Dear Lord Hutton, you're in for a shock

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dear Lord Hutton:

The open letter is not, I confess, my favourite form of literary composition. The last one I wrote was, I think, to the late Auberon Waugh when he succeeded me as political columnist of The Spectator in 1967. The result of that was an unbroken friendship which lasted until Waugh's death in 2001. I do not expect this letter will have such a happy outcome. Even so, I hope it does not cause offence and that it may perhaps help you in your task.

I should like to deal with two narrow and specific matters of journalistic practice: first, the reliance on one source alone and, second, the description of Dr David Kelly as "a senior intelligence source". The Government and its apologists - Mr Alastair Campbell, Mr Chris Bryant, Mr Ben Bradshaw - have made much of these, as likewise have its acolytes on Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. I had thought of sending you a separate submission but desisted, partly because it might have seemed unduly egotistical, mainly because I considered that my thoughts ought to be shared also with the readers of The Independent on Sunday.

In October 1963 I was working as political correspondent of the Sunday Express. That was when Harold Macmillan resigned and was succeeded by Lord Home, who later renounced his peerage. He was trying to form a government. On the Saturday of Home's succession John Junor, the editor, told me that a certain Tory swell wished to speak to me. Today anyone who has retained his seat for 10 years is called a Tory grandee. This one really was a grandee. I returned the call. He told me that Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod were refusing to join Home's Cabinet. I knew both of them slightly. Macleod I came to know much better later on. But I did not telephone either. Something told me the grandee was speaking the truth. And so he was. The Observer, for which I was not then working, foolishly predicted that they would both join Home's Cabinet.

Early in 1967 there was the D-Notice affair. It was a less serious version of the business you are investigating, with Harold Wilson playing Tony Blair, the Daily Express as the BBC and Colonel L G ("Sammy") Lohan in the role of Dr Kelly. The difference is that Lohan ended the affair, not with a slit wrist in an Oxfordshire wood, but as the "Good Food Spy" of the London Evening Standard, where he proved himself to be a natural journalist. This was not altogether surprising, because he had spent much of his official life supplying information to Mr Chapman Pincher of the Express. I asked Colonel Lohan what the precise terms of the contested D-Notices were. He read them out to me, I wrote them down and then I published them in The Spectator. I relied on one source.

In autumn 1980 James Callaghan resigned. It was thought that the succession would be contested by Denis Healey, Peter Shore and John Silkin. Michael Foot would, it was believed, give his support to Shore. I was not so sure. Here there is not the slightest harm in revealing my source. It was Mr Foot. On the Saturday before nominations were due to close I sent him a telegram at his house in Hampstead - in those days you could still send telegrams - asking him to telephone me. In half an hour he did so, telling me he had been under a lot of pressure and virtually saying he had decided to stand. I duly published this in The Observer, to the surprise of the unfortunate Peter Shore.

In 1990-91 I was writing a book about the fall of Margaret Thatcher. One of her ministers, who remained a member of Mr John Major's administration, told me that he had kept a diary of these great events. As he had always enjoyed my writing (he was kind enough to say), he was prepared to show me parts of this document. I agreed. The most significant passage concerned a meeting which had been held on the Thursday before the first ballot in Mr John (later Lord) Wakeham's room in the House of Commons. The other participants were Mr John Gummer and Mr Kenneth Clarke. They had agreed that, if Mrs Thatcher failed to win outright on the first ballot, she ought to retire from the contest. This was significant because Mr Wakeham later reluctantly took on Mrs Thatcher's campaign in the second ballot and duly reported that he could not assemble a team.

So these are four examples of reliance on one source: all, in my opinion, justified both at the time and in the light of subsequent events.

It remains to deal with the description of Dr Kelly as a senior intelligence source. In 1956-57 I was security officer of an RAF fighter station, largely because no one else wanted to do the job. It would have been the height of absurdity to describe me as an intelligence source of any kind. Not so Dr Kelly. The CMG is not given to middle-ranking civil servants. He was our principal weapons inspector. He had worked closely with MI6. He clearly knew more about intelligence than Mr Blair - or even the editor of The Times.

As you know, these tribunals depend for their success not only on the presiding judge (or judges) but more, perhaps, on that strange creature, counsel to the inquiry. Lord Scott's investigation into arms-for-Iraq owed much to Ms Presiley Baxendale, who could fell a witness with a giggle at 20 paces. In the equivalent position you have appointed Mr James Dingemans, because he has impressed you in the cases in which he has appeared before you.

You may know that he also played in the front row for Oxford against Cambridge in 1985. What you may not know is that he helped win the game for Oxford. With two other players, he tackled the Cambridge left-wing into touch in the closing minutes when the wing was about to score what would have been a crucial try. Though there is no necessary correlation between courage on the rugby field and in tribunals of inquiry and places of that nature, I am sure Mr Dingemans will not let you down.

I hope you are not too shocked by what you hear. Your long experience in Northern Ireland will presumably have taught you how politicians can behave. But Lord Scott's experience had done little to prepare him for what was to be in store. He, who had presided over the unspeakable depravities of the Chancery Division - far worse, in their dishonesty and greed, than anything to be found at the Old Bailey or even in the divorce courts - was nevertheless shocked by the depths of mendacity and self-seeking plumbed by the politicians and their attendant civil servants.

With all good wishes.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Watkins