Unveiling The Truth: Philip Schofield, The Covid-19 Public Inquiry And The Critical Role Of Communications

Posted by: on Jun 2, 2023 | No Comments

When politicians or leadership teams want to be seen to be dealing with a crisis then they often reach for an independent inquiry. But too often the reality of what conducting an inquiry means is not considered. Not least the role that communications plays at every stage.

Starting out

ITV has recently launched an inquiry into how it handled the issue with Philip Schofield. Writing about the announcement in his blog, Joshua Rozenberg cites previous comments by the review’s chair, Jane Mulcahy KC, about how to set up an inquiry. In these situations, there is a far degree of flexibility in the establishment of the inquiry.

The position of the Covid-19 public inquiry is different. It is a statutory inquiry and has the backing of an Act in all it does. That has not though stopped the government already getting into a ‘spat’ over the release of information to the inquiry.

But some of the challenges are consistent and these often relate to communications. However, the importance of communications in such inquiries is frequently underestimated or disregarded.

The announcement of an inquiry may offer relief from some immediate poor media coverage and show to consumers, regulators, voters, politicians and others that everyone is taking the issue seriously.

ITV have fallen into the classic trap of allowing the Schofield story to develop over a period of weeks and then keeping the story by announcing an inquiry.

Some argue that the government was compelled to launch a public inquiry addressing all the issues related to Covid-19. But thinking back, it was not clear they would, what format it would take, what it would cover and what its timescale would be. Even now, the possibly most damaging, from the government’s perspective, issues around care homes will not be considered until after the next General Election.

Both the government and ITV felt compelled to take action because of the pressure applied on them from various audiences not least through the media.

Role of communications

The role of communications will continue throughout any inquiry.

1) establishment – any terms of inquiry, choices of chair etc all have to balance the needs of audiences and ‘prove’ how effective it will be. Even how those basic building blocks are explained are important in providing reassurance.

2) release of information – the format will vary depending on the inquiry. A public inquiry can have public hearings and the formal release of information. An independent inquiry will have to deal with comments being made throughout by those with an opinion, whether informed or not… In other words, there will be a constant battle throughout proceedings. Inquiries often face ongoing challenges and external commentary that demand attention throughout the process.

3) the final report and recommendations – an organisation may be fortunate and the final report may not receive much public attention but it is likely that it will, especially in these cases. Some senior executives can feel uncomfortable airing their dirty laundry in public but such a public break with previous bad behaviour or processes may be what is needed and is certainly part of what was implicitly agreed to when an inquiry was initially agreed to.

For the Covid-19 inquiry, any mistakes may have been made by one government but might have to be rectified by another.

The final report necessitates a response, and any recommended changes must be carefully considered and either accepted or rejected. If they are rejected then an explanation as to why will be needed. If they are accepted then things will need to change and a process put in place to help implement that change. The worst possible outcome is when changes are recommended and then not delivered on. That is playing Russian roulette with a reputation and the implications could be worse still when thinking about the issues a public inquiry considers.

It is crucial and non-negotiable that the recommendations are listened to. That failure has been laid at the door of previous public inquiries but given that there is a wide expectation that another pandemic could happen, that cannot happen with this inquiry.


So, any inquiry needs a programme of engagement and it has to recognise the need for constant vigilance around its communications and that of others.

While an inquiry may help mitigate criticism and serve as a necessary step, it does not automatically make scrutiny and issues disappear.

An inquiry is not a short cut to a clean slate and communications has a critical role throughout.