http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-981401,00.html January 29, 2004

Judge fails to turn acerbic eye on Downing Street

Hutton Sketch by Magnus Linklater

WITH the gravity, logic and forensic analysis for which he is celebrated, Lord Hutton yesterday cleared the Government of bad behaviour in the David Kelly affair, and used the summary of his report to castigate the BBC in merciless detail.

Had Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former director of communications, been present among the onlookers in the Royal Courts of Justice, he might well have leapt to his feet and punched the air in triumph. His campaign against the BBC had been vindicated - and in a distinctly more magisterial style than the way he conducted it.

It was left to the ill-concealed grin on the face of Tony Blair responding to the statement later in the House of Commons to say it all. As Michael Howard, the Tory leader, struggled to put the case against the Government that Lord Hutton had so conspicuously rejected, Mr Blair could afford to wrap himself in prime ministerial dignity.

"Let me repeat the words of Lord Hutton," he said. " 'False accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others ... should not be made.' Let those that made them now withdraw them." Behind him, loyal backbenchers exulted in the unusual experience of taunting Mr Howard with cries of "resign" and "apologise". Bathed in a combination of surprise and relief, they gave vent to behaviour so rowdy that the Speaker, Michael Martin, had to bring them to order. The real drama, however, had begun an hour and a half earlier, as Lord Hutton entered Court 76, gave his usual courteous bow, and began delivering his report summary in a rapid-fire monotone. It was clear in a few minutes which direction he was moving in. It was not, he said, within his brief to determine whether the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was sufficiently strong to justify the UKs military action; nor was it part of his remit to assess its reliability.

At a stroke, he had eliminated what was, perhaps, the most contentious issue at the heart of the whole affair. Instead, he took as his starting point the claims made by Andrew Gilligan, the BBC defence correspondent, that Downing Street had ordered its Iraq dossier to be "sexed up". The way he uttered the phrase, with barely concealed distaste, said it all.

"It was these allegations, attacking the integrity of the Government, which drew Dr Kelly into the controversy about the broadcasts and which I consider I should examine under my terms of reference," he said.

Gradually, in the absolute silence with which he was heard, it became clear that each and every charge against Downing Street or the Ministry of Defence could be explained and discounted, while those against the BBC had been proved. The BBC had failed to exercise proper editorial control over Mr Gilligan's broadcasts, it had omitted to check the accuracy of his reports, it had been at fault in the way it investigated the Government's complaints. From its Chairman, Gavyn Davies, to its Director-General, Greg Dyke, to the BBC's governors, its production staff, and the reporter himself, no one was spared Lord Hutton's displeasure. The only conclusion to draw, he said, was that "the BBC should publicly acknowledge that this very grave allegation should not have been broadcast".

When it came to the political and intelligence world, however, the tone changed. Lord Hutton cleared Downing Street of exerting undue pressure on the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which had prepared the weapons dossier, accepting Mr Campbell's statement that "nothing should be stated in the dossier with which the intelligence community were not entirely happy".

He rejected allegations that John Scarlett, the committee's chairman, had bent to political pressure, and maintained he had only accepted suggestions "which were consistent with the intelligence known to the JIC". The most that might be said against him was that he had been "subconsciously influenced" by Mr Blair's desire to have a strong dossier to justify the invasion of Iraq. But even here he was satisfied that Mr Scarlett had behaved properly.

Finally, he cleared Downing Street of behaving in a way which was "dishonourable or underhand or duplicitous in revealing Dr Kelly's name to the media". Once Dr Kelly himself had come forward to confess that he had talked to Mr Gilligan, the Government was entitled to reveal that fact to the public, and to the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) which was investigating the matter.

The purpose of finding a way of ensuring that the name came out was, he said, "to protect the Government from a charge of cover-up and of withholding important relevant information from the FAC".

The exonerations came thick and fast: the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Defence, and Downing Street spin-doctors, had all behaved correctly in briefing the press. Even Geoff Hoon, whose evidence to the inquiry had seemed so muddled and self-contradictory, was "not untruthful", and could be absolved of any blame for failing to protect Dr Kelly or control his own department.

The infamous question-and-answer process by which Dr Kelly's name became known was justified because "it was better to be frank with the press and confirm the correct name if it was given". He said that several newspapers had guessed Dr Kelly's identity fairly rapidly, while "the name was also confirmed to The Times after it had put 20 names". The only criticism was that officials at the MoD should have warned Dr Kelly that his name was about to be published.

For those listening, there was an air of anti-climax. It may partly have been because The Sun had scooped him that morning by revealing chunks of his report - an act of betrayal which he condemned.

It may also have been because of something else that was lacking. We had grown used, in the course of the inquiry, to Lord Hutton's laser-like interventions, whenever a witness was confused, contradictory, or less than honest. There was little of that on show yesterday. True, he was critical of the BBC, but he failed to turn his acerbic eye on the goings-on in Downing Street - the blizzard of e-mails which marked its anti-BBC campaign, the four-letter words of Mr Campbell's diary, the absence of note-taking at Downing Street meetings, the ethics of disclosing the name of a distinguished scientist, the way in which intelligence was subverted to the requirements of political expediency, the extraordinary interference in the JIC's procedures by Mr Campbell and by Jonathan Powell.

All these we had expected to hear condemned by Lord Hutton. But in the end he stood aloof from that, and from anything that might have exceeded his brief. Instead, he remained true to the character which has always informed his career in Northern Ireland, where he has presided over a mine-strewn judicial system for more than 30 years.

He never put a foot wrong there. He was not about to start now.