The David Kelly affair and the Hutton inquiry

THIS MORNING A LARGE  flock of journalists and a small contingent of the public crowded into room 73 in the Royal Courts of Justice in order to observe the resumption of the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly.

The reason that these proceedings are likely to prove so fascinating has perhaps been put best by Peter Oborne, the political correspondent of the Spectator

Kelly’s death has had the same effect as switching on the lights during a game of murder in the dark. It has caught ministers and officials in postures and in places where they were never meant to be seen. It has demonstrated how Whitehall works under New Labour. It has catapulted the row over the British government’s use of intelligence before the Iraq war into a new dimension. This is now a classic political scandal … 

Oborne’s brilliant murder-in-the-dark analogy could be taken even further; it is not only the workings of Whitehall which have been illuminated but the attitude of an entire society towards honesty and deception in public life. There are, in consequence, many lessons to be learned from the affair and it seems important that these should be drawn out and stated clearly. 

Most people seem content to wait for Lord Hutton to compile his report and to defer discussion of the real issues until that time. However, the main outline of the story is tolerably clear already and it may be that some good will be done if the story is told now in as much detail as is available.

One additional reason for such seeming impatience is that, as well as being notorious for exceeding their predicted duration,  judicial inquiries have always been, and are likely always to remain, primarily an instrument of government. In 1966 the Salmon Commission, which had been set up to review the tribunal system, declared that only a ‘nation-wide crisis of confidence’ should be investigated by a statutory Tribunal of Inquiry.

The implications of this should be clear. Whenever a judicial inquiry is set up it has a particular purpose. That purpose is not to make a public crisis of confidence deeper. It is to shore up a government which might otherwise be under threat. One does not have to be a fiery radical, an anarchist or a subversive to arrive at this conclusion. Just such a view was stated boldly at the beginning of an article in last week’s Economist: ‘When prime ministers are in trouble they call for a judge to bail them out.’

It may well be that the chosen judge will not actually perform this function in quite the way that the government of the day might hope. In setting up any such judicial inquiry a government is therefore almost always taking a calculated risk.  It could be in this case that Lord Hutton will confound the doubters and produce a report which is not only robust and penetrating but which actually brings about the downfall of the government which commissioned it. All that can be said in this regard is that, were he to do so, he would also confound the entire history of the inquiry system.

The Hutton inquiry is not, of course, a statutory tribunal of inquiry. Nor are the dangers which beset it identical to those which have surrounded previous inquiries. In the past there have been occasions when the government has exerted direct pressure on the very judge who has been appointed to act as an impartial arbiter. The classic example of such interference was provided by the first Bloody Sunday Tribunal. When that Tribunal was set up on 31 January 1972 by the Conservative government of Edward Heath, its avowed purpose was to use the judiciary in order to restore confidence in the Government. To undertake this task it appointed no other person than the Lord Chief Justice himself, Lord Widgery.

Among the scandalous revelations which would eventually completely destroy the credibility of that Tribunal was the discovery in 1996 – 24 years on – of documents which made it clear that on the very eve of that inquiry, Lord Widgery had met with the prime minister, Edward Heath, and with Lord Hailsham and that they had discussed how the inquiry would be conducted. The clear purpose of that secret meeting had been to steer the inquiry in a direction favourable to the interests of the army and the British establishment generally.

Of course nobody is likely to suggest that Tony Blair has already held secret meetings with Lord Hutton, or that he or any other member of the government is likely to do so. The principal problem in this case is rather different. It is the fact that the real crisis of confidence in Tony Blair’s government is not the one which has been occasioned by the death of Dr Kelly. It is the one which preceded and appears to have precipitated this death – namely the crisis of confidence surrounding the whole manner in which the government made the case for going to war with Iraq.

Given the narrow terms of reference he has been asked to work to, it would seem that there is at least a danger that Lord Hutton will find himself compelled, because of his own conscientious adherence to these terms, to leave crucial questions unasked. Were he to do so there is a danger that  his inquiry might actually come to be in thrall to the strategy initiated by Alastair Campbell, who declared war on the BBC in an apparent attempt to divert attention away from such questions.

All this is not to say that Lord Hutton’s inquiry will not uncover many new facts; it undoubtedly will. Some of these new facts may turn out to be of quite extraordinary importance. But that in itself should not be allowed to render the proceedings of the inquiry sacred  For all the reasons given here (and many others besides) judicial inquiries do not, as a general rule, merit the kind of awed deference which they are so often shown by journalists and politicians. Waiting for them to deliver a definitive and supposedly authoritative verdict all too often seems to lead journalists and other commentators to renounce their own duty to investigate and elucidate. The setting up of an inquiry can in this manner actually contribute to a stultification of public debate.

If, as may well be the case, Lord Hutton eventually demonstrates that his inquiry is destined to be the exception to this rule then no harm will have been done.  But in the meantime, drawing on the mass of material which has already been published, I have tried to piece together a narrative of events and to relate it in as much detail as seems possible. The result is an essay of some 15,000 words, 'The death of a scientist', which can be accessed by clicking here.

The gradually expanding library of links to transcripts and articles relating to the Kelly affair, which was to be found on this page until recently, will now be found at the end of the article.

As usual, all comments, criticisms or corrections will be gratefully received.    

11 August 2003    


© Richard Webster, 2003


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