Paul Anderson, Tribune column, February 6 2004
The media furore that has followed the publication of Lord Hutton’s report on the death of Dr David Kelly is of course understandable.
Hutton’s verdict was at odds with what most of the media expected and, more importantly, at odds with what most of them wanted. His damning criticism of the BBC’s handling of Andrew Gilligan’s notorious Today programme broadcast led not only to the resignation of Gilligan but to the departure of Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC’s board of governors, and Greg Dyke, the corporation’s director-general. The government, by contrast, got off scot-free.
But to say that the uproar is understandable is not to justify it. Given Hutton’s narrow brief, and given what emerged in the course of his inquiry, it was never likely that he would come to any conclusion other than the one he came to. The real question the hoo-hah raises is why on earth the media expected anything different — and the answer has precious little to do with their failure to recognise Hutton's undoubtedly pro-establishment record over the years.
Lest we forget, Hutton was not charged with investigating the reasons Britain went to war with Iraq: his task was to look into the circumstances of Dr Kelly’s death. Quite reasonably, he limited himself to examining the chain of events, beginning with the production of the government dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, that ended with Dr Kelly’s suicide, focusing in particular on his interview with Gilligan, Gilligan’s subsequent broadcast, and the complex process by which Dr Kelly was identified as Gilligan’s source. He did not even attempt to consider whether the intelligence reports on which the dossier was based were accurate.
During the course of the inquiry, it became clear that Gilligan’s journalism was appallingly shoddy. He had based his story on a single source — which was almost incredibly unprofessional given the seriousness of the allegation that even though the government knew that Saddam Hussein had no WMD capable of deployment in 45 minutes, it nevertheless inserted the claim into the dossier. He had no credible contemporaneous record of his interview with Dr Kelly that showed he had at least reported an allegation in good faith. And he had behaved in an extraordinarily devious way once his story came under fire, attempting to pull the wool over his editors’ eyes about the nature of his source and trying to get Dr Kelly’s identity revealed by underhand means. Gilligan would have deserved criticism from Hutton even if had not emerged that the 45 minute claim had been inserted in the dossier late simply because it arrived late.
It also became clear during the inquiry that the BBC’s initial response to the government’s protests at Gilligan’s broadcast, defending him stoutly without bothering to check the provenance or veracity of his story, had been sloppy in the extreme. Again, the real surprise of last week is that anyone expected the corporation not to be deservedly hammered by the Hutton report.
As for the government, it should have become obvious at an early stage that it was on track to be cleared on the charge that it inserted claims it knew were false in the dossier. The mass of official documents made public by the inquiry certainly showed that the government “sexed-up” intelligence material to produce the dossier, at least in the sense of putting the strongest possible interpretation on it. That was revealing, and deeply unattractive. But there was nothing at all to show that the government had knowingly lied.
Nor should this have come as a surprise. Governments in societies with free media are often evasive, duplicitous and economical with the truth. But they don’t usually tell outright lies they know are outright lies — if only for the cynical reason that the costs of being found out are so great. Only the most desperate and reckless government would have attempted knowingly to falsify the WMD dossier.
None of this is to argue that the government’s handling of the WMD issue in the run-up to the war on Iraq was beyond criticism. There is a strong case for believing that the government seized on WMD as a means of justifying its support for an invasion the US had already decided upon for other reasons, and it has become increasingly apparent that there were major flaws in the intelligence on Iraqi WMD on which it relied.
Still less is it to argue that the BBC should somehow be reined in or prevented from doing investigative journalism. The government’s veiled threats to take the Hutton report into consideration when renewal of the coporation’s charter comes up were sinister and shameful.
My point is that too many journalists approached Hutton with the lazy assumption that it’s OK for a journalist to get a story “95 per cent right” (as former Today editor Rod Liddle put it) and with the prejudice that it can be taken as read that the government is lying to us nearly all of the time. Hutton’s report is a salutary reminder that in journalism the facts matter more than anything else.