Thoughts on Dr Kelly
20 Jul 2003
Dr Kelly facing MP's last week
Dr Kelly facing MP's last week
"Events over recent weeks made David's life intolerable and all of those involved should reflect long and hard on this fact"

This extract from the statement issued by David Kelly's family contains sound advice.

One of the parties involved, namely the media, should not need very long to reflect that door-stepping the grieving family, camping outside their home, and ringing up close friends is simply unacceptable behaviour. This type of siege is indefensible after any bereavement; it is an outrage given the background to Dr Kelly's death. The media have much to answer for in the lead up to Thursday's tragedy; they should not compound their offence by further insensitivity after the event. In the name of humanity, they should fold up their tents and leave the Kelly family in peace.

One of the other parties that needs to reflect is Parliament. The job of Parliament between elections is to hold the Executive to account. We do this by asking Ministers to explain themselves and to defend what the Government is doing in our name. Our system of Ministerial accountability obliges Ministers to account to Parliament for what is done by their Departments.

We have traditionally done this by robust debate and by questions; but more recently Parliament has developed the Select Committee system as a more cohesive and focussed way of doing this. When Ministers appear before Select Committees, they are rightly exposed to the cut-and-thrust of Parliamentary debate and questions, and no one should lose too much sleep about how they are treated. Many have been in the position of asking questions in this type of forum before they became Ministers. And they usually give as good as they get.

But unlike debates and Parliamentary questions, people who are not MP's can take part in Select Committee procedures. We sometimes forget that our culture is not their culture; that what may seem acceptable behaviour to us is not so viewed by them. We may regard them as yet another witness, to be treated as a fellow-MP. They may expect greater civility from their elected representatives. After all, we have invited them to help us with our reports, and democracy is not well-served if citizens dread an invitation to take part in the democratic process.

I could not help noticing the contrast between the treatment given to Dr Kelly before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last week; and the treatment given to the Prime Minister by the Liaison Committee the week before. The tone of Dr Kelly's questioning was at times abrasive, discourteous and, in retrospect, highly insensitive. Not so with the Prime Minister. Yes, we were persistent and asked him awkward questions. But on the whole we were polite. Yet if ever there was a man who could look after himself in that environment, it is our Prime Minister. So why did Parliament give Dr Kelly a harder time?

The BBC also has some hard questions to ask itself. Might their reporter, Andrew Gilligan, have embellished what Dr Kelly told him? Did the BBC display more loyalty than judgement in defending the integrity of their reporter? Could they have relieved the pressure on Dr Kelly by being more open about their sources of information at an earlier stage? Could the men at the top have prevented the dispute with the Government from escalating to the extent that it did, with tragic consequences?

And so has the Ministry of Defence. Did Dr Kelly know that his name was going to be put in the public domain, or did he believe that he had spoken in confidence to his line management? Did the Ministry of Defence offer him all the support which he needed to cope with the media onslaught and personal pressure? What was the involvement of Ministers in some of these key decisions? Who are the "dark actors" that Dr Kelly referred to in his last email?

And so has the Strategic Communications Unit at No 10. Did it let its anger with the BBC cloud its judgement, and did it also pursue a dispute to unreasonable lengths? Were the public ever going to have more confidence in what they were told by No 10 as opposed to what they were told by the BBC? Should we revert to the previous system, where the Government Information Service was staffed by professional, neutral Civil Servants, and not by party political appointees?

And what about the Prime Minister? In one respect, what happened cannot be laid at his door. We should await Lord Hutton, but I would be surprised if he personally was involved in any of the key turning points in this tragedy. But in another respect, he may have much to answer for. The obsession with spin and presentation, the politicisation of the Government Information service, the impatience with dissent, the craving for popularity, the key role of Alistair Campbell, all this stems from his style of leadership. And Hutton will examine what the links might have been between this culture of Government and the sequence of events that ended in the solitude of an Oxfordshire field.

But on one question I agree with the Prime Minister. I can understand why there is a demand for Parliament to be recalled, and if I thought it would help, I would support it. But, on reflection, I don't. I believe the temperature should be lowered, not raised; that Lord Hutton should be allowed to get on with his work - and he should interpret his brief as widely as he believes necessary, even if he steps beyond the boundaries set out by Government.

Oh, by the way; what has happened to those weapons of mass destruction?




 
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