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Was the Hutton Report a Whitewash?
Publication date: 2004-01-30

The Hutton Report was eagerly awaited and much publicized before its publication.

Some were expecting that it would "cause Tony Blair to resign", others that it would "shed light on the causes of the Iraq War".

Now that the report had been published, the BBC chairman resigned and some are saying that the report is a "whitewash" - absolution of the government of whatever wrongdoings it had committed.

So is the Hutton Report a "whitewash"?

When Lord Hutton was requested to produce his report, his terms of reference were "urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly".

In his opinion these terms of reference required him to consider the circumstances preceding and leading up to the death of Dr Kelly insofar as

  1. they might have had an effect on his state of mind and influenced his actions preceding and leading up to his death or


  2. they might have influenced the actions of others which affected Dr Kelly preceding and leading up to his death.


Lord Hutton did not see the issue of whether the intelligence on Iraq available to the Government was sufficient to justify the Iraq War as falling within the terms of reference of his report, because it would have involved the consideration of a much wider range of evidence and would go far beyond the issues relating to the circumstance of the death of Dr Kelly.

Lord Hutton did not say that the issue of the Iraq War did not exist, or that it was not important, but that it was a much bigger issue, than the issue of Dr Kelly's death, which should be dealt with separately from the relatively minor issue of the death of a government employee.

An issue closely involved with the Dr Kelly affair was the allegations by a BBC journalist

  1. that the Government probably knew, before it decided to put it in its dossier, that the statement was wrong that the Iraqi military were able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of a decision to do so and


  2. that 10 Downing Street ordered the dossier to be "sexed up".


Lord Hutton had included this issue under his terms of reference.

The conclusions of the Hutton Report were:

  1. that Dr Kelly took his own life and no other person was involved in the death of Dr Kelly;


  2. that the allegation reported by a BBC journalist that the Government probably knew that the 45 minutes claim was wrong before the Government decided to put it in the dossier was unfounded;


  3. that the possibility cannot be completely ruled out that the desire of the Prime Minister to have a dossier which, whilst consistent with the available intelligence, was as strong as possible in relation to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD, may have subconsciously influenced the authors of the Government dossier to make the wording of the dossier somewhat stronger than it would have been if it had been contained in a normal intelligence assessment, although they were concerned to ensure that the contents of the dossier were consistent with the intelligence available to the them;


  4. that in meeting a journalist and discussing intelligence matters with him, Dr Kelly was acting in breach of the Civil Service code of procedure which applied to him;


  5. that the Governors of the BBC failed to make detailed investigations into whether the allegation by their journalist was properly supported and to give proper and adequate consideration to whether the BBC should publicly acknowledge that this allegation should not have been broadcast;


  6. that there was no dishonourable or underhand or duplicitous strategy by the Government covertly to leak Dr Kelly's name to the media;


  7. that the major factor which contributed to Dr Kelly's death was the severe loss of self esteem, resulting from his feeling that people had lost trust in him and from his dismay at being exposed to the media.


None of the above conclusions is incorrect, they are based on detailed examination of evidence, and they are within the terms of reference of the report.

So, why do people see it as a "whitewash of the Government"?

There are two main reasons why the Hutton Report, while having delighted the Government, has left many members of the public with an impression of being short-sold:

  1. the public expectations and


  2. Lord Hutton going beyond the terms of reference of the circumstances of Dr Kelly's death in one particular instance.


Although the circumstances of Dr Kelly's death resulted in the publication of the Hutton Report, this issue, in itself, is a minor issue in comparison with the issue of the Iraq War.

The circumstances of Dr Kelly's death were important to the members of his family. And the arguments between Government officials and BBC journalists were important to the Government officials and the BBC journalists - and probably more important than the issue of the Iraq War. But for the public it was just a minor incident in the Government's campaign to justify their decision to attack Iraq.

Is the existence of WMD in a country sufficient reason to attack it?

Was the war against Iraq an act of self-defence, or of supra-national law enforcement?

The Government arguments for the war were illogical and grossly inadequate.

It was not the case that the war began, because evidence emerged that Iraq was about to attack Britain. It was the case that the US government wanted to attack Iraq, the British Government wanted to take part in that attack, and then they sought to justify this attack by alleging that Iraq had WMD and resuming the UN weapons inspections. But when the UN weapons inspections were allowed by the Iraq Government and the UN inspectors did not find any WMD, the Blair Government began making a case for the need for attacking Iraq by producing their dossiers.

And this left the public with a sense of distrust in the Government of Tony Blair. Whether it was true or not that Tony Blair believed in the capability of Iraq to launch a WMD attack on Britain was just a minor issue. Although Lord Hutton gave reasons why in his opinion the Government believed that the 45 min claim was true, and the BBC journalist stated that in his opinion they did not believe it, neither of them can be sure of what Tony Blair or any other person believed or did not believe. It is possible to prove oral and written statements, if there is sufficient evidence. It is not possible to prove beliefs. - What people claim to believe and what they really believe are not always the same thing. And often people are not quite sure what they believe and what they don't.

In his desire to produce a compelling argument for attacking Iraq, Tony Blair was unlikely to have been much concerned with his own beliefs, he was eager to use any argument which would support his case. This was obvious from all the statements in support of the war that he made at the time.

So although Lord Hutton's report does say that the Government did not deliberately deceive the public by their 45 minutes claim, the public is still not satisfied that the Blair Government did not involve Britain into the war against Iraq under false pretenses.

And for this reason some see the Hutton Report as a diversion from the real issues, and in that sense a "cover-up" or a "whitewash".

This, however, is a mistaken view, because the Hutton Report does not say that the Government's reasons for the Iraq War are valid. It just does not deal with this issue at all. The issue of the validity of the reasons for the war against Iraq is still open.

The second reason for dissatisfaction with the Hutton Report, especially among journalists, is the attempt by Lord Hutton to deal with the issue of the relationship between the Media and the Government.

While the Dr Kelly affair was connected with both the reasons for the Iraq War and the Relationship between the Government and the Media. Both the issue of the Iraq War and of the Relationship between the Government and the Media are issues in their own right and much bigger in their scope and importance than the Dr Kelly Affair, and for that reason they should be considered on their own merits.

Lord Hutton accepted this in relation to the Iraq War, but he did make an incursion into the issue of the Relationship between the Government and the Media. Having expressed his views on the issue of the Relationship between the Government and the Media, he did not give this issue due consideration.

According to his report, Lord Hutton's view of the relationship between the Government and the Media is as follows:

"The communication by the media of information (including information obtained by investigative reporters) on matters of public interest and importance is a vital part of life in a democratic society. However the right to communicate such information is subject to the qualification (which itself exists for the benefit of a democratic society) that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media. Where a reporter is intending to broadcast or publish information impugning the integrity of others the management of his broadcasting company or newspaper should ensure that a system is in place whereby his editor or editors give careful consideration to the wording of the report and to whether it is right in all the circumstances to broadcast or publish it."
Although the above passage appears to be "theoretically" correct, it fails to reflect the reality of the relationship between Government, Politics, Media in general, and government-funded Media in particular.

Lord Hutton either should have excluded these issues from his report, limiting it to his finding that Mr. Gilligan's assertion relating to the 45 minute claim was unfounded, or, if he wanted to consider the relationships between the Government and the Media, give to this issue the consideration that it deserves.

Lord Hutton's having avoided to consider the ways in which the Government justified their war against Iraq, but having passed judgment on the conduct of the Media, has left the public, and especially the Media, with a sense of a biased treatment and a "Government whitewash".

The complex relationships between the Government and the Media, as they exist today, and, as they should be, is a subject in its own right, which will be considered by us in a forthcoming article.


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