, Justice Forbes ruled that the DTI inspectors ‘had moved from an inquisitorial role to an accusatory one and virtually committed the business murder of Mr Maxwell’.
As a result Maxwell’s reputation survived the inquiry. He regained his seat on the board and went onto to engage in the sleazy financial practices that subsequently made him famous. This obscure investigation into a scientific and medical publishing company nevertheless gave rise to a new legal process known as ‘Maxwellisation’, in which the objects of public inquiries were given advance notice of any criticisms directed against them, in order to forestall the possibility of Maxwellesque legal action, and allow named individuals to respond privately before such criticisms were made public.
In the last twelve months the British public has become depressingly familiar with the concept of Maxwellisation, as a result of the Chilcot Inquiry’s extraordinarily protracted attempt to conclude its six-year inquiry into the Iraq war. Until last year, we were led to believe that the main reason for the delay in the publication of the report was the Inquiry’s attempt to wrest key documents from the British civil service. Recently, it was revealed that Sir John Chilcot and his team have been engaged in a process of Maxwellisation with some of the individuals criticized in the report, and that some of these individuals have brought their lawyers in.
This is – or ought to be -something to make collective jaws drop. Remember that the Chilcot Inquiry was not a judicial investigation. It had no power to subpoena individuals or documents. If people didn’t want to appear before it they didn’t have to. If certain departments didn’t want to hand over documents, all the Inquiry could do was haggle and say please.
Whatever the conclusions of the report, no one will face any legal charges as a result of them. Only their reputations will be at stake. Yet the individuals who have been Maxwellised are allowed to respond to the report’s conclusions with lawyers, and the Inquiry will change its conclusions as a result. And even more incredibly, according to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, the public will never know which individuals have been Maxwellised, or the original criticisms that were directed against them, or the modifications that may have been made to these criticisms as a result of intervention by their lawyers!
There might be an argument for a process like this in inquiries into business practices that don’t involve explicitly criminal behavior – even if such inquiries are directed at a sleazy and disreputable figure like Robert Maxwell. But illegal wars of aggression are quite another matter. The issues involved here go way beyond the issue of individual reputation, or the supposed need to protect civil servants and governments from future scrutiny that has been cited as a justification for Maxwellisation in this case.
There is no greater betrayal of public trust than for a government to wage war on false or manipulated pretenses, and no greater violation of democratic accountability and transparency. If a government can do such a thing, and get away with it, then it can get away with anything, and the Maxwellisation of the Chilcot Inquiry is a grotesque and feeble travesty that makes it very likely that those responsible for the Iraq War will get away with it and will be allowed to shape public understanding of what took place in accordance with their own priorities.
There have been suggestions in the British press in recent weeks that Maxwellisation was primarily aimed at Tony Blair. Today the Guardian revealed that the Inquiry has broadened its criticisms to include individuals outside Blair’s inner circle such as Clare Short, Jack Straw and Richard Dearlove. The notion that these individuals are outside Blair’s inner circle is certainly questionable, but the Guardian report nevertheless suggestions that Blair’s Maxwellisation has already begun to produce results, declaring:
‘While Blair will bear the brunt of the report’s criticism, one source said it would suit the former prime minister to see a wide range of targets blamed when it is published.’
This is not exactly surprising. Blair, like the Bush/Cheney clique, has always tried to take the line that ‘everyone is responsible therefore no one is guilty’ as a justification for the war, and the widening of the Inquiry’s criticisms would certainly help promote this narrative. And of course these new criticisms must also be subjected to Maxwell’s silver hammer, since:
‘The wide circle of people facing criticism is cited as one of the reasons for the delay. As part of the process, every individual to be criticised is sent draft passages giving them an opportunity to comment. Some of those who have received drafts have expressed surprise, having regarded themselves as peripheral to the events leading up to the invasion.’
All of which will lead to more delays. After all:
‘Chilcot wants to ensure that those criticised are given every opportunity to rebut the criticism. He does not want to give them an excuse to take legal action or attack the inquiry after the final report has been published.’
This is not exactly a ringing and courageous declaration of independence. An Inquiry worth anything would not be concerned about legal action because it would have evidence to support its conclusions. It would not be afraid of being attacked by the people that it has criticized because that is what happens when you criticize powerful people.
Chilcot’s pathetic reluctance to take these risks suggests a very different attitude, that might be more appropriate for examining a poor England Ashes tour or a village fete that failed to sell enough muffins and tea cakes. The more the dismal process goes on, the more it screams one word: whitewash.
But whatever happens, according to the Guardian:
‘The final report will not include the number of people who have been sent drafts containing criticism. The public may not know to what extent Chilcot has toned down his criticism in response to objections.’
So at the end of it all, we won’t know who was criticized, or what they said in response, or how the Inquiry responded to what they said. And all this thanks to a sleazy tycoon who showed that litigious rich men can get away with much more than anyone else.
Isn’t British democracy grand?