It was a very British occasion. In the faintly accented tones of the Northern Ireland meritocracy, Lord Hutton set out on Friday terms of reference and questions to be answered that will shine a light into the dark recesses of almost every part of the establishment. The Government, the House of Commons, the BBC, and the press are all to provide witnesses of their roles in the events leading up to the tragic death of Dr David Kelly.
There were no histrionics, there was no drama. One got the impression that if Lord Hutton had ever met Dr Kelly they would have respected, perhaps even liked each other. Dr Kelly's reputation for precision and clarity and his impatience with inaccuracy seemed to be mirrored in the unselfconsciously low-key approach of the judge. There was no risk of Lord Hutton playing to the cameras.
But the matter-of-fact and undramatic demeanour of Lord Hutton - no doubt an essential characteristic for a judge who began his career on the bench by presiding over the trials of alleged terrorists in Northern Ireland - obscures the extent to which he intends to interpret his remit and to delve deep down into government.
It is one thing to say that you want to see everything and hear everyone. But it is only when your witness list includes the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary, the chairman of the BBC governors, two committee chairmen of the House of Commons, Alastair Campbell, and journalists from the BBC and outside, not to mention the relevant officials at all levels of government, that the true depth of this inquiry becomes obvious.
But it has a feature that earlier inquiries, such as the Franks inquiry into the Falklands and the Scott inquiry into the supply of arms-related equipment to Iraq, did not possess. They were concerned with past events. In the case of Scott, the inquiry was concerned with events that had taken place under a different prime minister. There was a sense that the caravan had moved on by the time they reported, although Scott was yet another blow to the government of John Major, already reeling under severe pressure. The difference with Hutton is that this is an inquiry concerned with contemporary events, which date from 22 May at the earliest, when Dr Kelly is said to have met the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan in a London hotel.
Many of those whose reputations may be at stake are by no means ready to seek graceful and anonymous retirement if found to be at fault. The Prime Minister, if Lord Falconer is to be believed, is intent on a third term of office. How Lord Hutton judges his government will materially influence that ambition. Gavin Davies, relatively new to the job of chairman of its governors, knows only too well that if Hutton is seriously critical of the corporation it will be open season on the BBC and bound to affect the negotiations for the renewal of its charter.
Just how deeply he proposes to go beyon Gilligan's role is demonstrated by his expressed interest in the editorial supervision that Mr Gilligan received in relation to his broadcast report on 29 May on the Today programme, for which Dr Kelly is alleged to have been the source. This is treading into what the BBC has always regarded as no-go areas. Journalists called to give evidence about how Dr Kelly's name became public will feel compelled to refuse to identify their sources unless that source has already revealed their identity to the inquiry. It would be ironic if an inquiry prompted in part because of a journalistic unwillingness to reveal sources became caught up in a similar refusal by its witnesses.
This inquiry will be the first at which occupants of the chairs of a select committee of the House of Commons and of a committee of Parliament will give evidence in that capacity. Donald Anderson's Foreign Affairs Select Committee met largely in public. I doubt if any of its members, including the chairman, regard its performance as unimpeachable. It was hampered by lack of access to information thought too sensitive for it to see, by divisions which were often but not always along party lines, and by leaks. It will be surprising if he does not have adverse criticism of the Anderson committee's behaviour towards Dr Kelly. Every MP who has ever served on a select committee knows the temptation (and most of us have succumbed to it) to do a bit of grandstanding in the presence of the cameras, to "sex up" the questioning so that the questions become the story and not the answers. Lord Hutton's inquiry will do the House of Commons a service if it precipitates a wholesale review of the select committee system.
Ann Taylor's Intelligence and Security Committee is, by contrast, a committee of Parliament almost entirely composed of privy counsellors. Dr Kelly gave evidence to this committee in private, but this, as with his experience of giving evidence to the Anderson committee, will be relevant to Lord Hutton's remit.
The Hutton inquiry was necessitated by the death of Dr Kelly and the questions that it raised. But there is a larger question to which the public is entitled to have an answer: whether we went to war against Iraq on a flawed prospectus, either because of inadequate intelligence or the mishandling of intelligence by government. That question will not go away, but by exposing the innermost workings of the present government, Lord Hutton may well answer it by implication.
- More about:
- Alastair Campbell
- Falkland Islands
- House Of Commons
- Houses Of Parliament
- Labour Party