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Dr Kelly found out how lonely it can be at the top

By John Keegan
(Filed: 11/08/2003)

The sad case of Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence scientist, grows ever more complex. What began as a dispute between Downing Street and the BBC over the veracity of a government dossier has turned into a bitter quarrel involving Parliament as well.

A judicial investigation has been set up to sift grain from chaff, and its outcome, it is said, might threaten the futures of the BBC director-general, the Secretary of State for Defence, Alastair Campbell, perhaps even the Prime Minister himself.

The dust cloud created has obscured the original principals. Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist whose meeting with Dr Kelly in a London hotel precipitated the crisis, has disappeared from view. Poor Dr Kelly is dead.

It is Dr Kelly's death, apparently by his own hand, that makes the crisis serious. The implicit allegation is that he took his own life in despair, driven to suicide by the insensitivity of his parliamentary investigators and the alien experience of exposure to investigation by the media.

No doubt his interrogation in public on television by the Commons foreign affairs committee was highly disturbing, particularly to a man who was patently a quiet and self-effacing scientist. No doubt the relentless probing and speculation by the press added to his distress.

However, I doubt strongly that it was his treatment either by Parliament or the media that drove him over the edge. I suspect that the impulse that impelled him to end his life had other causes.

Dr Kelly belonged to the Scientific Civil Service, in which he had spent most of his life, progressing by merit and hard work to the top of his career ladder. I know about the Scientific Civil Service since, for 26 years, I belonged to it. It might seem odd that someone teaching military history to officer cadets at Sandhurst should be classed as a Senior Scientific Officer, but so I was.

All civil servants have to belong to one of the service's branches and the Scientific Civil Service was the one chosen to accommodate the Sandhurst academic staff. At some stage, as scientific officers of the Ministry of Defence, Dr Kelly and I must have been remote colleagues.

All civil servants are subject to the service's disciplinary procedures and code. One of its most stringent articles forbids communication with the media. Indeed, at regular intervals, we were reminded in writing of the ban and Dr Kelly must have read the warning as often as I did.

It had its effect. There could be no argument. A civil servant who communicated with the media and was discovered to have done so would be disciplined and had no defence.

The ban - originally imposed for security reasons, but perpetuated to ensure government control of all government-owned knowledge - had its ludicrous aspects. Sandhurst, in my time, was full of ambitious young military historians anxious to make their reputations as authors. No dice. Anything written had to be submitted for official clearance.

What about medieval history? Well, maybe. What about the First World War? Very tricky. Eventually it was decided that we need not submit anything written about events before August 4, 1914. So it was all right to describe the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand but not the departure of the BEF to France.

We may guess that Dr Kelly had grown as impatient with official censorship as we all eventually did, in cases where national security was not involved. So he saw Andrew Gilligan and was found out.

What ensued would have unfolded quite automatically. The disciplinary procedure requires a civil servant's "line manager", in an evident case of communication with the media, to interview the civil servant concerned, remind him of the ban, warn him of the penalties and consider what action to take.

Dr Kelly was apparently told by his line manager that he would not face formal disciplinary procedures but, again reputedly, was reminded that his pension was in jeopardy and was written a letter stating that his conduct fell below the standard expected of a civil servant.

That, to my mind, was the wounding blow. It was a reproof delivered by one of his own kind and impugned his devotion to a service that had been his whole life. Colleagues would have closed ranks with him against the media, the BBC and, above all, the politicians, whom civil servants easily despise.

Official reproofs are a different matter. Over the course of a career, every civil servant acquires a baggage of small dislikes and resentments among colleagues. He is not loved by those he has overtaken in the climb upward. Dr Kelly had risen high. He would have rightly imagined the sniggering and whispering among old competitors.

And he would have known, in a favourite Civil Service phrase, that he hadn't a leg to stand on. He had communicated with the media. All his fellows who had not would have rejoiced a little in their own virtue and at his professional discomfiture.

No doubt others were involved besides his Civil Service superiors. They would have been asked, by ministers in and beyond Defence, if the disciplinary procedures had been set in motion. Strictly speaking, however, there would have been no political interference.

The procedures are, as I have said, absolutely automatic and cannot be escaped or averted. His line manager, if questioned, would correctly say that it was his duty to confront Dr Kelly, to question him and to remind him of the penalties he faced for any proven breach of the code.

After that, poor Dr Kelly would have discovered the meaning of professional loneliness. His superiors would have offered no sympathy. Few, if any, of his colleagues would have done so either. He would have been unable to seek public sympathy, certainly not through the media. That would have been a further lowering of the conduct expected of him.

The last weeks of Dr Kelly's Civil Service life must have been a torment of loneliness. Old colleagues would have kept their distance. Rooms would have fallen silent when he entered. In the end, his solitary walk into the Oxfordshire woods might have been an escape from unbearable misery.

©Copyright 2003, Telegraph (UK)

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