The clampdown came following an overheard conversation in an Italian restaurant, south of the river in Lambeth, London. Someone had mentioned that they were working on a public inquiry. Nothing about the contents was revealed – but the fact that this report was being worked on in an office building not far from the restaurant was clear from what was overheard.
This story may be slightly apocryphal but the ‘double injunction’ rule that resulted from the incident makes perfect sense. Since then, while working on a high-security report, it is stated that we should neither reveal any detail about that report (as covered by the Official Secrets Act) nor should we mention that we’re even working on a public inquiry report while outside the locked ‘secret room’ set aside for our work.
This led to a system of code names for reports – we went through most of the shipping forecast areas in my tenure at the Civil Service. Unfortunately I can’t tell you the system we use for picking code names now – at least not until I retire.
By my count, I have worked on or managed the editorial teams for at least 12 public inquiry reports over the last 17 years. We edited, copy-edited and proofread; we checked HTML or web-accessible PDF versions; we looked at how evidence was organised and presented for publication; and we advised on ‘volumisation’ (how complex reports are split), navigation (how readers could best find their way), and planning an effective and efficient editorial process.
These public inquiries made headlines across the world when they were published; they have been the subject of hundreds of hours of debate in the Houses of Parliament and have established or destroyed countless reputations of public and private figures. They have been simultaneously the most challenging and the most rewarding projects of my career so far. Below I’ve set out what I have learned over two decades of work on highly sensitive public inquiry material.
Make sure you’re prepared
For any editorial project, better preparation will reap benefits but this is particularly obvious on a large, complex, multi-author report or suite of reports. Every editing or proofreading decision can have a huge knock-on effect when you’re working across hundreds of thousands of words – or in the case of the Iraq Inquiry, 2.6 million words. So, the more issues around style, formatting, grammar and the preferences of the authors/inquiry lead you can lock down before starting work, the better.
Sometimes the contents are so sensitive that we’re not able to look at any sample text before working on a report but, when we are able to do that, an audit of the text before starting can be enormously helpful. I spent two days reviewing the draft version of the Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, to identify issues that might come up, so that we had many editorial queries resolved before we even began to proofread.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry proofreading team papered the walls of our secret room with A3 paper which included guidance on capitalisation, preferred spellings, formatting (especially for images/captions) and cross-references. Any changes simply meant removing and updating a section of the word-stuffed wallpaper. (Of course, sensitive information was not plastered on the walls but locked in the cabinet in the locked secret room, which had blinds permanently pulled down.)
Prevent leaks at all costs
As well as not talking about working on a report, it’s really important not to leave any proofs on a train or send an email about it to all your contacts. Both of these horrible mistakes have happened – thankfully not to anyone in my teams – and it can have far-reaching consequences if material gets into the public domain before it’s been finalised.
However experienced you are, a thorough risk assessment and a leak-proof process are crucial. Again, these need to be locked in before starting any work. We’ve moved on a bit from A3 wallpaper now, so this has to include all electronic communications, platforms and processes. This could mean using encrypted email and file transfer services, secure couriers, secure rooms with no access to personal devices or any device connected to the internet, and a crystal-clear policy for any communications required by those working on the report. I still have an encrypted ‘IronKey’ USB in my office drawer; all the material has been wiped from it but I don’t remember the password now so if I try to open it the contents will ‘self-destruct’.
The importance of names
I tend to bang on about the importance of names quite a bit. This is a direct result of all the public inquiries I’ve worked on. The reports tend to name a lot of people, and they are often people who’ve died, who’ve lost someone very close to them, or who have experienced a horrific tragedy. It is a sign of respect to name them accurately throughout the report pertaining to the incident that has affected them.
We work on a names list – again very early on in the process – to make sure we know everyone that’s named in the report and their preferred spelling, title, pronoun etc. For me, the names list is the most important thing: while all the mechanics of report publishing are involved and need to be right, public inquiries exist to understand why bad things happened to some people and to try to prevent those things happening again, and those who were directly affected are usually the first people to read them. This is why I make sure that my team and I approach this information with the respect it deserves.
Being entrusted with the task of guiding these extremely sensitive publications into the public domain is a very great honour and it’s incredibly rewarding knowing that this work, although stressful at the time, will be a vital part of the historical record for generations to come.
Image by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash