Lord Hutton: Fair And Balanced
30 January 2004
If there's one mantra that Campbell, Blair, Straw and Hutton have all been chanting this week, it's the expression 'impugning the integrity of the Prime Minister'.
It's as if they think there's something wrong with this. There are some people whose integrity you mustn't impugn. The Pope. The President. Bono. God.
But the whole point of having a Prime Minister is that we can impugn his integrity. And if he keeps telling us not to, that turns from a 'can' into a 'must'.
Alastair Campbell was quite clear about this on Jeremy Vine's show. He spent most of his time explaining how journalism is in a sorry state because there are so many stories which are critical of the government. What he finds 'poisonous' isn't inaccuracy - it's negative reporting. Again, this is what journalists outside of Cuba are supposed to be doing.
But if Michael Howard, or a newspaper says that they've found the Hutton Report a disappointment, they get a pat on the head and told to be 'sensible' and grow up, as if the only reasonable response to this flimsy non-document is to say 'where shall we invade next?'.
There are - however - good reasons for hearing Hutton and then pulling the face you'd pull if you ordered a five-course meal and been given a Filet O Fish. For two million pounds.
And what's especially galling is having seen all the transcripts, and noticed James Dingemans and Peter Knox asking questions which suggested they were interested not merely in whether Gilligan is a duff journalist (which we knew), but also in how our country's managed, and whether this can go badly wrong. The Hutton Inquiry had the potential to produce a fascinating analysis of modern British life - and now we'll never know what it would have said.
However, we still have all the evidence.
Here are some of the questions which Hutton was eminently qualified to comment on, which his Report wholeheartedly dodged.
(1) Are our intelligence services reliable?
Above and beyond anything else, no-one was under oath. If there's one thing a spy has to be able to do, it's to tell the truth only when it benefits his country. Even given this, though, we found out plenty about how intelligence is regarded by the government.
We learned, for example, that chief spook John Scarlett removed the qualification that Saddam would use WMDs 'if he believes his regime is under threat', that he changed 'may be able's to 'are able's, and that the claim that Iraq had 'sought uranium' from Africa (itself based on a falsified document) became the even-more-false 'secured uranium'. And that all of this was done at Alastair Campbell's behest, because they were 'a bit of a problem'. That is, official intelligence was over-ridden by the imaginings of a PR.
Dingemans pursued this line. 'Do you accept you can transform a dossier by omission, Mr Scarlett?'. he asked 'You see, such a change would make a great effect, would it not, on the threat in fact presented by Saddam Hussein in the eyes of the public?' What did we hear of this in the Report? Not a peep.
It turns out that inconvenient facts provided by the security services are ignored -- making them effectively a preferred supplier for PR rather than the defenders of out safety. You have to wonder why Hutton didn't consider this worthy of note.
(2) How does the government treat its critics?
In short, we have Campbell on the Beeb: 'Fuck Gilligan'.
There's also Blair on Kelly. First he chaired the meeting deciding the strategy to name and shame Kelly. Then he lied to the country about having done so. Then it turned out in the Inquiry that he'd lied. Again, Hutton wasn't especially interested, either in the lie, or in the campaign against an expert who he found a nuisance.
We learned that Campbell wrote of Kelly: 'the biggest thing needed was to get the source out'. We learned that the inaccuracy of Gilligan's report was of no interest to Number 10, and that their complaint was part of a virtually-daily series of threatening letters in response to any criticisms of the government on Today1. Hutton virtually supported this maniacal behaviour.
(3) Is our country under threat?
It's interesting, isn't it? The question of whether there's a danger that biological weapons are going to drop on Britain?
It was Hutton's own questioning which revealed that the weapons which could be deployed within 45 minutes were, in fact, 'battlefield mortar shells or small calibre weaponry'. And as the report went on, we learned that the government has made no effort to reassure the people they weren't all going to die.
On top of the shocking irresponsibility of this, any probing mind would be led to wonder why you would attack a country which posed no greater immediate threat than the A-Team.
(4) How does the government keep the citizens informed?
We learn that the only criterion for inclusion in the dossiers became whether they 'would strengthen certain political objectives'. That something which purported to be based on fact was in fact based on political convenience. That the title of the dossier changed from 'Iraq's Programme for Weapons of Mass Destruction' to 'Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction' just before publication.
Lord Hutton had a good long unpleasant glimpse of the triumph of propaganda across many areas of public life. Again, this was of less interest than a brief 6.07am despatch. Public response to the report tells us which everyone else is more concerned about.
So you don't have to disagree with its findings to find the Hutton Report a damp squib. You can look at the enormous opportunities it gave us to see more the more complex forces and phenomena behind Dr. Kelly's death, and recall the words of Andrew McKinlay MP:
It just shows how the Government do everything they can -- this Government is not the only one, there have been previous Governments -- to obstruct scrutiny. They do not like scrutiny. They see scrutiny as automatically going to be criticism, whereas it can be investigatory. Thank you, my Lord....and wonder whether the judge was listening to a word he said.
1 In this context, it might have been useful for Hutton bear in mind Alastair Campbell's vision for the BBC, expressed in February 1999: that the news should allow "democratically elected politicians to speak for themselves, free and unedited".
Read the full Hutton coverage in this week's The Friday Thing.