Hutton and Kelly: when the lights came on

LAST SATURDAY, AT THE end of the first week of the Hutton inquiry, the Guardian devoted a leader to its achievements. Already, it suggested, Hutton seemed ‘more incisive and more dramatic than expected’: 

Like a sailor launching a distress flare on a stormy night, Lord Hutton has caught the activities of the crew at a moment they never expected to be seen. He has exposed the deepest internal processes of secretive organisations - from No 10 to Whitehall to the BBC - at the most sensitive of times. 

Those who, on reading these words, experience a sense of déjà vu need only refer to the last article which appeared on this site in order to discover the reason why. For it would seem reasonable to assume that the Guardian journalist responsible for writing them took the idea from Peter Oborne’s splendid article in the Spectator of 26 July from which I quoted last week. Here is the original version of the simile:

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.

There is, of course, nothing wrong at all in reworking the words of another writer in order to create imagery of your own. Such derivative inventiveness sometimes enriches us all and can add immeasurably to the vitality of the language. It seems worth noting, however, that on this particular occasion the Guardian leader writer would have done much better to give credit where credit is due and quote directly from the Spectator. Whereas Oborne’s brilliant simile hints, through the idea of murder, at dark conspiracies, the Guardian’s version rests on that most lifeless of contrivances, the unimagined image. For while it may be true that the crews of ships sometimes engage in activities they ought not to, they generally do so below deck. Launching a distress flare in such circumstances is unlikely to illuminate very much other than a rush for the lifeboats or a sinking ship.  

What is perhaps far more important, however, is that, in changing the simile, the Guardian leader writer has also changed the sense and said something which is not really true at all. For it was not Hutton who was responsible for switching on the lights but, as Oborne suggests, the death of Dr Kelly. The lights did not go on on Monday 11 August when Lord Hutton’s inquiry reconvened; they were switched on during the morning of  Friday 16 of July when the news of Dr Kelly’s disappearance became generally known and a body was found in a field close to an Oxfordshire wood. 

The lights have been on ever since and under their harsh glare journalists have been scrutinising politicians, broadcasters and their pronouncements with an intensity and a degree of concentration which is rarely seen.

The reason, I believe, that it is so important to remember this is that (as I have suggested already on this site) there is a tendency to overvalue judicial inquiries and their findings and to attribute to the evidence which emerges during inquiries more importance than it actually possesses. The corollary of this view is that there can be an equivalent tendency to undervalue evidence precisely because it is already in the public domain and has been afforded no special aura by the drama of disclosure.

Our predilection for that which was once deeply hidden and which is not obvious to the ordinary observer goes deep into our history. One of the most profound prejudices of our culture, inherited not simply from psychoanalysis but from the Christian gospels, and beyond that from the Talmud and the kabbalah, maintains that truth is by definition profound or obscure and not readily accessible to ordinary mortals. Such prejudice against evidence which is easily visible afflicts intellectuals more deeply than it does any other group of people, with the all but inevitable result that the very people who are held to be most familiar with the truth are, with certain notable exceptions, usually more profoundly alienated from real understanding than anyone else. One of the reasons that Darwin was a truly great scientist was that he actually recognised that part of his genius lay in his own deliverance from the obfuscations of the intellect. Asked to explain why he had been able to formulate the theory of natural selection while others failed to do so, he said simply ‘I saw what the clever men missed.’ 

Psychoanalysis itself is an excellent example of  the price we pay when we fail to make this kind of recognition. Let us imagine that a learned and deeply erudite psychoanalyst is presented with a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of an unknown scene which bears the title ‘human nature’. On opening the box, counting the pieces and discovering that there are only 995, what does the typical Freudian do? The answer, of course, is that he puts the 995 pieces in his dustbin and starts digging in his garden in order to find the other five. (This course of action is followed irrespective of whether there is any evidence that the five pieces are actually located in the garden.) Does this eager Freudian ever discover the nature of the unknown scene? Of course Freudians never do. In searching for that which they believe has been concealed and to which they believe they have privileged access, they neglect to study the mass of evidence which is there for all to see. 

If this were only true of psychoanalysts it would be a great relief. But one of the reasons that psychoanalysis continues to thrive is that, as I have already suggested, the prejudice is general to our entire culture. 

The great danger in the particular context of the Hutton inquiry is that the same prejudice may, if we are not careful, be allowed to affect the entire course of its proceedings. In giving our attention to the ‘secrets’ we have managed to prise out of the dark inner workings of various organisations including the government, we may actually miss the significance of what is already in the public domain. As a result we may fail to see the whole picture. 

In the case of any judicial inquiry which probes the workings of many individuals or of large organisations, the kind of cultural prejudice which I indicate here is almost inevitably exacerbated by the sheer physical problems which are created by the process of disclosure. 

The difficulty was illustrated succinctly last week by the spectacle of James Dingemans QC actually being handed freshly disclosed documents by a colleague as he was in the middle of questioning the very witness to whom they related. In any large criminal trial or inquiry in which late disclosure becomes the rule rather than the exception, the sheer volume and complexity of the documentation being disclosed threatens at times to overwhelm barristers so that there simply is not time to give full attention to the material which has not been disclosed but which was in the public arena from the beginning.

In the case of the North Wales Tribunal whose proceedings I followed closely over a period of months, the consequences of this process were very serious indeed. As documents fell like dark flakes of snow into the proceedings, the original outlines of the story of the North Wales story became almost completely obscured from view. Some of the evidence which received least attention in consequence was some of the most revealing – in particular the newspaper articles which had been in the public domain for many years, but which now almost completely escaped careful analysis.

This is not to say that some of the disclosed documents were not themselves vital pieces of the jigsaw. But ultimately they made sense and fitted together to form a larger picture only if equal status was accorded to the documents which had not been disclosed for the simple reason that they were already available.

It was considerations such as these which impelled me to complete an enterprise which some may well consider foolhardy: to construct, in advance of the Hutton inquiry hearing any evidence, a narrative of the events which led to Dr David Kelly’s suicide. This attempt might be seen as an experiment, one of whose intentions is to demonstrate that the ordinary evidence which is available to any attentive member of the public is itself far more significant than we generally allow and that it is sometimes even more significant than the evidence which has been, for whatever reason, concealed from us.

In a culture wedded to the idea that what is significant will tend to be invisible, it is, paradoxically, the very visibility of some evidence which renders it, in practice, difficult to see. My experiment in collating the visible is thus an attempt to oppose a deeply ingrained cultural habit and to demonstrate that it is sometimes a bad habit.   

The experiment also has one other aim and this is to attempt to illustrate the importance of narrative as an analytic tool. One of the problems faced by almost all judicial inquiries is that their principle function of allotting blame tends all too often to interfere with their attempt to illuminate and explain the complex processes which have led to a particular outcome. In particular judges tend, by the very nature of their legal training, to underestimate the importance of constructing a narrative of events. Narratives are generally seen as the province of journalists or novelists. Yet constructing a narrative is itself one of the most important methods of understanding any complex event. This is because the very process of producing a narrative demands not only that an accurate chronology of events should be made but that the causal links between a series of events should be established. To produce a narrative of a complex series of events is, in short, to engage in a particular kind of analysis. It is just such a mode of analysis which historians habitually employ. Even scientists sometimes rely on the construction of a narrative in order to solve scientific problems. Once again Darwin provides an example. One his greatest achievements as a scientist was that he replaced a false and highly speculative narrative of creation by a much more accurate and detailed narrative firmly based on the established facts of natural history.

Whether my experiment to vindicate the evidential significance of the merely visible and the analytic power of narrative will prove successful remains to be seen. It is perhaps not until the appearance of Lord Hutton’s report that it will be possible to judge.

Rashly, in the original version of this piece, I ventured to suggest that, so far, the open-source account I have given fitted almost as neatly as a glove onto the hand of the evidence which is now stretched out towards it’. A careful reading of the evidence given by Alastair Campbell to the Hutton inquiry on Tuesday suggests that this was not quite true. In the light of Campbell's evidence I have rewritten a section of the original article which deals with the allegedly confected’ nature of Alastair Campbell's rage and removed or modified some comments which may be misleading. I have also added one or two more strictures on inaccuracies in the journalism of  Rod Liddle (although the task of keeping up with these appears to be without end).

It remains the case, however, that these changes are relatively minor. It also remains the case that, so far at least, the Hutton inquiry appears to be unaware of some crucial aspects of the story which are already in the public domain. Whether some of the visible evidence will continue to be invisible to the inquiry remains to be seen.  

In the meantime my own nomination for the best article to have been written about the inquiry so far goes to Nick Cohen for the piece which he wrote in the Observer on Sunday. Cohen is not only shrewdly sceptical about the nature of public inquiries, he also offers his own rapier-like summaries of some of the evidence which has already emerged in this one.

I had hoped to compose especially for this site one or two more pieces of my own. These would have included one about the evidence of Susan Watts and how it was that the BBC came to be bitten by its own guardian angel (and why they should continue to treasure her). This was to be followed by another piece entitled ‘Rod Liddle, Andrew Gilligan and the case of the missing Danish pastry’ which would have subjected the journalism of the former editor of the Today programme to sceptical examination.  

For the time being at least, however, I have resolved reluctantly to foreswear further writing about the Hutton inquiry. More humdrum tasks are now making their insistent demands upon me. Quite how long my resolution of abstinence will last I do not know but it is possible that I will not be back until September. 

A CORRECTED VERSION OF my long article 'The Death of a scientist'  can be found by clicking on the box above, or by clicking here. In order to enable the experiment described above to continue I have kept corrections to a minimum, detailed them clearly in the notes, and resisted the temptation to add new material. .

19 August 2003; revised 20 August


© Richard Webster, 2003


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