Gearty on Hutton

by Chris Bertram on February 9, 2004

Human rights barrister Conor Gearty stole the show at the recent Oxford Political Thought Conference, with a brilliant, witty and well-informed speech. He has an “article on Hutton”: in the new London Review of Books. His view doesn’t exactly coincide with my own, but it is a fascinating look at the changing public reputation of judges, their relations with the media, why this judge and not that one gets picked for an inquiry. It is hard to decide on the most quotable bit, so this will have to do:

bq. One of the more mystifying aspects of the Hutton process was the media’s treatment of Hutton himself, before the publication of his report, as an Olympian demigod, hovering above the fray, fastidious in his search for truth and justice. His appearance and extraordinary accent have helped; the media love caricature, and here was a judge who seemed to have walked into the limelight directly from the 1950s. But underpinning the blind trust that was placed in him, and which has now rebounded so badly, was a more general enthusiasm for the judiciary which is all the more remarkable for having been so recently acquired and for being (as far as the commitment to media freedom is concerned) largely without foundation.

bq. It is not so long ago that judges were the most maligned group in the entire body politic. Their naked partisanship during the miners’ strike, the Spycatcher debacle, and then the succession of miscarriage of justice cases of the late 1980s and early 1990s had established the senior judiciary in the eyes of most people (and particularly in the eyes of the media) as inclined to authoritarianism, unaccountable in their exercise of power and entirely out of touch. The refusal of judges to give any interviews, under cover of antiquated ‘rules’ which a long forgotten lord chancellor had invented, compounded the sense that they were all, or almost all, malevolent recluses.



Kieran Healy 02.09.04 at 8:16 pm

Gearty is a past winner of the Irish Times Debating Competition, so it’s no surprise that he’s brilliant, witty and well-informed. Cough.


jam 02.10.04 at 12:46 am

It is, of course, difficult to judge from 3000 miles away. But my impression during the hearings was that Hutton was allowing a fairly wide range of evidence in. This presumably gave rise to both the image of a “fastidious search for truth and justice” and an expectation he would use the evidence in his findings; an expectation which was rather thoroughly dashed when the report came out. Hence the backlash.


Lwandile 02.10.04 at 6:14 am

I, too, enjoyed Gearty’s piece. I’m rather surprised that (as Gearty reports him anyway) Hutton got the Reynolds case wrong. I’ll have to read both the case and the relevant parts of the Hutton’s report.


nick 02.10.04 at 8:51 pm

Regarding your introduction of this piece Chris: “His view doesn’t exactly coincide with my own….” I would have been interested to know how your view differs.

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