Whitewashing Chilcot

It has been ten years since the death of Dr David Kelly, yet parts of the press continue to re-hash the story of his sad demise. The top story on The Guardian website yesterday considered in a (relatively) balanced fashion the continued calls from groups and individuals to reopen the question of how exactly he came to be found dead in an Oxfordshire wood. Lord Hutton concluded his inquiry into that question in January 2004. Conspiracy theories still abound, and find publishers. Yet Hutton concluded on the basis of a wide range of evidence that the weapons inspector killed himself, distraught at the damage done to his career and reputation by the revelation that he spoke to BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, without permission, about the government’s dossier on Iraq’s WMD.

The latest re-opening of the David Kelly case is sad in itself. It is also troubling. It is a symptom of a broader insistence in the British press on rejecting any and every ‘official’ account of the war in Iraq.  I was disappointed at the end of May to see Jon Snow of Channel 4 tweet a link to an article by Peter Oborne in the Telegraph that sniffed a “whiff of suspicion” over the Chilcot Inquiry because of its failure to report. Quoting former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, who is not involved in the Inquiry, Oborne argued that the delay amounted to a “conspiracy of silence”. Nonsense. Nothing in his article met the definition of research. None of his sources was directly involved in the Inquiry. It was pure speculation, made to look like real news by citing an Important Person. Delay is not automatically an indication of dishonesty. Unfortunately Oborne was simply repeating now familiar tropes dating back to the invasion in 2003. Innuendo substitutes for information and speculation for analysis. Both the Hutton and Butler reports were tarred with the label “whitewash” in the press, on both occasions before the journalists responsible could possibly have read their contents.

We don’t yet know what the Chilcot Report will say. We do know that elements of the press will call it a whitewash regardless of what it says. The “whitewash” story has mileage. It plays into popular narratives of mistrust in New Labour ‘spin’, particularly over Iraq. It will be recycled again. What is disappointing is that some in the press have begun so early to prime their audiences for more of the same. Chilcot has done a huge amount of research. He has heard from every major player in the Iraq drama. Vast amounts of documentation has been made available for public review. I have read most of it. The report will criticise the Blair government, of course it will. It won’t label Blair a liar or a war criminal, because the labels simply wouldn’t stick, given the evidence available. So it will be derided.

Lord Hennessey points out [subscription needed] that Butler’s report included some of the harshest criticism ever levelled at a sitting government. Blair failed to use Cabinet committees, to consult ministers and officials, to ensure advice reached those who needed it, and to support formal discussions with proper papers. Had he followed long-established practices, he might have made better decisions. All this is true and Chilcot will echo it. But it doesn’t have the same hook as accusing him of “whitewash”. So that, sadly, is what parts of the press will do. In the process they will fulfil the prediction Blair made in his memoir some years ago.

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