The Government should not assume that it is now over the worst

Did Dr Kelly have any reason to think he might lose something - his job, his pension rights - if he didn't co-operate?
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The Independent Online

After the agonies of Saturday - easily the worst day of his premiership - Tony Blair had begun to recover. He knew from early that morning that the BBC was going to do what the Government had hoped David Kelly would do and proclaim him as the sole source for Andrew Gilligan's story. The one cloud still hovering over the Blair short-term recovery strategy had been lifted.

It is no disrespect to Lord Hutton, an eminent judge, to say that an important part of the Blair recovery was to call an inquiry and then give him a very narrow remit. He isn't supposed to reopen the whole question of the basis of the war in Iraq, or even of the intelligence used to justify it. Instead he will, as Mr Blair has repeatedly said in the past 72 hours, establish the "facts" about the events leading up to Dr Kelly's death. When the Prime Minister says, as he did on Sunday, that "of course" he believes he knows what those facts are, he isn't really saying anything pre-emptive or improper. He is saying, reasonably enough, that he has his version of events and it will be up to the judge to agree or disagree with it, the position of every litigant and defendant through the ages. What's slightly odder about the turn of phrase is the fixation with "the facts", suggesting that the deep human question of the avoidability of a good man's death is somehow simpler to establish than it is.

For the narrowness of Lord Hutton's remit does not mean that there aren't important questions about the Government's as well as the BBC's conduct for him to answer within it. Presumably, to take just one example, the Government is confident that it can make a credible case that it scrupulously followed correct formal procedures in its treatment of David Kelly during the days after he told colleagues and his line management that he had indeed spoken to Andrew Gilligan.

It's likely that it was precisely to establish this point that Mr Blair spoke while still on his flight from Washington to Sir Kevin Tebbit, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and a man with direct responsibility for those procedures before announcing the enquiry.

But Lord Hutton is entitled to ask some searching questions about precisely what passed between Dr Kelly and his interlocutors during what seem to have been several days of interviews. Did Dr Kelly have any reason to think he might lose something - his job, his pension rights, his chance of returning to Iraq to carry out the hugely valuable work he had carried out before - if he didn't co-operate? All these have been matters of persistent speculation. Was any offer floated, however tentatively, in return for his going further than he - for whatever reasons - was prepared to go? Did they have any reasons for anxiety about how Dr Kelly would react to this kind of pressure, if pressure there was? How much did the Prime Minister know about the negotiations? And how far, if at all, was the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, in his department's unmasking of Dr Kelly, motivated by the desire to vindicate the Government's decision to go to war as well as to uncover the exact truth of what passed between the two men?

Maybe the answers to these questions are "not at all". Maybe, even if they are "yes", they are entirely defensible by a department carrying out a leak enquiry. But they are certainly relevant to the question of Dr Kelly's state of mind in the period preceding his death. As is the decision, still not wholly explained, to write to the BBC demanding that they say whether he was the only source for the Gilligan story the day after the Foreign Affairs Select Committee had cleared Alastair Campbell, however messily, of the central charge of inserting the famous "WMD detonated within 45 minutes" claim into the dossier - and at a time when both Mr Campbell and Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC, both seemed to backing away from escalating the confrontation.

What is less easy for Lord Hutton to ask is some of the much bigger questions: whether, even with the imprimatur of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the use of intelligence, all of it no doubt genuine but some of it no doubt fallible, as part of a propaganda effort was wise, right and in the interests of the intelligence services themselves; and whether Downing Street exceeded its duties as a client, and some of those at the top of the intelligence services their duties as the provider in acceding to this exercise. Why, above all, was a relatively insignificant story, however wrong, exaggerated and mischievous, turned into a cause célèbre that made the question of Prime Ministerial trust a much bigger one than it would otherwise have been? That was the process that led, however indirectly, to the tragic death of a public servant.

To dwell today on the questions the Government has to answer isn't for a moment to suggest the BBC doesn't have at least as many. But they are in the firing line anyway, thanks only in part to a hammering by Mr Blair's lieutenants like Peter Mandelson, which is in almost laughably direct contradiction of his calls for "restraint" until Hutton has reported.

But the BBC - or at least parts of it - has some serious problems.

It isn't only a matter of the relentless "why are the bastards lying to me" culture of the Today programme, about which I have written before, or its increasing tendency to lapse into the role of a non-ideological Daily Mail of the air.

There are questions about whether the BBC's chairman - and to a lesser extent Mr Dyke - were keener to protect their own reputations for not being patsies when they had been New Labour donors and allies than the BBC's journalistic standing. About why they let a journalist who - however celebrated - was relatively inexperienced, make the running on a single-sourced "story", much of it opinion rather than fact, which should have been subject, to put it very mildly indeed, to the sort of old fashioned journalistic evaluation it required and is common on the humblest of local papers. And there is a big question of why they aren't generally more scrupulous in the treatment of their sources.

But that question of source treatment applies to the Government too. They too might have interrogated their sources - at least metaphorically - a little more diligently than they did even if it got in the way of a good, and perhaps for them necessary, story. It's hard to resist - and equally hard to prove - the conclusion that their extreme sensitivities about the wrong 45 minute story was that, deep in their collective subconscious, they knew this.

Mr Blair - even if others don't - may yet "win" on the narrow issues being examined by Lord Hutton. But the much bigger question of whether we had the justification for going to war in Iraq won't be; and that question has as much to do with Mr Blair's long-term reputation as the tragic death of a public servant who failed, in the end, to satisfy either of two organisations seeking to exploit him in a conflict with each other.

d.macintyre@btinternet.com

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