A complete victory - but Blair would do well to avoid a triumphal stance

'...there is a real, and not wholly comfortable message for the media in Lord Hutton's remarks'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the end the leak which, rightly so, infuriated Lord Hutton understated the case. He vindicated the Government even more vigorously than yesterday's Sun reported him as having done. It was always unrealistic, if not unreasonable, for even the Government's fiercest critics to expect that he would somehow produce a report that would help to bring a Prime Minister down. Not at all unworthily, senior judges as constitutionally minded as Lord Hutton see very clearly the great dangers of performing the task which democratic countries allot to their electorates.

That said, it cannot fail to be a surprise that his report is so comprehensive a win for the Government over the BBC - a win which was only underlined by Tony Blair's triumphant humiliation of a struggling Michael Howard in the Commons yesterday. Some weeks ago, a senior Labour figure remarked that he could see some political merit in the report being "a little uncomfortable" for the Government, as well as coming down hard on the BBC. The report hardly fulfils that minimal expectation. Apart from some generalised criticisms of the MoD's failure to warn Dr Kelly fully of the process under which his name might become public - criticisms which Mr Blair was quick to point out in the Commons yesterday ascribed no blame to any individual - the report pretty well exonerates the Government on every material point he regarded as within his remit. The report, produced with commendable speed by the standards of previous judicial inquiries, is admirably lucid. The inquir, itself has been a triumph of openness, as much because of the speed and clarity with which it published its own evidence as for the extraordinary light it has shed on the inner workings of government.

It was impossible too, listening to Lord Hutton yesterday at the Royal Courts of Justice narrating in deeply sympathetic but judicial and matter-of-fact tones the account of the last awful days of Dr David Kelly, not to be moved by the human tragedy that he described enveloping this fundamentally decent and public spirited man. The inquiry is almost impossible to fault.

It says, moreover, much that needed to be said about the BBC's handling of the row with the Government in which Dr Kelly became engulfed. Neither the resignation of Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, nor the terse holding statement issued by the director general can disguise the sense of shock at the corporation. It had been braced for criticism but not criticism as devastating or - as the BBC sees it - as one-sided as this. It is true too, that Lord Hutton has devoted much more attention to what the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan got wrong in his reports than to what he got right. Yet most of the central criticisms - that the system should have allowed the unfounded Gilligan report about the 45-minute claim to be subjected to editorial scrutiny, that the e-mail from the Today programme editor, referring to Gilligan's "loose use of language and poor judgement", should have gone much further up the system, and that the governors should have much more fully investigated the rights and wrongs of the Alastair Campbell complaint before it mounted its justified protection of the independence of the BBC - are bound to stick. On the one hand, the BBC executives may have a point in arguing that they took Mr Gilligan's initial defence on trust and that Lord Hutton lays too heavy an emphasis on their failure to examine the reporter's palm-top notes, which were compiled anyway at the end of his meeting with Dr Kelly. Some within the BBC mount a legalistic argument that Lord Hutton's incontestable, but all encompassing, claim that "false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others should not be made by the media" cuts across recent judgments like that in Reynolds v Times Newspapers, that a journalist may have a public interest defence for subsequently discovered and unintentional errors of fact. Certainly, every journalist makes mistakes - often big ones - in his or her career. But there is a real, and not wholly comfortable message for the media in Lord Hutton's remarks; as the British editor and journalist John Lloyd has pointed out, one of the reasons for the fabulous success of the Watergate investigation was precisely the relentless insistence on detailed, factual accuracy, from Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee down.

But it's precisely the comprehensiveness of Lord Hutton's critique of the BBC that makes his contrasting lenience towards the Government as a whole, at times bordering on what looks like naivety, so striking, on two issues in particular. The first concerns the September dossier. Once it finally became clear that charges of actual government falsification were worthless, the remaining question was whether the document on Saddam's WMD was "sexed up" in the less malign sense alluded to by Lord Hutton yesterday and in which several senior figures in the intelligence world believed it was, to the detriment of the document's own credibility: "may's" turned into "is's"; "suggests" turned into "says"; single sourced claims about 45-minute deployments denuded of the qualification that they applied only to battlefield weapons; and so on. Lord Hutton fails even to make a judgment about this and does not condemn the fact that very real concerns expressed by senior officials in the Defence Intelligence Staff were not brought to ministers' attention. Here, the Government always had the defence, in the last resort, that the document had been signed off by the Joint Intelligence Committee, chaired by John Scarlett, albeit a man who at least one of his predecessors has suggested became too closely integrated into Downing Street. But apart from a gentle reference to possible "sub-conscious" influences on him, Mr Scarlett is blandly given an entirely clean bill of health.

More striking still are the passages on the naming of Dr Kelly. Lord Hutton's clearance of the Prime Minister is highly persuasive, to the extreme discomfort of Michael Howard. But to anyone who was around Whitehall and Westminster in July, his acceptance that the process which ended with the naming of Dr Kelly was motivated solely to avoid charges of a cover-up is all but incredible. That some senior government figures were anxious to see his name in the public domain, partly because his job and what appeared to be his story would undermine the BBC's case, is certain - and would have been even if Mr Campbell's diary had not said that, if Dr Kelly was the source, it would "fuck Gilligan". That clues were given is hardly less doubtful: James Blitz of the Financial Times testified to the inquiry that even the formal Downing Street briefing on 9 July gave enough information to lead a persistent journalist to the name of the source. All this sits very uneasily indeed, to put it mildly, with the public statement by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, that every possible step was taken to protect Dr Kelly's anonymity. This statement appears not to have troubled Lord Hutton in the least; indeed Mr Hoon is given a clean bill of health as spectacular as it was unexpected.

Indeed, the whole tenor of the report is unexpected, in that it was widely thought that, while it would clear the Prime Minister of impropriety, it would have some harsh criticisms of both sides in the argument which raged through last summer. In the Manichean world of the media-political complex, this was a zero sum game; for politicians and many commentators, either the BBC or the Government had to be right. Lord Hutton, it was thought, might criticise both sides, even if the BBC came off worse. Instead, he has judged the matter almost like a civil case, coming down on one side against the other.

All this should caution the Blair administration against too triumphalist a response to the report. Mr Blair's bullish but magisterially argued statement yesterday was, no doubt, a parliamentary model of its kind. The concerted Labour hisses and shouts that greeted Mr Howard's, admittedly, fairly dismal performance were inexcusable and should have been stopped earlier by the Speaker. Nor was it necessarily a good idea to allow Mr Campbell to follow up with his own belligerent public statement.

In the animalistic world of the political cockpit, the totality of Mr Blair's triumph can't be gainsaid. The contrast between Labour excitement and Tory glumness in the Commons yesterday said it all. The Prime Minister has had an incredible week, which makes it infinitely likelier that he will lead Labour into the next election than not. A win is a win - yesterday, as on Tuesday night. But the report still leaves some big unanswered questions - not all of them confined to the larger issues about WMD and the run-up to war in Iraq, which were judged beyond Lord Hutton's remit. That, if anything, should now caution the Government against hubris, as it contemplates the clear uplands that seem to beckon so invitingly between now and the next general election.