At the top of the BBC, a post-factum justification for the trials and tribulations of the Hutton inquiry is gaining currency. This week, a senior executive directly involved in the inquiry told me that "the process has lifted the lid on government". His argument went like this: without the bruising confrontation between Downing Street and Broadcasting House, the nation would never have seen e- mails and documents that have exposed the inner workings of government to unprecedented scrutiny. Hutton has made freedom of information a reality. The public interest has been well served.
However, not everyone agrees. Dr David Miller of the Stirling Media Research Institute says: "It is absolutely plain that we are not getting to the bottom of the Government's case for war with Iraq. We are getting freedom of information on the narrow terms of the inquiry, but Hutton has not extended those terms much. In this case, for the BBC to pose as a defender of the public interest is clearly disingenuous."
The claim may be disingenuous. It certainly ignores the real causes of the controversy. But is it untrue? Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says: "Hutton has provided a real insight into the workings of this Government. This is the first time we have had this level of disclosure since this Government came to power. The frankness of what has come out has surprised me. We have seen the editing comments on the draft dossier. We have seen Jonathan Powell [the Downing Street chief of staff] expressing doubts. You don't see Jonathan Powell's views expressed in public very often. That is revealing. This is stuff that you would not normally get to see for 30 years."
Paul Wilkinson, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, is more cautious. "We are learning a considerable amount about the inner workings of the Prime Minister's office. But government is a lot more than that. To get a complete picture we would need to see how individual departments work. We do not yet know how the personalities of individual ministers interacted to shape decisions. A genuine freedom of information regime would provide that. The Hutton inquiry is the best that can be achieved without a freedom of information regime, but a genuinely liberal information regime would produce a great deal more."
Maurice Frankel warns against any assumption that the new freedom of information legislation due to come into force in January 2005 will create such a system. "The Act contains a general exclusion covering anything relating to the formulation of government policy. Ministers are likely to take the view that the public interest is not served by releasing the details of communications between Alastair Campbell and [the Joint Intelligence Committee chairman] John Scarlett."
So, has Hutton opened up government more fully than will be the case under the new legislation? Professor Richard Aldrich of the University of Nottingham is an expert on the workings of the British security services. He identifies key omissions in the evidence presented to Lord Hutton. "I have not seen any raw intelligence traffic at all. I'd love to see the files on this that were generated by MI5. There will be MI5 files."
Aldrich says that previous inquiries have got closer than Hutton to the core of Britain's secret state. "During the Scott inquiry [into the sale of arms to Iraq] some material that was close to raw intelligence did emerge. The other example is the International War Crimes Commission in The Hague. …