David Kelly – what can you say?

The Hutton Inquiry is exhibiting the stifling effects of emotional correctness.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Just two days into the proceedings, the Hutton Inquiry has already thrown up a profound contradiction. It is billed as an ‘investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly’, yet it seems that that Kelly himself is beyond criticism, a ‘remarkable’ figure whose integrity is not up for question (1). If it is bizarre to have a public inquiry into the private suicide of a civil servant, it is even more bizarre that it should be conducted in a stifling climate of emotional correctness.

In recent weeks Kelly has been all but canonised by sections of the media and politics, hailed as having been a ‘dignified man’ in an increasingly undignified world. He was apparently a ‘dedicated and honest scientist whose life was made intolerable by corrupt and devious politicians’ (2). Political columnist Joan Smith says Kelly was ‘a patently decent and honourable man’ in stark contrast to ‘our macho, brawling’ politicians (3). Others claim that Kelly ‘did so much for peace…so much to counteract evil’ (4).

It was only a matter of time before someone mentioned the D-word. Journalist Tom Utley argued that ‘Kelly’s death is likely to have an effect similar to that of Princess Diana’, by focusing ‘the public’s mind more sharply than ever on the culture of spin’ (5). The Daily Mirror has taken to calling Kelly ‘Dai’, a shortened Welsh version of David apparently used by Kelly’s friends and family. In tabloid-world, nothing confers modern martyrdom more than an innocent, childlike nickname; just as murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor became ‘Dami’, so Kelly has become ‘Dai’.

Others tried to revive Diana’s flagging spirit for Kelly’s funeral on 6 August. Media reports told us that ‘a Union flag flew at half-mast in the sunshine’, that ‘bells tolled throughout the country’, while one commentator urged us to ‘say a prayer, if you go to church today…for a frightened man, but a brave one’ (6). You could be forgiven for thinking that a national public figure had been laid to rest, rather than a civil servant who ‘went around in Clarks shoes, NHS specs and Barbour clothes’ and was unknown outside of defence circles until three weeks ago (7).

When Kelly is lionised for having been whiter-than-white, criticising his character or raising questions about his state of mind becomes taboo. The government discovered this to its expense when its spokesman Tom Kelly allegedly told a journalist from the Independent that Kelly had been a ‘Walter Mitty character’ with hero fantasies. The Mitty comparison was certainly crass, a panicky response by Blair officials to an unwieldy controversy – but even if government spokesman had made a reasonably-worded criticism of Kelly it would have likely caused a similar storm. Kelly was A Good Man, the correct wisdom goes, and woe betide anyone who says differently.

So was Kelly a ‘good man’…or was he a Walter Mitty fantasist? That remains unknown – and some of us don’t particularly care either way. Yet there appear to be enough contradictory claims being made about Kelly’s character to suggest that the post-Kelly frenzy is driven by something other than an objective appraisal of his life and achievements.

One minute we are told that Kelly was ‘quiet and unassuming’, the polar opposite of our ‘brutal’ politicians (8) – the next we are told that he was ‘tough enough to grind down Iraqi officers who were trying to stymie weapons inspections’ and ‘wouldn’t take any sort of bluster from the Iraqis’ (9). As Observer columnist Mary Riddell argues, ‘Portraying [Kelly] as an innocent hounded to his grave by the toxic forces of journalism and politics’ overlooks that he was a ‘Nobel nominee skilled in dealing with both sides’ (10). Some reports claim that Kelly was ‘honest’ and ‘principled’ (11) – yet what is honest and principled about leaking sensitive work secrets to a journalist?

The clashing claims about Kelly’s personality and motivations reveal little about Kelly the man – but a lot about those invoking his memory. Namechecking Kelly has become something akin to striking a moral pose, a way of promoting your own worldview by opportunistically conjuring up the spirit and martyrdom of the newly hallowed ‘Dai’. If Kelly has been canonised, he seems to have become the Patron Saint of Whatever-Your-Prejudice.

For those who find adversarial politics distasteful, Kelly has come to symbolise the potential dangers of having overly heated, ‘macho’ debates. So Joan Smith claims that Kelly was ‘the quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics’ (12), while one report argues that he was a ‘casualty of our preference for hysteria over calm examination of facts’ (13). Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has accused the Blair government of ‘cheapening’ Kelly’s good name with the Walter Mitty smear, as if criticising Kelly is the equivalent of blasphemy.

For those whose beef is with the media, especially the mass media, Kelly was martyred by ‘dubious journalism’ (14). As one commentator points out, Kelly is ‘being made a saint and martyr by men and women whose only real object is to damage the BBC, the government or both’ (15).

Those who want further Western intervention to rebuild postwar Iraq have invoked Kelly’s name to strengthen their case. Having criticised the ‘trite’ media sorrow that followed Kelly’s death, Mary Riddell went on to claim that ‘the best tribute to Dr Kelly [would be] to emulate his long mission to create an Iraq safe for its citizens and the wider world’ (16). Even those who oppose further intervention in Iraq have started to play the Kelly card. Veteran anti-war writer John Pilger writes of the ‘heroic David Kelly’, who was the ‘antithesis of [British officials] who have shown themselves to be the agents of a dangerous, rampant foreign power’.

Never has one man ever come to symbolise so many things in so little time. From capturing the dangers of brash politics to showing up the ruthlessness of the mass media to strengthening the case for intervention in Iraq – the life and death of David Kelly have become a blank slate on to which an assortment of journalists and politicians shamelessly project their prejudices. This moral posturing via the dead is as cheap as it is unconvincing.

The emotional correctness surrounding the Kelly affair has the effect of undermining open and rigorous debate. If criticising Kelly is seen as ‘smearing’, and if everyone has to pay lip service to the memory of this ‘decent and honourable man’, then anything that might potentially offend Kelly’s memory becomes suspect and undesirable. Such considerations have even impacted on the conduct of the Hutton Inquiry.

In the emotionally charged climate following Kelly’s death, many argued against televising the inquiry on the basis that it might upset Kelly’s family and friends. A Guardian editorial said the Kelly family should be ‘spared’ yet another ordeal (17). The family’s barrister argued that televised hearings would turn the Kellys’ ‘private loss into the nation’s entertainment’, and ‘the presence of television cameras at the inquiry would only serve to intensify the ordeal which the family faces’. When emotional correctness rules, it seems that a family’s feelings can trump issues of democracy and accountability, and whether the public should be free to view the Hutton Inquiry as they please.

Some claim that the family’s concerns might even have toned down the way in which the inquiry will work. According to one report, ‘the Kelly family [do] not want to see people subjected to the kind of bullying treatment that Kelly received at his hearing’ at the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) in July, and have issued a statement hoping that ‘everyone involved in the inquiry [will be] treated in a dignified manner’. Yet the ‘bullying treatment’ that Kelly received at the FAC was largely just occasionally heated questioning – should all those who appear at the Hutton Inquiry be tiptoed around, as if they were potential suicides-in-the-making? It would appear that emotionalism and open debate are hostile bedfellows.

This confusion about the remit and role of the Hutton Inquiry – how hard it should grill/bully witnesses, how it should balance respect for the Kelly family with getting to the truth, its combination of commemorating Kelly and investigating the ‘circumstances surrounding his suicide’ – point to far bigger problems with the inquiry itself. It exposes the nonsense of having a public inquiry into a civil servant’s suicide, as if a law lord or anybody else could get into the head of the late David Kelly. The strange mix of emotionalism and legality that has defined the inquiry so far shows up how irrational it is to appoint a lord to investigate a personal tragedy.

As it continues, the Hutton Inquiry looks more and more like a ridiculous gesture, rushed in after Kelly’s suicide to do who knows what. Unless, of course, saying that – like criticising Kelly or ‘bullying’ politicians – is now also taboo.

Read on:

Hutton’s ‘transparency’ is a threat to democracy, by Mick Hume

Out-of-control freaks, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked issue: The Hutton Inquiry

(1) Kelly was in ‘normal’ frame of mind days before his death, Jason Deans, Guardian, 11 August 2003

(2) Death a tragic spin-off, Geoff Hughes, The Star (South Africa), 24 July 2003

(3) ‘The quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics’, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 19 July 2003

(4) Kelly’s friend attacks aide over ‘Walter Mitty’ slur, Ananova, 6 August 2003

(5) As with Diana, Dr Kelly’s fate gives all of us pause, Tom Utley, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2003

(6) I stood by, too, while the rogues destroyed Kelly, Quentin Letts, Sunday Telegraph, 20 July 2003

(7) Quiet burial for Kelly amid political storm, Neil Tweedie, Daily Telegraph, 7 August 2003

(8) See The blame game, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) See The blame game, by Brendan O’Neill

(10) Face to face with death, Mary Riddell, Observer, 26 July 2003

(11) See The blame game, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) ‘The quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics’, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 19 July 2003

(13) Fair and exact, Guardian, 2 August 2003

(14) See The blame game, by Brendan O’Neill

(15) Fake piety is no way to show respect, Roy Hattersley, Guardian, 10 August 2003

(16) Face to face with death, Mary Riddell, Observer, 26 July 2003

(17) Fair and exact, Guardian, 2 August 2003

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Topics Politics


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