The Hutton twist

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

The conclusions of the Hutton report, which have surprised even ardent supporters of the Tony Blair government, may have dangerous consequences for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

in London

FOR months, the conventional wisdom among Britain's political and media pundits had been that Lord Hutton's inquiry report into the issues surrounding the death of the defence scientist David Kelly could prove to be deeply embarrassing for Prime Minister Tony Blair and further damage his government's credibility. For all the speculation and dire predictions, nobody seriously believed that the report would directly criticise Blair, but it was widely expected to contain a robust criticism of the government's overall conduct during the events leading to Kelly's death (Frontline, August 15, 2003). Key figures such as Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and the Prime Minister's former communications chief, Alastair Campbell, were seen to be particularly vulnerable. Indeed, there was a great deal of nervousness even within the government and Ministers were said to be working on a damage limitation strategy.

In the event, however, Lord Hutton lived up to his reputation of being a "conservative with a small C" and a solid establishment man by producing a report which, as a senior Tory Member of Parliament put it, could not have been more favourable to the government if Downing Street itself had prepared it.

The eagerly awaited 700-odd-page report, unveiled by Lord Hutton himself at a hushed gathering at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on January 29, exonerated the government on just about every count - most important the allegation that it had exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. In contrast, it delivered a devastating verdict against the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), plunging it into its worst crisis ever and raising questions about its future as an independent public broadcaster. Its Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director-General Greg Dyke have resigned. They acknowledged that the BBC did make some "mistakes" but questioned the "black-and-white" nature of Lord Hutton's findings, blaming everything on the BBC while letting the government off the hook completely.

Also gone is Andrew Gilligan, the correspondent whose broadcast on Radio 4's Today programme on May 29 last year, accusing the government of "sexing up" intelligence claims about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), triggered what came to be known as the "Kelly affair". That broadcast brought the BBC into a bitter confrontation with the government, especially Campbell, and touched off a chain of events culminating in the death of Kelly, who committed suicide in late July 2003 after being named as the source of the Gilligan story.

The Hutton report vindicated Blair's claim that his government had been falsely accused of distorting intelligence for political ends and deliberately presenting an alarming assessment of Iraq's WMDs in the dossier published in September 2002. It said the dossier was "drafted" and approved by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and although Downing Street suggested a number of changes, only those consistent with independent intelligence assessments were accepted by the JIC Chairman, John Scarlett.

Lord Hutton forcefully rejected the BBC's allegation that the government embellished the dossier by inserting claims that it knew were wrong, particularly the bit that Iraq could deploy its WMDs within 45 minutes. Lambasting the BBC for broadcasting "unfounded" and "grave" allegations against the government, he said that editorial controls at the BBC were "defective" and questioned the way its management rushed to Gilligan's defence without properly investigating whether the remarks he had attributed to Kelly were accurate. He ticked off the BBC Governors for relying exclusively on what the management told them rather than verifying themselves the accuracy of the Gilligan broadcast.

In a damning indictment of the Governors, he said: "If they had done this they would probably have discovered that the notes (of Gilligan's meeting with Kelly) did not support the allegation that the government knew that the 45-minute claim was probably wrong, and the Governors should then have questioned whether it was right for the BBC to maintain that it was in the public interest to broadcast that allegation in Mr. Gilligan's report and to rely on Mr. Gilligan's assurances that his report was accurate."

He also criticised the BBC for not addressing properly the government's concerns over the Gilligan report, which it saw as an attack on its "integrity".

IN glaring contrast, Lord Hutton gave a clean chit to everyone in the government. To the surprise of their own supporters, both Hoon and Campbell were cleared of any impropriety in the way they handled the Kelly affair, particularly the manner in which the scientist was publicly identified as the BBC's source. While Kelly's family has maintained that it was the decision to name him that drove him to suicide as he felt publicly humiliated and was not able to cope, Lord Hutton concluded that the government did not act in a "dishonourable" or deceitful manner in this matter.

He agreed with the Government's view that once Kelly had come forward to accept that he had spoken to Gilligan it was "unrealistic" to believe that his identity would have remained secret, and that if the government had refused to disclose his name it would have been accused of a "cover-up".

Predictably, Blair has seized on the report to demand an apology from his critics. Speaking in the House of Commons minutes after the release of the report, he said: "The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is itself the real lie. And, I simply ask that those who have repeated it all over these months now withdraw it, fully, openly and clearly... (Geoff Hoon) in particular has been subjected to a constant barrage of such claims.... I hope these attacks on him over this issue also cease."

But outside the government, there has been widespread criticism of what is seen as a "one-sided" and "unbalanced" report. According to an opinion poll, 56 per cent of the people believed the report is a "whitewash". Even pro-Labour commentators said that it could be summed up in one sentence: "The government was right and the BBC was wrong." In by far the most stark comment, the newspaper The Independent left its entire front page blank with just one word and a question mark: "Whitewash?"

Kelly's family has voiced its disappointment with Lord Hutton's conclusions. Anti-war activists burnt copies of his report, saying that he did not address the main issue at the heart of the Kelly scandal: whether the government led the country into a war on a false pretext, considering that no WMDs had been found in Iraq. An analysis in The Guardian said that Lord Hutton had not answered many "awkward" questions and had left himself "open to accusations of having cherry-picked the evidence that supports the government and sidelined that which supports the BBC". It said that despite "conflicting" evidence, Lord Hutton "invariably" gave "Ministers and government officials the benefit of the doubt rather than the BBC".

Legal experts have questioned Lord Hutton's observations on the media, which, they said, amounted to placing dangerous restrictions on the freedom of the press. "I think it is very regrettable that some sections of the media have attacked the BBC without realising the dangers inherent in the Hutton report to free expression for themselves and their readers," Anthony Lester QC , who is also a Liberal Democrat peer, said. Greg Dyke said the BBC's legal team thought that there were "areas of law (relating to journalists) where he's got it wrong".

There is great apprehension that the pressure on the BBC could cause it to become too cautious, leading to a degree of "self-censorship" that could destroy its traditional independence. The new management, it is feared, would be keen to play it safe in the run-up to the renewal of the BBC's charter as a public broadcaster. Nearly 6,000 BBC employees personally paid for a newspaper advertisement asserting its independence. "We are resolute that the BBC should not step back from its determination to investigate the facts in pursuit of the truth," they declared.

But already there is mounting pressure, demanding that either the BBC be privatised or be subjected to greater "accountability", a euphemism for government control. Although the government has denied that the Hutton report would influence the BBC's charter renewal process, fears remain that difficult days could be ahead for the world's oldest and perhaps the only independent public broadcaster.

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