With the NOTW issue to the fore, the old “Independent Judicial Inquiry” bandwagon has been set rolling once again.
I heard Greg Dyke on the radio this week, and he was reminiscing about his experience in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry.
I thought it might be worth revisiting that spectacularly farcical process.
In 2002 Tony Blair’s government (I have used those words quite carefully) was at least considering participation in armed intervention in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. Some would say that it or he had in fact already signed up to a war which was going to happen come hell or high water, but some readers may find that a shocking and unduly cynical comment. Some may not.
Thus, in September of that year the Blair government published the so called “September Dossier” in an attempt to bolster support for the proposed invasion.
The famously “dodgy” Dossier contained a number of allegations about Saddam Hussein’s intentions and capacity to obtain or use Weapons of Mass Destruction. Two in particular stood out: that Iraq had tried to acquire significant quantities or uranium from Africa (specifically Niger), and in the forward to the document by Tony Blair himself, that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”
These reports then echoed around the media in various different forms. The Sun, for example, carried the headline “Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War.” And in a speech in January 2003 George W. Bush said:
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The documents which supported this claim were subsequently found to be almost certainly fakes.
On 29th May 2003 BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan reported on Radio 4’s Today programme that the Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Press Office had embellished, or, in the classic phrase “sexed up” the September Dossier. Gilligan later repeated this claim and identified chief government press secretary and Tony Blair’s heavyweight political fixer Alistair Campbell as the driving force behind perking up the contents.
It is sometimes a little easy to forget how formidable and indeed intimidating the Blair political machine was. Headed by the elemental force of pure bullying that was Campbell at his worst or best (depending on how you want to look at it), the government launched angry denials and accusations. Gilligan defended his claim and said that he had received the information from a credible source. After intense speculation that source was identified as government scientist Dr David Kelly. In the face of the furore, the timid Dr Kelly apparently committed suicide – although there remain those who hold a different view.
Lord Hutton was given the task of inquiring into “the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly”.
Hutton, it will be recalled, all but exonerated the government of any wrongdoing. In particular he found that Gilligan’s original accusations were unfounded and the dossier had not been “sexed up” and “was in line with available intelligence”, although the Joint Intelligence Committee may have been unfortunately but “subconsciously” influenced by the government’s desire for a clear and positive report.
As a result, Gilligan was sacked and the BBC, faced with a baying government demanding apologies and retribution cowered like a whipped cur. The BBC’s Director General, Greg Dyke, was obliged to resign.
The irony of all this, of course, was that the core of Gilligan’s claim were self evidently true. If I had been asked to describe honestly what happened about the dossier I could have written a very short report to the effect that, rightly or wrongly, Phoney Tony had already committed us to war. The hard evidence for WMD was scanty to say the least, and this was most inconvenient. Alistair Campbell thus redrafted and overcooked what was available to suit the case. Campbell was a brute of a fixer and had the full authority of the PM, and the spooks did what they were told, doubtless afraid of the adverse consequences to careers and gongs if they did not play ball. Faced with a little light being shone on this débâcle, under Campbell the government’s spin machine went into vigorous aggressive and self righteous attack – always the mark of the bully, in my experience. Kelly committed suicide faced with the pressure.
That would have saved the public a very long and expensive process, but it was never likely that I would have been asked, I’m afraid.
As it happened, nobody with an ounce of common sense and who did not belong to incestuous political/“meeja” world which feasts so richly on the public purse thought the Hutton Report was anything other than a…well, crock of merde (pardon my French).
Why did Hutton get it so spectacularly wrong? There are two explanations. One is that he was just a hired gun appointed to find whatever was necessary. I do not discount this. I am always amazed that there is the assumption that a figure such as Hutton is “independent”. He was, and is, part and parcel of the Establishment with a capital “E”. A High Court judge or indeed a Law Lord is a government employee, pure and simple. He knows who pays his salary. It is ludicrous to imagine that an appointee like Hutton will not be acutely aware of the political dimension to the job he is being asked to do, and the consequences of his decision for him personally, and the government in particular. When the Hutton Report was published Britain was to all intents and purposes still at war under a government which had sanctioned that war. The idea that an inquiry could say that the government of the day had indeed committed the country to war on the strength of false and exaggerated evidence dreamed up by a Spin Doctor who by should not be trusted with a burned out match would have been inconceivable.
The other is that he just got it wrong. I have some limited experience High Court judges. They are all intellectually very bright. Many are street smart and cynical as well; they know and understand more about human nature than anyone. But there are some, still intellectually gifted, who seem to have missed a bit of common sense. If you asked me if a government Press Officer for Phoney Tony was capable of, well let’s say being over optimistic in the presentation of information, I would simply laugh like a hyena on speed. But such a personality as I have described might be positively offended. A government official dishonest? A shocking and unbelievable allegation! How could that be true? Now a journalist, well one could believe anything of one of those…
So I have a weary cynicism about the prospects of an independent inquiry into anything. There will be lots of fees for my learned friends, lots gravy trains will roll, and the conclusions will be so reasonable and so…whatever the government deems necessary. It will be a grand party for sure, and plenty of the self styled great and the good will are on hand to lend their “wisdom”. And it will find whatever the Government needs it to find, taking into account the political dynamics of the day.
And here is the result of my own Independent Report into the Press. The Press should be free to report what they like, subject only to the rules of contempt of court. The freedom of the Press is an essential bastion against the creeping State and a vital spotlight on the grasping, disingenuous, and dishonest political classes who want to hide their venality and incompetence. This vital role outweighs the possible reasons for restricting the Press, and if there are some casualties of striking the balance in that way, I’m sorry, that’s just too bad. Life is not perfect. Laws are not perfect.
The pernicious super injunction and its various bastard offspring should be outlawed. The Press should be free to investigate any way they like that does not breach the present criminal law. There is no need for a new law to say that; it’s self evident. There may, though, need to be a mechanism on behalf of persons of ordinary means whereby false stories can be quickly and properly corrected and a reasonable and not overblown compensation can be paid without invoking an army of lawyers.
Somehow, I don’t think I’m going to be invited to the party.
Gildas the Monk