Plenty of hindsight, but precious little wisdom

The awful thing about the inquiry is that what it reveals is stuff that common sense told us anyway
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The Independent Online

I can't quite decide whether the Hutton inquiry offers a fascinating insight into the daily grind of civil service, or a minute dissection of the blindingly obvious. I'm sure, though, that it doesn't offer a particularly accurate picture of the workings of government.

After all, if we were to base our view of the Cabinet, or even prime ministers, on the evidence of the Hutton inquiry, we would have to assume that their own part in important, highly scrutinised and dramatic clashes between themselves and the media is absolutely tiny.

Tony Blair takes responsibility in a nobly all-encompassing way, but displays hands cleaner than a Poundbury pavement. Alastair Campbell talks on the phone with departmental media fixers on occasion, but never discusses anything of consequence with them. Even Geoff Hoon, the elected-member villain of the piece, seems mainly to have been guilty of not listening to anything said to him in meetings. On which matter, I'm sure we can all sympathise.

Civil servants, meanwhile, are busily displaying all of the decision-making qualities we expect in our politicians, alongside a rather worryingly fervent commitment to the ideological postures of their political masters, and a touching desire to throw themselves in the line of media fire by remaining stonily unsentimental about Dr Kelly's fate.

Richard Hatfield, the Ministry of Defence's personnel director, was almost admirable yesterday in his unbending insistence that Dr David Kelly had brought all of his troubles on himself. Mr Hatfield admits that his department made mistakes, the main ones being that they did not immediately upon his confession begin formal disciplinary proceeding against Dr Kelly, and suspend him. As for Dr Kelly's public identification, this came, according to Mr Hatfield, "from his own act of talking to Mr Gilligan".

There speaks a man who does not have an electorate to pander to. Mr Hatfield seems to care not one whit that his words will be considered by many to be unsentimental to the point of brutality. But at least the man should get credit for saying what he thinks. Mr Hatfield's testimony is a spin-free zone. This is the sort of straight-talking we say we want from our politicians. I wonder if we really do.

As for Pam Teare, director of news at Ministry of Defence, she certainly appears to subscribe to the view that Her Majesty's Government is a delicate flower which needs protection, while there is no greater power in the land than the media. Ms Teare was busily falling on her sword yesterday afternoon, insisting that there was no alternative to confirming Dr Kelly's name to the media because they might have published other names instead, and smeared the innocent.

Asked if the libel laws might not have prevented the papers from publishing such groundless speculation, poor Ms Teare claimed that she was not "an expert in media law." Since another feature of the inquiry has been the impression that all civil servants are interminably going off on training courses, one only has to ask why on earth isn't she.

Ms Teare, however, isn't as tough as Mr Hatfield about Dr Kelly's desperate end. She too, yesterday, muttered the phrase of the inquiry, "with hindsight", as she struggled with her cross-examination. No wonder those two words have become a mantra at this inquiry. Hindsight, after all, is what the Hutton inquiry is in place to acquire, although it is hard to say what wisdom will come with the package.

The awful thing about the Hutton inquiry, and the reason, I'm sure, why it has gripped the media and the Westminster village while leaving the public cold, is that what it reveals is stuff that common sense told us all anyway.

We know already that there is "too much spin in government". But we also know that despite all the promises, spin will continue, not just because the Government wants it, but because journalists want it too. If anything, the existence and growth of spin is a product of the media, not the Government. Ministers are still briefing away, and journalists are still obligingly passing their messages on, unattributed.

And how the politicians have come to rely on this mutually beneficial state of affairs. Their reliance on this form of communication, and discomfort when it is out of their reach, was certainly one of the reasons why the work of Andrew Gilligan irritated them so much. The Government was right to be upset about Mr Gilligan's initial allegations, because they did contain mistakes. After all, a big clue to this came when the BBC toned down his reports after the first early-morning one that barely anyone in the nation heard. What a pity that they were unable to satisfy themselves with this, and understand that the allegations were nothing compared to the sort of conspiracy theories being bandied about every evening in bars across the land.

It is a pity too that it has taken Mr Gilligan so long to admit his mistakes. The BBC undoubtedly made an error in defending him so very aggressively, when its executives weren't quite sure what they were defending. And how could they have been, when Mr Gilligan himself has no record of his explosive conversation with Dr Kelly. In the end, whatever else this inquiry establishes, it is still Mr Gilligan's word against the word of a dead man - a man who told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee he did not believe himself to be Mr Gilligan's source, then killed himself.

He maintains that the essence of his story was true - that the 45-minute claim was flawed and that Mr Kelly had told him this. That is plain for anyone to see from the progress of the war. But the thing that riled the Government was the suggestion that the claim had been made deliberately and cynically.

It was not part of the Hutton inquiry to establish whether there was any truth in that. But the matter has been cleared up anyway. The Government relied on a single, unchecked source, just like Mr Gilligan, except that their sloppy research took us to war, while Mr Gilligan's simply pointed the finger at a man - Alastair Campbell - who proved perfectly capable of defending himself against the allegations, and was intending to leave his job anyway.

It seems pretty clear to anyone who wishes to draw conclusions that absolutely everyone with any involvement at all in the Kelly affair made their own tiny contribution to the chain of events that we know occurred. But the dreadful fact is that the chain was started by Dr Kelly himself, brought to prominence by Mr Gilligan, and brought to fever-pitch by a furious government who became obsessed with finding out who Mr Gilligan's source was, and got more than they bargained for when they succeeded. All this is plain to see, with the sort of hindsight that doesn't need to be dug out by an inquiry.

As for wisdom, there's a fat chance of much of that being gained from this strange trumped-up inquest into a decent man's seduction and death by media, politics and power. Those who favoured the war continue to use Dr Kelly in order to continue their own little war - against the BBC - by other means. Those who were against it somehow continue to hope that this personal entanglement and tragedy, thousands of miles from the battlefield, will magically prove their own point. The spin continues, even as the wisdom of hindsight is being collected, collated and completed.