There can be few complaints about the way Lord Hutton and his counsel Mr James Dingemans are conducting the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. So far, they have put hardly a foot wrong. In particular, Lord Hutton has shown an admirable sensitivity to the feelings of Dr Kelly's family. I cannot help attributing this to his origins and his work in Northern Ireland, a part of the country where (like parts of Scotland and Wales) they still treat death with a modicum of seriousness.
He was probably justified - though I am not absolutely sure about this - in prohibiting the broadcasting authorities from replaying Ms Susan Watts's tape recording of her conversation with Dr Kelly. But by now, anyway, it is virtually inaudible because it has been played over so often at tormented conferences at the BBC. Luckily the redoubtable Ms Watts, of whom more later, made a written or typed copy at an earlier stage of the proceedings.
By the same reasoning, Lord Hutton refused to allow the hearings to be televised. This, by contrast, struck me as what in tribunal-speak is called an error of judgement and I call a big mistake. For the hearings are being televised in any case, on big screens. The trouble is that the only people who can watch and listen are the journalists in the annex, which is another courtroom adjoining court 73, where the inquiry is being held.
There is no reason whatever why the exchanges should not be shown in full on the BBC's excellent parliamentary channel. The news bulletins would then show the more gripping or alluring excerpts. This would not necessarily provide an accurate summary of the day's proceedings. But it would at least be a good deal more accurate than what has been coming out in the newspapers on the following day.
As I predicted last week, they have not deviated by a millimetre from the positions they had previously taken up in relation to the Government and the BBC. Perhaps the most substantial difference is that The Daily Telegraph, having been for the war, very much so, has concluded that it cannot be against both the Government and the BBC, greatly though it would like to be. Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers have continued to be the Government's most loyal supporters - Mr Alastair Campbell being regarded as the Government under another name - partly because Mr Murdoch hates the BBC and partly because he thinks Mr Tony Blair is going to win the next election. It puzzles me why Ms Polly Toynbee continues to excoriate them weekly in The Guardian, when they provide the most consistent and reliable support for the administration she so much admires.
Nor is this simply a matter of bias. The papers seem reluctant to report Lord Hutton's interventions, which do not necessarily tell us what is going to be in his report but, rather, the way his mind is working. He conscientiously writes down these answers in longhand.
On Wednesday, for instance, he asked Mr Richard Sambrook, a BBC apparatchik who sounds like an upmarket version of Mr David Jason, about the legitimacy of relying on only one source. Lord Hutton has clearly not read what I wrote here two weeks ago; or, if he has, he manifestly does not agree with it. He was concerned not so much about the desirability of several sources as about the necessity of putting the source's version to the subject of the story. The answer, which Mr Sambrook was perhaps too inhibited to give, is that you do not court a denial, which destroys a story however many sources you may have in its support.
Or again, Mr Sambrook said it was "unusual" for the Today programme ever to issue an apology. "Why is it unusual?" Lord Hutton asked politely, to loud and prolonged laughter in the reporters' annex. Mr Sambrook said, not altogether convincingly, that it was because the programme rarely broadcast anything to apologise for. The true answer is that the BBC has always been as reluctant as the most rabid tabloid to apologise for anything at all, doing everything it can to deprive complainants (or potential litigants) of access to scripts or recordings.
Mr Sambrook was not the popular favourite with Ms Watts either. She objected to his putting pressure on her to admit that her story on Newsnight was the same as Mr Andrew Gilligan's on Today. She insisted on briefing separate counsel from the BBC's. The corporation could not prevent her from doing this but showed unwonted generosity in paying for it as well. It seems to me still that the two stories remain substantially the same, together with that of Mr Gavin Hewitt, who looks a bit like Mr Blair and was unshaken by Mr Dingemans's questioning.
Dr Kelly even mentioned Mr Campbell to Ms Watts. She dismissed this as persiflage, "gossip" as she termed it. Accordingly she did not put it in her story. I am sure Ms Watts is very good at her job of science correspondent. But she clearly would not recognise a political story even if served up to her on a plate with Branston pickle and a soft bap.
All English political scandals are transformed - or transform themselves - into questions of status or entitlement or, usually, both. Hence the game of Hunt-the-Issue. It becomes not so much a question of whether such-and-such is true as, rather, of whether so-and-so was, on the evidence, entitled to assert that it was true. This is a consequence partly of our adversarial legal system.
A week last Friday, in the opening session of the inquiry, Lord Hutton said he would avoid this approach. He may yet do so. But the omens are not altogether propitious. When questioning journalists, for example, Mr Dingemans is like a libel lawyer, obsessed by their notes, even though he is at the commercial bar himself. If I were entertaining Mr Dingemans or, for that matter, Lord Hutton to lunch at my club I should consider it the height of discourtesy, besides being a breach of the club rules, to get out a notebook and write down what he was saying.
What has been missing is the presence of the regular parliamentary sketchwriters: Mr Simon Carr of The Independent, Mr Simon Hoggart of The Guardian, Mr Frank Johnson of The Daily Telegraph, all true descendants of the original, grinning, sardonic denizens of old Grub Street. They are all on holiday. They should come back without delay, like Sir Robert Peel from Rome, for I am now off on holiday myself. Part of the time I shall be in London, still occasionally looking in to the inquiry, and the rest of the time in France, investigating the metallurgical phenomenon of why, with temperatures even higher there than they are here, and the citizens falling over like skittles, the trains traversing the Côte d'Azure, Provence and the Midi do not have to be confined to whatever is the equivalent in kilometres of 60mph.Reuse content