Hutton’s odd view of the world

The prob­lem with the judge­ment in the BBC/Gilligan/Campbell/Hoon case is that the judge, Lord Hut­ton, has tak­en a foren­sic approach to the obvi­ous and come up with a deci­sion that belies com­mon sense. He has applied far too tough a stan­dard to the report­ing of gov­ern­ment action: align­ing crit­i­cis­mof gov­ern­ment that he believes unfair with libel­lous action (‘impugn­ing the integri­ty of others&#8217). There is no doubt that the Gov­ern­ments of Aus­tralia, the UK and the USA ‘sexed up’ the case for attack­ing Iraq by alarmist ref­er­ences to WMD that, even at the time, looked doubt­ful to many ordi­nary cit­i­zens (i.e. not to the ‘intel­li­gence community&#8217)because months of pro­fes­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion by the UN weapons inspec­torate had turned up not even a cred­i­ble trail of WMD. Lord Hut­ton would have us believe that Gillgan’s report, although pro­fes­sion­al­ly slop­py because impre­cise and made with­out edi­to­r­i­al over­sight, was some­how rep­re­sen­si­ble. How can this be if, based on some­thing a cred­i­ble source told him (Lord Hut­ton makes no pos­i­tive find­ing on what Kel­ly told Gilli­gan), Gilli­gan said that the Gov­ern­ment was doing what it obvi­ous­ly did? bq. The term “sexed-up” is a slang expres­sion, the mean­ing of which lacks clar­i­ty in the con­text of the dis­cus­sion of the dossier. bq. It is capa­ble of two dif­fer­ent mean­ings. It could mean that the dossier was embell­ished with items of intel­li­gence known or believed to be false or unre­li­able to make the case against Sad­dam Hus­sein stronger, or it could mean that whilst the intel­li­gence con­tained in the dossier was believed to be reli­able, the dossier was draft­ed in such a way as to make the case against Sad­dam Hus­sein as strong as the intel­li­gence con­tained in it per­mit­ted. bq. If the term is used in this lat­ter sense, then because of the draft­ing sug­ges­tions made by 10 Down­ing Street for the pur­pose of mak­ing a strong case against Sad­dam Hus­sein, it could be said that the Gov­ern­ment “sexed-up” the dossier. How­ev­er in the con­text of the broad­casts in which the “sex­ing-up” alle­ga­tion was report­ed and hav­ing regard to the oth­er alle­ga­tions report­ed in those broad­casts, I con­sid­er that the alle­ga­tion was unfound­ed as it would have been under­stood by those who heard the broad­casts to mean that the dossier had been embell­ished with intel­li­gence known or believed to be false or unre­li­able, which was not the case. (“Hut­ton report”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk/2003/david_kelly_inquiry/report_summary/default.stm) The log­ic of that final sen­tence is based on an almighty assump­tion about pub­lic appre­hen­sion (some­thing on which judges are noto­ri­ous­ly weak) and on a con­clu­sion that the judge draws else­where from a foren­sic exam­i­na­tion of the government’s state­ments that ignores their func­tion as advo­ca­cy for its poli­cies. This is not a sol­id foun­da­tion for deny­ing Gilli­gan the ben­e­fit of doubt about which of the two sug­gest­ed mean­ings of the term ‘sexed up’ should be adopt­ed. Gilligan’s report­ing was accu­rate in sub­stance: every effort was being made by the UK bureau­cra­cy to pro­vide Blair, at his urg­ing, with a report that made their case seem more cred­i­ble than it was and more cred­i­ble than it is now or ever will be. bq. … 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. bq. 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. bq. The alle­ga­tions that Mr Gilli­gan was intend­ing to broad­cast in respect of the Gov­ern­ment and the prepa­ra­tion of the dossier were very grave alle­ga­tions in rela­tion to a sub­ject of great impor­tance and I con­sid­er that the edi­to­r­i­al sys­tem which the BBC per­mit­ted was defec­tive in that Mr Gilli­gan was allowed to broad­cast his report at 6.07am with­out edi­tors hav­ing seen a script of what he was going to say and hav­ing con­sid­ered whether it should be approved. (“Hut­ton report”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk/2003/david_kelly_inquiry/report_summary/default.stm) The demand for edi­to­r­i­al con­trol is not con­tro­ver­sial: it’s an expect­ed profies­sion­al stan­dard that the BBC seems to have let slip (bad­ly) in this case. But state­ments about ‘impugn­ing the integri­ty of oth­ers’ evoke a far tougher stan­dard than should apply to crit­i­cism of gov­ern­ments. Gov­ern­ments are polit­i­cal cre­ations that intepret real­i­ty, let alone “truth” through a political—that is a dialec­ti­cal—prism. It did not “impugn the integri­ty of oth­ers” to sug­gest, as proved to be the case in the pub­lic cam­paign for sup­port lead­ing to the war in Iraq, that gov­ern­ment in Aus­tralia, the UK and USA were being both eco­nom­i­cal and cre­ative with small scraps of a care­ful­ly select­ed “truth” and using “truths” that were no more than innu­en­does to sup­port their claims. It is evi­dent that this is pre­cise­ly what they did. Although Lord Hut­ton finds that the UK ‘dossier’ con­tained no facts known to be false or unre­li­able by the UK intel­li­gence ser­vices at the time, they were not facts known to be well found­ed either. It is clear from the evi­dence that the UK intel­li­gence ser­vice offi­cers involved real­ized that the “45-minute” claim was open to the mis-inter­pre­ta­tion that it was wide­ly giv­en (that it was about strate­gic as well as the­atre weapons) and that they knew that it was based on only one source whose cred­i­bilty only they both­ered to defend.

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