Useful guidance for an overworked Lord Hutton

'Already you must have encountered the big British problem in any dispute: what is this dispute really about'
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The Independent Online


Dear Lord Hutton

I am sorry that you have been diddled out of a summer holiday this year, and have had to stay behind to sort out the David Kelly business. I myself have been on holiday in France, in the sort of area where you can't get a British paper, even if you want to, which I didn't, so I only know about the whole business from what I have seen this last week and what I picked up from French papers.

(Their coverage of the David Kelly affair was totally bemused. How, they wanted to know, could the British have a government scandal which involved neither sex nor money? Ah well, they thought, that nice Lord Hutton will find the sex or corruption angle soon enough, and then Tony Blair can move on to some other problem.)

But it isn't going to be as easy as that, is it? Already you must have encountered the big British problem in any dispute, which is: what is this dispute really about?

If you have ever followed the story of a British strike or a go-slow, you will have noticed that sooner or later the reporter says: "Of course, this dispute isn't really about the firefighters' wages - it's about their traditional reliance on other part-time jobs", or "Of course, this rail strike isn't about a few pence an hour - it's about insensitive management attitudes..."

Similarly, in your case, people are already saying: Of course, this isn't really about David Kelly... or, It's not really about the dodgy dossier... or, It's not really about Alastair Campbell's status...

So what is it all really about?

Well, as someone who has come back to this thing with a fresh eye and open mind, i.e. in complete ignorance, I have an advantage that you do not have. I can still pick up on the bigger picture.

For instance, when I was watching Newsnight the other night, and some PR guy said to some BBC News ex-mogul: "Surely, if Alastair Campbell accuses the BBC of getting something seriously wrong, it is your duty to investigate the charge?" and the BBC News ex-mogul said: "Look, in my experiences Alastair Campbell looses off furious letters to the BBC at the rate of two or three a day accusing us of serious errors and if we tried to investigate them all, we wouldn't have anyone left to make programmes..."

For instance, they had Peter Stothard on Radio 4's Today on Friday asking him what this battle between the BBC and Downing Street looked like during the month he had spent in and around Number 10 working on his Iraq War book, and he said: "Oh, the enmity between the two was non-stop - Campbell was always saying things like, if these BBC governors had been in charge during the War we would all be walking around in lederhosen by now, and Jack Straw would come back from an interview on Today, and they'd say, How did you get on? And he would say, Very well - I actually managed to get a word in edgeways against John Humphrys ..."

And suddenly, having heard lots of things like this, I saw what this whole thing is about. What we have here is nothing more or less than a marriage breakdown situation.

The kind of insults that HMG and the BBC are hurling at each other are exactly the kind that husband and wife exchange when things are going badly.

The jokes that Peter Stothard overheard are the kind of embittered jokes that a husband makes to other husbands about his wife.

Both sides are picking fault with the other, both sides are not listening to the other, both sides are interminably going over and over the same arguments - No, that's not what I said at all, what I said was this...

Very soon, if it hasn't happened already, HMG is going to say to the BBC, "Look, I give you as much housekeeping money as you need, and all you do is go round saying awful things about me behind my back! I've a good mind to withdraw your allowance..."

BBC: "Call that an allowance? You are so stingy that I have to repeat more programmes than I make!"

HMG: "Call those things programmes? I've seen better programmes... etc etc"

Meanwhile, dear Lord Hutton, remember that although officially you are conducting an inquiry, what you are actually doing is running a marriage guidance service.

Keep that in mind, and you won't go far wrong.