Death of WMD dossier scientist contributed to erosion of trust in politics
Dr David Kelly during questioning by a Commons select committee in 2003. Photograph: PA
It was a case of the political becoming personal, only so overwhelmingly, that it crushed a man. A decade ago on Wednesday, just after 3.20pm, Dr David Kelly began a walk from his Oxfordshire home that ended the next morning with the discovery of his body, slumped in a wood.
The Kelly family lost a loved one and a chain of events was set off that damaged trust in the Blair government and decapitated the leadership of the BBC.
Kelly was the distinguished government scientist who hunted down weapons of mass destruction of the kind used by the Blair government to justify the 2003 war with Iraq. The problem was the Saddam Hussein regime did not have them.
A BBC Today programme report claimed the government had embellished or “sexed up” the intelligence it presented to the public in 2003 to justify the war.
A furore erupted between the government, led by chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell, and the BBC, which refused to back down, having failed to spot the flaws in its reporting.
Kelly was outed as the BBC’s source, felt publicly humiliated and was reprimanded by his bosses. A proud man felt let down by them, and that his reputation built up over a lifetime was being irreparably tarnished.
In the days before that final walk Kelly’s family said they had never seen him so low. As news of his death spread, the normally self-assured Blair seemed stunned when a reporter cried: “Do you have blood on your hands?”
Kelly’s death led not to an inquest, but a public inquiry by Lord Hutton, which brought a rare glimpse into the secret worlds of Whitehall, British intelligence, the low arts of high politics, and the workings of the BBC.
Its conclusion largely absolved the government of blame, and surprised observers.
Its criticism of the BBC led to the demise at the corporation of then chairman Gavyn Davies, correspondent Andrew Gilligan and director general Greg Dyke, who on Tuesday said history has proven the broadcaster was right: “Ten years on, it is very difficult to find anyone who believes they did not ‘sex up’ that document.”
Debate still surrounds Hutton’s conclusion that Kelly committed suicide. The inquiry found that Kelly died after cutting an artery, had taken an overdose of painkillers and had heart disease which left his arteries “significantly narrowed”. Thus, said experts, less blood loss may have killed the scientist than that needed to kill a healthy man.
Among those who have called for an inquest or have doubts it was a suicide are former Tory leader Michael Howard, and Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker, who wrote a book saying Kelly was most likely murdered.
A group of doctors say Hutton’s findings should be discarded and a new inquest held. Dr Stephen Frost said: “We have lots of evidence … No coroner in the land would reach a verdict of suicide as Lord Hutton did.”
Experts in forensic pathology point out the sceptics may be expert in their own fields, but not in the science of establishing the cause of death.
Hutton has kept silent since his report, breaking it only to write a letter denouncing the conspiracy theorists. Hutton’s conclusion is supported by the available facts and experts: “At no time … was there any suggestion from any counsel for the interested parties or in any of the extensive media coverage that any of the police officers engaged in investigating Dr Kelly’s death or any of the medical or scientific witnesses was involved in any sort of cover-up or plot to make a murder appear like a suicide.”
Dyke claimed that: “Some of Dr Kelly’s wider family don’t believe it’s suicide.”
But the Conservative-led government has said the evidence for suicide is so compelling there is no need for a fresh hearing.
Ben Page, chief executive of pollsters Ipsos Mori said the row over the 2003 Iraq war was part of a continued lack of trust in government and politicians: “It was part of the continuum of declining trust.”
“It is clear that Dr Kelly and anger over the reason Britain joined in with the Iraq war are intertwined.”
Later this year the Chilcot report is expected, but for ex-BBC boss Dyke, a one-time supporter of Tony Blair, the verdict is in: “History tells us Blair was destroyed by Iraq. Blair will be only remembered for that, just as Sir Anthony Eden will be remembered for Suez.”
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 July 2013 23.07 BST
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