At The Hutton Enquiry

Daniel Soar

If one thing is clear by now (and something has to be), it is that the machinery of government is not so much uniformly nefarious as multifariously uniformed: the left hand knows what the right hand wants it to do, but there are proper procedures it should follow in the present circumstances, and the right hand respects that – so long as the left hand does in the end pick up the pieces. And it will.

Downing Street’s first-choice strategy for the outing of David Kelly – writing, semi-publicly, to the Intelligence and Security Committee to offer him as a witness – was vetoed by Ann Taylor MP, the Committee’s chairman, whose staff refused to be sent the suggested letter. In her testimony to the Inquiry, Taylor explained that ‘my Committee doesn’t take publicity as something that is central to its activity: quite the reverse,’ not only because it deals in state secrets, but – in a nice put-down to her more trivially minded government colleagues and fellow witnesses – because it gets a lot more work done that way. Yet her disdain for such distractions didn’t stop her from proposing a subtly different strategy with an identical outcome: though it couldn’t accept a letter from Downing Street (she wouldn’t want to appear to be taking orders, after all), the ISC wouldn’t object to a press release stating that an unnamed official had come forward as a possible source for Andrew Gilligan’s suspect reports and that he was available as a witness to the Committee, if they wished to call him.

The ISC was set up in 1994 to scrutinise the work of the several Intelligence agencies; it reports to the Prime Minister, and then (once sensitive material has been removed) to Parliament. Reading between the asterisks of the annual reports, you find the trend of the recommendations is that various new Intelligence programmes need more resources: the ISC has turned out to be less a critic than a sponsor of the agencies. With this in mind, it isn’t so surprising that one Prime Ministerial adviser should have suggested in an e-mail to the rest of the gang that when the famous September dossier was debated in the Commons, Ann Taylor should ‘talk the credibility of the intelligence if she would be up for that’. She didn’t, as it happened, speak in the debate – but there’s no reason to suppose she wouldn’t have been up for it.

DIS, SIS, ICG, CIC, JIC, FAC, ISC, DCDI: these are a few of the acronyms most frequently referred to in the proceedings of the Inquiry and in the evidence submitted to it – several hundred letters, e-mails, transcripts, drafts, reports and scribbles (the scribbles aren’t always fully legible to the scribbler being questioned; conversely, and entertainingly, some of the excised sections of evidence aren’t very well blacked out). And here is a question put by James Dingemans QC (Lord Hutton’s chief – and, currently, chiefly benign – inquisitor) to Alastair Campbell: ‘Mr Powell told us yesterday that you had told him that Mr Baldwin had told you that the person who told him this information was Mr Sambrook.’ Campbell’s answer: no, it was more complicated than that. The pundits called to testify on air and in print have been exercised by one consequence of the Inquiry in particular: the unprecedented degree of access to internal government communications that have traditionally been withheld under the 30-year rule. If we’re following closely, we’re supposed to understand things about the workings of government we’ve never understood before.

The papers haven’t made much of Ann Taylor’s testimony, but then there’s a great deal of other evidence to make much of; and Taylor was on after the headline-dominating Geoff Hoon, who came close to proving that at least within the Ministry of Defence politicians are superfluous to the politics. If you follow any significant line from the Inquiry far enough through the Whitehall warrens you can find your favourite ending – which has made reporting the Hutton Inquiry a perfect game for journalists, and the whole arrangement one big party. After the first few days, a marquee was installed in a courtyard to make room for the growing number of press attendees. Or of the lowlier ones at least: each major news organisation is allocated a few blue badges that permit entry into the courtroom itself, and the senior figures grab them. It’s nice to learn who is the biggest wig at the BBC and who ignores whom, and nice to watch the ITN team huddle on the steps to fill one another in on the points they missed and plan what they’re going to run with. The marquee must be something they usually get out for summer dos – it has jolly gold chandeliers and frilly trimmings – and there’s room for everybody, which makes it puzzling that most journalists turn up to queue for tickets for the day at least two hours before the proceedings begin, the only reasonable explanation being that they’re taking advantage of the chance to stand around nattering. And they do natter, affably exchanging opinions on the outcome of the previous day or less affably defending them. Whispering is rare. The media are the circus in Hutton’s Big Top, and there are sideshows, too. On Day Ten, Glenn Frankel, the correspondent from the Washington Post, who has been regularly turning up on the BBC to put across the Martian view, was entertaining a small audience with the story of his discovery that a mysterious Jake Anderson, billed as the Washington Post correspondent, had taken his place on Radio 5. He didn’t seem to mind.

Whatever their unbroadcast opinions, and however firmly held, there is a due process that reporters at the bottom of the chain must follow, which depends on selecting and accurately relaying key newsworthy quotes, and dismissing the irrelevant ones (‘crap’ and ‘doesn’t go anywhere’ being designations that are hard not to overhear). Quotes are the raw material with which the case – for war on Number 10, for war on the BBC (as required) – is built up. But the chief distortion doesn’t occur where you’d expect it to, at the drafting stage, when presentational and rhetorical considerations apply: rather, it’s a consequence of the initial newsgathering. Take (as an arbitrary example) the Guardian’s 28 August report by Vikram Dodd headed ‘Kelly’s Last Day of Stress and Turmoil’. It was a fill-in sideline to the bigger news of the day, and covered the testimony of two witnesses who shared one of the offices Kelly used to spend time in. The lead quote, and the only one from either witness to make it onto the Guardian’s website during the course of the day (where it appeared under the byline of other reporters), was that Kelly had found the experience of appearing before the FAC ‘worse than his PhD interview’. The quotes that constitute the backbone of the published story follow from this: he was worried about being subjected to the ‘full glare of the press’; he had a ‘bad headache’ on the day he died; ‘he said he was holding up all right, but it had come to a head and his wife had taken it really very badly’; she was ‘very upset’. The unreportable body of their testimony – unreportable because it didn’t include intensifiers (no ‘full’, no ‘very’, no ‘bad’, much ordinary undramatic fact) – was to do with Kelly’s visits to Iraq, his working routine, his relationship with his line manager. A different selection of quotes would constitute a (very) different story. It might include the suggestion that though he hadn’t seemed particularly surprised or upset by what was seen at large to be aggressive and bullying questioning at the hands of the FAC, Kelly was unsettled by one thing: a quote read out to him from Susan Watts, the Newsnight science correspondent, which – you assume – he recognised as having originated with him.

This particular Guardian article – one unremarkable report among many others, and dealing with uncontroversial and non-political questions – wasn’t written to conform to any conceivable prejudiced view. It was compiled from quotes that were perceived to be newsworthy, and therefore worth reporting. The procedure followed by newsgatherers isn’t very different from the procedure followed by gatherers of Intelligence: in both cases, the rule is that if it’s new and reliable (or new and based on an established and trusted line of reporting), it should be passed up the chain. The assessments as to its relevance in the broader picture are made by others.

And to keep the broader picture in mind: after most of the first stage of the Hutton Inquiry, it’s no longer possible reasonably to sustain the view that Downing Street demanded that the public September dossier be ‘strengthened’, ‘hardened up’ or ‘sexed up’ once the early drafts had been submitted to them by the Joint Intelligence Committee. It is reasonable to sustain the view that David Kelly and unnamed, unnumbered interested others were unhappy with some of the material the dossier contained, and that he and others told journalists that Downing Street had interfered with its final content. This wasn’t an unreasonable assumption for them to make, given that certain details of the document didn’t square with their understanding of the threat from Iraq. It looked like spin, and smelled like spin, but it was ‘raw Intelligence’: too raw, since the qualifying context of the scary quotes sent up from the bottom of the chain had been stripped away – partly for security reasons to do with the protection of sources, but certainly for other reasons, too. The 45-minute claim, for instance, was vaguely enough worded for it to be unclear to the experts what kind of weapons systems it referred to. It was generalised in order to frighten, with the consequence that what was originally a reference to small front-line munitions could be read, and was, as dealing with rather scarier long-range missiles. Downing Street didn’t rewrite the draft because it didn’t have to: that task was carried out by the JIC, under the chairmanship of John Scarlett, reporting to David Omand in the Cabinet Office, with some prior guidance from the Downing Street communications specialists, who gave him presentational advice he was happy to receive. He was, in every sense, up for it.

29 August