Tom Mangold: The death of my friend was no mere drama

The Channel 4 film on David Kelly is a historically valueless document
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The Independent Online

Two years ago this weekend we went to war with Iraq on the basis of information from the biggest single intelligence debacle since the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. The truth behind the events that drove Britain into Iraq, that shook government in London to its roots, that caused severe collateral damage to the BBC, left the Prime Minister's integrity scarred and ended the life of David Kelly, remains partially uncovered. So it is important that historians, dramatists and journalists keep digging away. There is still much to learn.

Two years ago this weekend we went to war with Iraq on the basis of information from the biggest single intelligence debacle since the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. The truth behind the events that drove Britain into Iraq, that shook government in London to its roots, that caused severe collateral damage to the BBC, left the Prime Minister's integrity scarred and ended the life of David Kelly, remains partially uncovered. So it is important that historians, dramatists and journalists keep digging away. There is still much to learn.

Thursday's Channel 4 drama The Government Inspector, written and directed by the respected Peter Kosminsky, in which an attempt was made to help us understand the whole affair, has done truth no favours. Instead, by merely basing the drama on true events, an auteur has flashed the usual get-out-of-jail free card which permitted him to discard and ignore the rigours, disciplines and constraints of honest journalism.

Kosminsky further protected himself and his work by saying the film was not even a drama/documentary, merely a drama. So how could anyone complain if the truth had been leaned on a little, isn't that what dramas are allowed to do? But Kosminsky wanted it both ways. He boasted about the research, and to make the product look even more credible he included live clips of the real Fiona Bruce (one of the BBC news' Voices of Absolute Truth) and Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell, another man I would trust to lead me through the jungle. It looked like the real thing, but it wasn't.

The problem with TV historical dramas is that they can often be commercially driven to stray into Oliver Stone and Michael Moore territory; the drama is presented as a thinly veiled true-life documentary acted out by competent and convincing imitators (Mark Rylance was uncannily like the real Kelly), and the subjective interpretation of the truth ends up being a polemic or a crowd-pleaser.

These good-looking dramas may easily be to truth what Santa Claus is to St Nicholas or what Peter O'Toole's portrayal was to Lawrence of Arabia. That's all right when it doesn't much matter. But the Kelly affair has left open wounds: there are responsibilities on us all, including dramatists, to get it absolutely right.

I was a friend of David Kelly and I'm known to his family. I worked for the BBC for 40 years and I am not unacquainted with intelligence reporting from Britain and the United States, so for the journalist in me, the Kelly affair was pure red meat.

Peter Kosminsky has an honourable record of made-for-TV historical dramas, including Warriors about British peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and The Innocents about the scandals at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. There are always events which can safely be interpreted by the dramatist as long as he maintains some basic journalistic discipline. Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday in 2002 is an example. He went to considerable lengths to get everything as close to reality as possible. He sought no convenient dramatic short cuts nor did he apply for dramatic licence.

Real truth is more potent than the dramatic truth - the real people, the real script, the real location. You know the feeling when you visit First World War battle sites.

The Government Inspector, despite its impressive research, was a selective truth and occasionally contained half-truths and some untruths. If Andrew Gilligan has been pilloried (rightly in my view) for getting just a little bit of his Kelly report badly wrong, then why should Kosminsky, despite wearing a dramatist's and not a journalist's hat, not suffer the same criticism? He has willingly placed his head above the parapet.

His dramatic licence allowed him to invent a mythical Iraqi scientist who tells Kelly there are no longer weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This helps the drama by implying Kelly realised too late that there were no WMD. But this event is not true. Kelly told me while he had doubts about the ludicrous "45-minute" warning, and he was getting puzzled by the failure to find WMD, he remained certain the weapons were there. He had uncovered enough of them himself after the first Iraq war to continue believing in their existence.

One of Kosminsky's scenes appears to show an MI6 officer telling Kelly that Iraq had ordered far too much biological growth media to make sense. In fact this vital information came through Israeli intelligence. A small but important point.

Another scene shows Tony Blair fiddling with his guitar while Alastair Campbell burns at the other end of the phone line with the urgency of that day's Kelly events. Blair answers a shouted call from Cherie to attend to her before playing a chord to the dumbstruck Campbell and asking him what he thinks of it. Did that happen? So if a few core "facts" in a drama are not facts but dramatic conveniences or short cuts, how can the viewer trust the whole package? What is the value of good historical drama if it knowingly contains portions of fiction? Discuss.

Kosminsky's take on the affair was necessarily selective: he received no help from Kelly's family and none from government. Could this explain why he chose to ignore what I have always believed lay at the heart of the debacle? Namely the disastrous intelligence failure by MI6, the CIA and the German state intelligence agency, who failed to find, train and exploit stay-behind networks in Iraq after the UN inspectors were withdrawn in 1998. Instead, we were all suckered by a handful of Iraqi "defectors" who wilfully told us ludicrous tales about mobile weapons laboratories and phantom shipments of yellowcake which would allow Saddam to continue a nuclear programme.

The truth is that intelligence went from feast to famine between 1998 and the inspectors' return late in 2003. We now know that the handful of Iraqi spies we used were largely useless.

And why did Kosminsky choose to ignore the uncomfortable reality of the failure of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), then under its chairman John Scarlett, to check, re-check and double-check again the quality of the rotten reports coming from Vauxhall and Langley? Surely Scarlett should have run a Team A, Team B game, with one side assuming Saddam was lying about WMD and another assuming he was telling the truth. We would never have gone to war had this happened.

Why did Kosminsky ignore the infinitely subtle relationship between our intelligence services and a government which desperately wanted to believe the baloney coming from the JIC? And why did he ignore John Scarlett's curious role in trying to influence in the most direct way the first reports coming from the Iraq Survey Group's inspectors after their eventual return to Baghdad indicating (somewhat post hoc) that there were indeed no WMD to be found? After all, in his coveted new role as head of MI6, Scarlett remains an even more powerful member of an establishment that told us last week there are 200 al-Qa'ida terrorists openly walking the pavements of Britain to this day.

Kosminsky will answer by saying that this was too complex and too inaccessible for the dramatist to handle, whereas the melodrama of Kelly's descent from honourable service to his country to the taking of his life following an inevitable disclosure of even a minor dishonourable act (in lying to a parliamentary committee) was the stuff of real spectacle, his personal selection from the wealth of dramatic opportunities offered by the whole affair. This is unarguable, and it is the dramatist's right to pick and mix.

But history, as we all know, is the propaganda of the victors. Channel 4 had a wonderful opportunity to present, in documentary form, some important aspects of the affair which would have informed, educated and entertained a nation that remains puzzled, divided and still largely ill-informed about how government and establishments work in crisis.

Kosminsky's touching film - well made and superbly acted - remains a historically valueless document. I hope it is filed under "fiction" for future historians to ignore. For David Kelly's sake, I hope someone else is preparing the real story.

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