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Home > Politics

Tom Kelly and Walter Mitty

What was Tom Kelly, the No 10 spokesman, doing when he described David Kelly as a "Walter Mitty" character? And what exactly did he mean? Let's look at these two strange fellows one at a time...

10 August 2003

1. Tom Kelly

That's a relief! It's not official government policy to mock the
corpses of its critics. This week the government assured reporters that describing David Kelly as a "Walter Mitty" was "not intended as an official briefing nor does it reflect the government's view". Phew!

So what on Earth was Tom Kelly playing at?

There are two possibilities. The first is that he genuinely didn't realise that the comments would be reported. Or to put it another way: this man, who worked for the BBC, and who had a Campbell-type job at the Northern Ireland Office, didn't realise how the 'papers work. In which case, he has the political nous and the diplomatic savvy of a tramp wanking in a church and he should clear his desk.

The other possibility, of course, is that he knew what he was doing. Supporting this view was Ladbrokes, who gave odds of 5:4 on Kelly(not-dcsd) for Alastair Campbell's replacement. So what we would be seeing here would be what's known as a "background briefing" which wasn't meant to be reported. It would be a senior source giving a private account which journalists weren't to repeat verbatim. They're just meant to remember the comments and bear them in mind - i.e. to feel contempt and disregard for the dead man who devoted his life to arms control. They're not meant to repeat the lies to the public - they're meant to subtly belittle him.

We can't tell, obviously. Just like we can't tell what was in the MoD documents that they have admitted was "a media plan" on how to stop Kelly (dcsd) making them look bad. And we don't know which Labour MP started telling the press that Andrew Gilligan was "cracking up" and about to kill himself. And we don't know who from the Labour party sent the lies about George Galloway around the 'papers until they found one who'd print them (The Sun.) And so painfully on.

So it may well be unfair of us to call Kelly (not-dcsd) stupid. He may simply have been conniving to diminish Kelly(dcsd)'s reputation in order to save that of the Labour party. We can't help wondering what odds Ladbrokes are offering now? Maybe he should have waited for the funeral and just pissed on his grave
in private.

2. Walter Mitty

This week, for reasons outlined above, the media has been packed with references to one "Walter Mitty". Both Sky News and BBC News 24 have respectively described Mitty as a man who wanted to be a hero, or as a man with delusions of his own importance. Nice try, but no cigar...

Walter Mitty, the anti-hero of a short story by James Thurber, is a man who creates various fantasy worlds to escape from his boring life and his overbearing wife, and to compensate for the shortcomings in his own masculinity. Mitty variously imagines he is a flying boat commander steering his plane through a storm, a brilliant surgeon, some sort of gangster and a heroic bomber pilot.

However, at the end of the story, Mitty lights up a cigarette during a tedious shopping trip. His final fantasy episode has him as the defiant victim of a firing squad, smoking his last-request cigarette:

"He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Not exactly the way Dr David Kelly met his end, but strangely appropriate.

Unless of course Sky and the BBC are referring to the film adaptation of the story, starring Danny 'Court Jester' Kaye. Because in the *film*, Mitty actually does get involved with a real-life conspiracy. And although pilloried by the insensitive and accused of being a fantasist, what he says is really true. An even less potent analogy.

They should have called him Billy Liar, maybe. Or Benny from Crossroads.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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