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Shades of grey would have been better than whitewash for Blair

Matthew Parris

LORD HUTTON has done the Government no good. The last thing this Prime Minister needs is the impression of a ruling party kicking the state broadcasting corporation around.

With a man dead, an unpopular war, a nation suspicious that it was misled, and a dangerous stand-off between Downing Street and the world's most respected broadcaster, Tony Blair's overriding need is for reconciliation. Instead the arbitrator he picked has awarded him everything. And the result is predictable. The one good thing to come of this bizarre adjudication could be the death of the assumption that we might be better governed by the judiciary.

Mr Blair is no fool. After a heady Commons moment enjoying Her Majesty's Opposition's humiliation, an awful question will have begun to trouble him: did Hutton go too far? Might an honourable draw not have served the Prime Minister better? The details of Lord Hutton's report will fast escape popular recollection. Few will have followed and still fewer remember the twists and turns of his lordship's reasoning in pursuit of a conclusion which confounds both common observation and the facts his own inquiry uncovered.

Who precisely the late David Kelly was is already being forgotten; how the Prime Minister and the BBC got themselves into the predicaments they did are questions which will soon stump all but the most dedicated students of current affairs.

But as background fades, five images will stay vivid in the public imagination. They may or may not be fair, history's filter is not always fair: but note them.

The first image is of a foreign war gone badly wrong.

The second image is of a dead man in an Oxfordshire wood: a victim, a man with an aura of innocence about him.

The third is of an anxious and careworn Prime Minister and beside him an obvious bully called Alastair Campbell.

The fourth is of a nervous chap in glasses called Lord Ryder, the chairmanship of the BBC's governors recently thrust upon him, offering an unqualified apology to the Prime Minister, promising that from now on the corporation would stick to reporting, and expressing the hope that this might end the matter.

And the fifth is of a former director-general of the BBC, a folksy-looking fellow with an unposh accent, standing defiant on a freezing winter's day outside the offices of the corporation from which he had just been sacked, mobbed by loyal staff who had come out to support him, some of them close to tears, and - with a catch in his throat - trying to comfort them through a simple handheld megaphone.

What “narrative” do those five images suggest to you? I ask because the communications machine serving the party now in power is rather keen on that word “narrative”. Government, they say, must have a narrative. Sketch out a plot and leave people to fill in between the dots. Give the public a story.

Well, what story will millions of people fill in between those five dots? Within minutes of Lord Hutton's resuming his seat on Wednesday, its title was as clear to taxi drivers as it was to newspaper editors: a nine-letter headline easily contain able within even a tabloid format: W-H-I-T-E-W-A-S-H.

It follows that in Downing Street this weekend there will be heads cooler than those of a crowing Mr Campbell or a pack of baying government backbenchers, asking how well the “victory” Tony Blair has won serves a man who wants Britain to feel what Britain has ceased to feel: on his side.

As Lord Hutton spoke, Mr Blair must have been almost incredulous. He heard the judge declare that the strategy of disclosing that an unnamed civil servant had come forward was “bound” (Lord Hutton's word) to lead to Dr Kelly being identified. He heard the judge acknowledge that the Prime Minister had chaired the meeting which agreed that strategy. He heard his lordship go on to recall that the Prime Minister had denied to journalists on an aircraft that he had authorised the leaking of Dr Kelly's name.

Still, the optimist in Mr Blair might have hoped against hope that the judge, being a lawyer, would allow that “leak a name” does not mean quite the same thing as “agree a strategy in which a name is not volunteered but from which it is bound to emerge” - and convict the Prime Minister of evasion rather than mendacity.

The optimist in Mr Blair was confounded. Lord Hutton's judgment exceeded his wildest hopes. You could almost hear the collective sucking of teeth by journalists who, knowing what they knew, could scarcely believe that his lordship had failed to tumble to it.

And if Lord Hutton could not discern from the data now widely available (including data his own inquiry gathered) that some serious railroading of the intelligence agencies had been going on and that people within it were aware - consciously, not subconsciously - of this, and uncomfortable about it, then his lordship is the last person in Britain to believe what even one of his fellow judges did not believe: that Mr Campbell is a satisfactory witness.

The Prime Minister knows very well that Mr Campbell overstepped the mark. That is why he let his press secretary go last August and was ready to let his Defence Secretary go too. He regretted the way Mr Campbell had escalated hostilities. Mr Blair had told no lie, but he knew that he and his former press secretary had pushed the government information machine into cobbling together the scariest account of Iraqi capabilities which was consistent with the sketchy intelligence at their disposal.

His lordship is very hot on the unwisdom of impugning other people's integrity. Here, then, is a list of fairly professional men and women whose integrity Lord Hutton has himself impugned.

Peter Beaumont and Gaby Hinsliff (The Observer, February 24, 2003) who described reported disagreement between the intelligence services and Downing Street: the essence of it being “that intelligence material should be presented ‘straight' rather than spiced up to make a political argument”. They also reported “fairly serious rows” between at least one member of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Mr Campbell.

Raymond Whittaker (The Independent on Sunday, April 27) who, reporting “a high-level UK source”, quoted one aggrieved officer: “You cannot just cherry-pick evidence that suits your case and ignore the rest. It is a cardinal rule of intelligence, yet that is what the PM is doing.” Another, he reported, said: “What we have is a few strands of highly circumstantial evidence, and to justify an attack on Iraq it is being presented as a cast-iron case. That really is not good enough.”

Richard Norton-Taylor (The Guardian, May 30): “British intelligence sources expressed fury at Downing Street's behaviour. They were reluctant to allow Downing Street to use their intelligence assessment because they feared it would be manipulated for political ends. . . Caveats. . . were swept aside by Mr Blair, egged on by Mr Campbell, well-placed sources said.”

Daniel McGrory (The Times, May 30): “Senior sources say they received a barrage of phone calls from staff at No 10 demanding more evidence. . . There was debate among intelligence analysts whether the (45-minute) claims should have been passed to No 10, as senior figures doubted whether it was true, but were under pressure to deliver ‘compelling evidence'.”

Glenn Frankel (The Washington Post, May 30): “One official acknowledged that there had been what he described as ‘pressured and superheated debates at the time' between Downing Street and intelligence officials over the contents of the dossier.”

Nick Fielding (The Sunday Times, June 1), reporting that the dossier was the result of a “deal after months of bitter disagreements between intelligence chiefs and Blair's aides. Campbell had attempted to persuade the agencies to include hard-hitting conclusions. They were reluctant to agree because they said the case was not proven.”

Such are the voices which, if Lord Hutton were to have his way, would be silenced on the BBC.

From 1977 to 1979 I worked in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, then Richard Ryder, who is now the new acting Chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors. He was Margaret Thatcher's private secretary when I was her clerk. A better, straighter and more courteous man you will not find. But I remember his opinion of the Fourth Estate. He regarded them as a Fifth Column. He taught us that there was no such thing as a friendly journalist. We should view them as young diplomats were encouraged to view agents of the Soviet Union (when I joined the Foreign Office). With conscious irony Richard wore his wristwatch the wrong way up, its face against his wrist. This was, he chuckled, because he did not regard the time of day as a matter of public information.

Cautionary voices such as Lord Ryder's are vital within the BBC, and should have been heard within the Today programme on the day of that fateful broadcast. When the question is “should we or shouldn't we?”, the shouldn'ts must be able to make their case loud and clear.

But so must the shoulds. A balance is required. Lord Hutton has wrecked it.