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2 February 2004

The Hutton report – This was the wrong inquiry

Why did the whole of the British state get the Iraqi arsenal so howlingly wrong? Like all previous j

By Nick Cohen

If Lord Hutton’s inquiry has achieved nothing else, it has shown that the BBC took Tony Blair’s opponents to war on a false prospectus. The Sunday Sport or a pirate radio station operating from the roof of a Birmingham tower block might have received a harsher condemnation of its journalistic standards than the Today programme got from Hutton. But it’s hard to imagine how the denunciation might have been phrased. For the media that somewhat pompously present themselves as the real opposition in a time of one-party rule, Hutton has been a disaster. The crimes we accuse the government of committing are thrown back in our faces.

We say the government lies. Lord Hutton didn’t quite accuse Andrew Gilligan of lying. But he said he didn’t believe that Dr David Kelly had told the BBC defence correspondent that the government had forced the spies to uphold the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction ready to fire in 45 minutes.

We say the government is incompetent. Lord Hutton found that Gilligan had nothing in his notebooks to back up his “unfounded” claim; that his editor allowed him to blather on air without checking what he was going to say; that his superiors didn’t ask to see his notebooks; and that his superiors didn’t seem to understand that the Today programme had made a serious accusation without supporting evidence.

We say new Labour is a principle-free zone. Journalism is a rough business that isn’t overburdened with ethical imperatives. The one principle we have is that you never betray a confidential source. If honest men and women put their careers, liberty or lives on the line when they talk to you, you keep their confidences. Lord Hutton said that David Kelly was disoriented when he was exposed by MPs as the unidentified official quoted in a critical report on the Iraq shambles on Newsnight. His exposure was the work of Gilligan, who stitched up his source when he privately told two MPs that Dr Kelly was also the source quoted on Newsnight. Lord Hutton said that the knowledge that his cover had been blown “must have been weighing heavily on Dr Kelly’s mind during the last few days of his life”.

Potential whistle-blowers in Whitehall, police forces, the City, multinational corporations and corrupt local councils may look at the fate of David Kelly and wonder whether it’s safer to keep their heads down. The moral – that if you trust journalists you end up dead in the woods – isn’t an entirely fair one to pick out of this mess. It isn’t entirely unfair either. If they have any sense, the powerful will be sleeping a little easier. It’s going to be more difficult for serious journalists to find hard facts.

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As those who put their trust in the BBC come to terms with the disquieting thought that Alastair Campbell is more reliable than John Humphrys, new Labour has every right to feel pleased with itself. Once again, predictions of Blair’s demise from the Mystic Megs of the lobby have proved false. Once again, the PM has triumphed against all odds. Once again, he has been vindicated in every respect except one: there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the reason for their absence needs investigating.

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Where is that investigation to come from? From the expression on the faces of BBC journalists, it’s going to take a long time for the corporation’s self-confidence to recover. Other journalists are going to suffer guilt by association. Doubtless there won’t be many tears in Whitehall at that prospect. But if you can stand back from the detail, the big picture isn’t as comforting as the government’s defenders would have you believe. As Blair said, it would have been a resigning issue if he had put pressure on the intelligence services and made them go along with a lie. But it’s almost as damning that neither he nor anyone around him had to pressure the intelligence services because they were as happy with the dossier as the government.

That last bald statement needs to be qualified. There were intelligence officers who were profoundly unhappy. Brian Jones of the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Intelligence Staff told Lord Hutton that he and his colleagues looked on the claim from an Iraqi that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction ready to fire in 45 minutes with sceptical eyes.

Jones protested, but got nowhere. Alastair Campbell didn’t need to overrule the senior espionage bureaucrats with whom the government dealt, because John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, agreed with the politicians. When Campbell said that nothing had gone into the dossier without Scarlett’s approval, he was telling the unvarnished truth. The agreement between politicians and spies was undoubtedly based mainly on the sincere belief that Saddam did indeed have chemical and biological weapons. He always had had them and had used them to slaughter tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Iranians. David Kelly believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and he and all his colleagues were about as wrong as they could be.

The question worthy of investigation, then, isn’t how wicked new Labour overruled the protests of honest spies and spun Britain into a war, but how the British state as a whole – civil servants and ministers – got the real state of the Iraqi arsenal so howlingly wrong and, intentionally or not, misled the public.

Lord Hutton wasn’t interested in finding out. You can’t accuse him of covering up. The level of disclosure the Hutton inquiry obtained astonished those of us used to the constipated officialdom of secrecy-bound Britain. Until the official papers are released in 30 years, historians examining the run-up to the Iraq war or Blair’s style of government will turn first to the documents Lord Hutton exhumed. But his reach wasn’t matched by the narrowness of his conclusions.

This is traditional in judicial inquiries into British government. From Lord Denning on the Profumo scandal to Lord Franks on the Falklands war, from Sir Richard Scott on the sale of arms to Iraq to Sir Anthony Hammond on the Hinduja brothers and the Dome, judicial inquiries have never destroyed governments. The evidence they collect is immensely useful. Eight years before he tore into a Labour government for overthrowing the genocidal Iraqi tyrant, Robin Cook used the facts revealed by the Scott inquiry to tear into the Conservative government for arming the genocidal Iraqi tyrant. But the judges’ punches are always pulled. In the case of the Scott report, no minister had to resign because Sir Richard presented a six-volume report that offered no damning conclusion – indeed, it had no conclusions whatsoever.

But Scott’s evasion was preferable to Lord Franks and Sir Anthony Hammond, who respectively ignored what they found about Margaret Thatcher’s blunders before the Falklands war and exonerated ministers over the preferential treatment the passport applications from the Hindujas received. As James Callaghan put it after the Franks report of 1983 let Thatcher off the hook: “For 338 paragraphs he painted a splendid picture, delineated the light and the shade, and the glowing colours in it, and when Franks got to paragraph 339 he got fed up with the canvas he was painting, and chucked a bucket of whitewash over it.”

Lord Hutton’s report isn’t a whitewash, and he didn’t pull his punches when the BBC was within striking distance. The BBC’s claim that Blair lied was immensely serious, and Hutton has exposed its shaky foundations. But his interpretation of his terms of reference excluded pretty much everything else that mattered.

He notes in his introduction that “there has been a great deal of controversy and debate about whether the intelligence in relation to weapons of mass destruction . . . was of sufficient strength and reliability to justify the government in deciding that Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed such a threat to the safety and interests of the United Kingdom that military action should be taken against that country”.

Indeed, there has been a controversy, although I would say that it has been a rather one-sided one since May last year, when it became clear that Saddam wasn’t a threat to anyone except the Iraqis. His lordship wasn’t prepared to resolve the matter because he “concluded that a question of such wide import, which would involve the consideration of a wide range of evidence, is not one which falls within my terms of reference”.

This wasn’t strictly true. One piece of hard evidence landed in the inquiry’s lap. Sir Richard Dearlove admitted that the 45-minute claim referred only to puny artillery shells that could be filled with mustard gas and fired on the battlefield. The government’s dossier didn’t say that. It created the strong impression that it believed Saddam had long-range strategic weapons which could be loaded with chemical and biological poisons and sent flying across the Middle East to hit British bases in Cyprus.

Here, apparently, was incontrovertible evidence of deceit. But because the deceit the government was charged with perpetrating by the BBC wasn’t the deceit of pretending that artillery shells were long-range strategic weapons, Hutton decided that “a consideration of this distinction does not fall within my terms of reference”. His definition of his terms of reference was so narrow that a tight-rope walker couldn’t stand on it.

If the media have been discredited and the judiciary isn’t interested, only parliament is left. But the Kelly affair revealed parliament’s weakness long before Hutton reported. Gilligan betrayed Kelly during the investigation carried out by the Commons foreign affairs committee into the credibility of the intelligence in the run-up to war. Downing Street refused to allow the MPs to interview John Scarlett or have access to one-tenth of the official papers Hutton saw. Alastair Campbell originally refused to talk to them, and changed his mind only when he decided he wanted to renew his attack on the BBC.

When Kelly was sent to talk to the committee, the chairman struck a deal with the government to limit the questions Kelly could be asked. Some Labour MPs were interested in protecting the government at all costs. One Tory and one Liberal Democrat were being secretly briefed by Gilligan. About the only person operating as an independent legislator was the Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, who asked Dr Kelly if he wasn’t a fall guy being used as “chaff”. Mackinlay was universally denounced by one and all after Dr Kelly’s death, not least by the BBC.

At the end of the public hearings, James Dingemans, QC for the Hutton inquiry, said that wide and deep questions swirled around the particular circumstances of David Kelly’s death. These were issues for “other institutions” to investigate.

Where these institutions might be found and how they might be persuaded to investigate, he didn’t say.

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