Special report: David Kelly
A life in pieces
Sunday September 28, 2003
Harrowdown Hill is oddly marooned on the broad flood plain of the upper reaches of the River Thames. At the end of last week I walked out toward this thickly wooded little eminence, along the path from the village of Longworth, a few winding miles west of Oxford.
This was the path, between high hedges of blackberry and hawthorn, that Dr David Kelly took in the early afternoon of 17 July. It was a walk the scientist made most days when he was at home, part of a strategy against his bad back. Sometimes Dr Kelly walked out here with one of his three grown-up daughters. That Friday, though, he was very much alone. He carried with him a knife he'd had since boy scout days, several little sheets of the painkiller coproxamol, which his wife had been storing up against her arthritis, and a small bottle of water.
I had gone to Harrowdown Hill, to retrace this final walk of Dr Kelly, as something of a last resort. For a good part of this longest, hottest summer I had been sitting in room number 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, or in the overflow marquee in the courtyard outside, with its flat screens and wedding swags and gilt chandeliers. In that time I had been trying to work out many things, but mostly - along with Lord Hutton, ranks of lawyers and a batallion of journalists - the reasons why, on that July afternoon, Dr Kelly felt compelled to follow this path, to sit down on that hill, remove his spectacles and his wristwatch, and to take his own life.
Despite the unprecedented library of emails and transcripts and correspondence that the inquiry had netted, despite the unstinting focus of Lord Hutton and the extraordinary mental stamina of James Dingemans QC, his representative on earth, despite the parade of routinely eloquent - and often surprisingly candid - politicians, journalists and civil servants on the stand in court, the motivation behind Dr Kelly's suicide still seemed fleeting and elusive. The walk was an attempt to make it a little more real. Partly the elusiveness had to do with the shifting scope of the inquiry itself. While ostensibly it concerned Dr Kelly, from the outset there was a desire from all quarters - despite the best efforts of Lord Hutton - to have it examine much more.
Half the country looked at it as a way of further embarrassing the Prime Minister over Iraq (there were, inevitably at the outset, suggestions that this would be Kellygate). The Government, conversely, or at least that part of it in the power of Alastair Campbell, latched on to the inquiry as, at best, a distraction from the absence of weapons of mass destruction (and the real dodgy dossier), and at worst a way of finally shaming the BBC.
Newspapers, of course, seized on it, with its daily flow of revelation and gossip from the hard drives at the heart of Downing Street, as the perfect antidote to August (the broadsheets at last had their own Big Brother).
Thus, during compelling afternoons spent teasing out the dubious ethics of press office 'strategies', or the custom and practice of journalistic 'facts', or the grammar of secret service 'intelligence', Dr Kelly's death, the object of all this questioning, had sometimes felt the last thing on anyone's mind. It was, also, though, the one thing that could not be talked away, the single fixed point in a flood of information.
As I walked towards the stubborn little hill past a dozen black cows looking up from their feed, no other living soul in sight, some details from the previous six weeks of evidence came to mind unprompted. These details were not the evasive ambiguities of the Sir Kevins and the Sir Davids (whose language is designed to evaporate even as it is uttered); neither were they the fingers-crossed assurances of the spooks (though it was hard to forget one of them, Sir Richard Dearlove, who seemed to be speaking from a public lavatory). They were not even the flailings of the drowning men, Gilligan and Hoon. They were rather the few human details that had appeared to cast sudden light on the story of David Kelly's life and premature death.
There was, for example, the surprising humour and candour of Dr Kelly's voice preserved on the tape of the Newsnight journalist Susan Watts (odd, it seemed, in the charged silence of the courtroom, for such a private man, as Dr Kelly was universally described, to sound so cheerfully unconstrained). There was also the unforgettable pay-off in the otherwise numbing evidence of the diplomat David Broucher, to whom Dr Kelly appeared to have predicted the manner of his passing a year in advance ('I will probably be found dead in the woods'). And, in a different vein, there was the repeated detail, of a kind familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office, of the scientist's bewildered frustration, having faced down Iraqi weapons experts, to come up against the guardians of the grading structure of the MoD.
In among these things, as I walked, two odd fragments in particular snagged in my head (in a sea of information two thoughts seem about all a mind can hold on to, or all my mind can cling to, at any rate). The first was something Dr Kelly's wife said.
Janice Kelly's evidence, given by video link had been, in the context of so much self-importance and self-justification (and so much expensive tailoring) a very English model of dignity and restraint.
Theirs was the kind of marriage in which, for example, when on the run from the press, you mostly kept your thoughts to yourself, but filled your time profitably; Mrs Kelly explained how for a couple of days Britain's then most wanted man avoided the hacks by visiting the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Her love for her husband seemed habitual and orderly. They took their own suitcases when they went away; he did his own packing, she did hers. She was proud of his achievements without wanting to understand their detail, and the slights he experienced in his public ordeal, were felt, she believed, just as keenly by her.
There were, Mrs Kelly recalled, several stages of Dr Kelly's 'belittling'. It began with the constant reference, based on briefings by the MoD, to Dr Kelly as a 'middle-ranking official', (this despite the fact he had led inspection teams in Iraq, and was, by many accounts, Britain's foremost expert on biological and chemical warfare). The inference was that, in Alastair Campbell's memorable term, from another context, Kelly was 'operating above his pay grade'. Reading these reports, Dr Kelly had felt, I recalled, he was being treated as 'a fly'; his wife believed that he was 'used up'.
The worst of this, it seemed to me, worse even than the crude description of her husband's appearance in one newspaper as 'a Dr Shipman-lookalike', was a comment made by Jack Straw. And it was this comment that came to mind as I approached Harrowdown Hill, a gang of crows, flapping and strutting along the path ahead of me. Dr Kelly had accompanied the Foreign Secretary as an expert during his questioning last year at the Foreign Affairs Committee. He had sat beside him on that occasion, and, when the information about Gilligan's source came out, the Government was worried that this proximity would be used as evidence of his elevated status.
With this in mind, presumably, Straw commented, in retrospect, cruelly and casually that 'he had, in fact, been upset at the technical support at that committee meeting, that he had been accompanied by somebody so junior...' The easy brutality of this remark must have been sharpened for the scientist because, it turned out, the pair had been contemporaries at Leeds University. ('Straw will not remember me,' Kelly commented presciently at the time, 'because I was not a political animal...')
What had seemed to Dr Kelly a rare moment of public acknowledgement of the important and dangerous work he had committed his life to, had, with quick spin, been turned into a source of humiliation, a first chapter, Dr Kelly must have felt, in the rewriting of his own history.
The second story, of all the stories, that came into my mind also involved a rewrite of a sort. It was at first just a throwaway comment, something Dr Kelly's sister mentioned in her evidence. Sarah Pape, a consultant plastic surgeon, was talking about how, in the week that Dr Kelly was named and he and his wife took off for Cornwall, he had phoned her to explain the situation. She had asked all the obvious questions and then suggested 'that Mum and my brother and sister were also fully supportive of him...'
At the time this hardly seemed worthy of noting, but later, when it became clear that the family Mrs Pape must have been referring to was Dr Kelly's step-family, and that she was his step sister, it struck me rather differently. I had a sudden sense then of how David Kelly, perhaps a victim of the second Iraq War, was born into a different conflict.
His father, we discovered in court, had been married only six months when he went away to fight in the Second World War; Kelly was only a toddler when he returned, and his parents' marriage abruptly ended. He was subsequently raised mostly by his grandmother. His mother, who suffered a stroke when he was in his teens took her own life, he believed, when he was at university. This was a fact which, in a piece of clinical understatement, was said to have 'caused him some difficulty'.
In the light of this, Mrs Pape's simple message of support remembered from the court room somehow took on a slightly different edge; thinking about it walking along the empty path it felt like evidence not so much of Dr Kelly's strong family ties, but as an indication of a further sense of aloneness.
Keith Hawton, Professor of Psychiatry at Oxford and an expert in what Americans call Suicidology, suggested at the inquiry that the signs indicating extreme distress in a man like Dr Kelly were unlikely to be recognised by the 'lay person'. The only evidence of his state of mind that he appears to have revealed to his wife was that he sat in an armchair in the living room in the late morning, when normally, always, he would have been working.
Kelly had spent the early part of that last morning putting together a list of his press contacts for the Foreign Affairs Committee, his 'homework', and answering emails from friends and colleagues. One forwarded parliamentary questions to Geoff Hoon, about what disciplinary measures Kelly would face for his indiscretion.
Another, from a friend, seemed to sum up his predicament rather neatly. 'Dear David,' it read, 'Sorry about your latest run in with the media. I hope you are not getting too much flak. As we both know only too well, dealing with the media is always a balancing act and it's always impossible to predict which way it will go. When you get it right everyone is in favour but when you get it wrong you don't see their feet for dust.'
Kelly replied with what seemed like optimism, though he must have known by then that he had few grounds for it. 'Many thanks for your thoughts,' he said. 'It has been difficult. Hopefully it will all blow over by the end of the week and I can travel to Baghdad and get on with the real work.'
This does not look much like a suicide note, but you could begin to believe it was the closest Dr Kelly came to one. He knew on that morning in his heart that the real work was, for him, almost certainly over. What was left was a round of retractions and recriminations, and then retirement. Who was going to employ a weapons inspector known to be briefing, however much misquoted, against his government? 'The difficulties for him were escalating and the prospect for an early resolution of his difficulties were diminishing,' Professor Hawton noted.
The Kellys may not by this stage have said much to each other, but it is clear that on the morning of 17 July, Janice Kelly knew there was something terribly wrong with her husband. His appearance, slumped in the chair, was almost too much for her to bear. She still would admit in court to no more than his 'dismay' at events, but she seems to have known instinctively it was much worse. Her anxiety brought on a 'big headache', she recalled, made her physically sick a couple of times. She had tried to lighten the mood as best she could by showing Dr Kelly some photographs from her local history society and he smiled. They shared a sandwich lunch, she was at pains at least to keep him well fed, but afterwards when Mrs Kelly looked at her husband of 35 years she had the sudden sense that she 'just thought he had a broken heart... he could not put two sentences together, he could not talk at all.'
One of the hardest things to get a grip of in Court 73 was a sense of scale. You imagine that was a problem, too, for Dr Kelly. The great public events that led to his very private silence were set in a world that seems a long, long way down river from Harrowdown Hill. It did not help that they seemed to have been set in motion with a single word. That word was uttered at 6.07 am on Radio 4's Today programme. The word was 'erm'.
The 'erm' came in the middle of a sentence that BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan has undoubtedly lived to regret having let 'slip out'. It betrayed the momentary pause in which his mouth indulged in a little piece of wishful thinking that his brain was not quite alert or willing enough to edit. 'And what we've been told by one of the senior figures involved in drawing up the dossier was that, actually the government probably, erm, knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in...'
Looking back now, we might read an awful lot into that 'erm'. Whenever James Dingemans read it out in court, it came with the subliminally expressed professional disdain lawyers reserve for indecision. In the future we might look at it, at the very least, as the moment when the notion of a 'two-way', the unscripted conversation between presenter and reporter on matters of high sensitivity, was abandoned by the BBC.
Lord Hutton, if he is minded to, might see it as the moment when the 'Sunday newspaper culture' of the Today programme, in which it expressly sets out to break stories rather than simply report them, proved inappropriate for the national broadcaster. At a push, we might also say that it was the moment in which Dr David Kelly's fate was sealed.
At the time, though, it was just a pause, probably not quite long enough, for thought. The Kelly story was the second item to that morning's programme, intended not so much as news, but as 'a contribution to the debate' about the Government's trustworthiness over Iraq.
It was 'chatter in the air', a bit of mischief-making, and, if you read back through the transcripts, it was communicated to Gilligan as such by the Today programme's sneerer-in-chief John Humphrys. His question to his Defence Correspondent was designed to initiate just this kind of light speculative tone, a tone perhaps where possiblys could easily become probablys and slightly doubtfuls become plain wrongs. 'So, Andy, what's the story?'
The story, as it has unfolded for Andrew Gilligan, has turned out, over the past few weeks to be one of lost notes and mangled quotes, of shifting memory and forced apology. It has been a tale in which he seen himself alienated from the public (with the help of a series of unflattering below-chin photos, in, mostly, the Murdoch press) and from his fellow hacks (by breaking the journalists' omerta and naming Kelly not only as his own source but also as the source of his colleague Susan Watts in a misguided email to the Foreign Affairs Committee).
It is also a story, which in its broadest details - the fallibility of the 45-minute claim, its inappropriate application to weapons of mass destruction, the last-minute scramble to strengthen the dossier - has proved, after two months of disclosure and debate, like all of the best stories, to be true.
There was, early on in the Hutton inquiry, an instructive little piece of theatre about the relation of knowledge and power. When Susan Watts gave her evidence, a transcript of her conversation with Dr Kelly was produced, and a court usher carrying a cardboard box full of copies of this document sought to distribute them among journalists.
Rather than forming an orderly queue, say, or trusting that the copies would be handed down the row, the collected hacks, most of them senior political correspondents, created a violent impromptu scrum around the unfortunate usher. Desperate not to miss out on the scrap of news the document might contain shoulders and elbows were employed to secure a copy. When the usher retreated to a safe distance, the decorous team of lawyers, and the MoD officials waiting their turn on the stand, turned to watch the schoolboy desperation of this performance, this desire for scraps of facts, in some amazement.
Alastair Campbell, who has long graduated from the back rows of power to the front, would no doubt have been amused by this; it is, in effect, the kind of drama he has spent the last few years directing, though his cardboard box of facts is not always so readily available. He understands only too well, though, that whoever supplies information, wields influence.
This is why, when Dr Kelly first came forward to suggest he might just have been the source of Gilligan's speculations, the response of the Government, that is the response of Campbell, was not to ascertain whether the claims Dr Kelly made might be based on fact, but whether he was in a position to know for certain that some of the allegations were true. Having established that he was not, the Government immediately recognised that it could increase the pressure on the BBC, the 'game of chicken', to retract its story.
With due deference to Dr Kelly and his family, Alastair Campbell would have us believe that the other victim in this case was himself (and, by extension, his Prime Minister). It was, he said, repeatedly, 'very dispiriting', to realise that the BBC would do nothing to correct the assault on trust that Andrew Gilligan had perpetrated. His letters about Gilligan were, as the inquiry showed, the latest in a long line; in one context this might have looked like Campbell bullying, but in his terms it was simply turning the rigour the broadcaster applied to the Government to its own reporting, taking it at its word. He had, he wrote in a private letter to Greg Dyke, put up with this kind of thing from the BBC for nine years. He was not, it seemed, prepared to put up with it now, in his last few months in office.
Having dictated the original terms of this argument (with no mention, for example, of the dossier he did present to the public in good faith that turned out to have been culled from the internet), Campbell, by accident or design, also gave a very good impression of directing the flow of government information within court. He is not, it is clear, a man who favours note taking (like Andrew Gilligan in this respect); neither is he seduced by the intimacies of email, but in the course of the inquiry he had a source that could trump anything trawled from the in-boxes of the secret services.
Even the Kelly family submitted that the Campbell diary was a 'compelling document' (you can almost imagine that as a blurb for its eventual publication). For his initial appearance he brought it along with him and had it open on his desk, much in the manner that Jeffrey Archer had once done. Later, graciously, he allowed a redacted version to be used in evidence.
The effect of his diaries was three fold. For a start, however reluctantly, it offered up the Defence Minister as a scapegoat. In his evidence Geoff Hoon had repeatedly refused to take the blame for the absurd 'naming strategy', and instead had run for cover in two directions at once: employing first a version of the Nuremburg defence and then thinking better of it and blaming his subordinates. Campbell allowed his diary, with great reluctance, as he said, to make Hoon's confession for him.
The diaries also had the effect of letting the Prime Minister almost entirely off the hook for the conspiracies and cock-ups that led to Dr Kelly's death (when the Prime Minister did finally appear at the inquiry after his sojourn in Cliff's villa, he seemed preoccupied mostly with the question of whether he should put on or take off his spectacles to consider the evidence); in Campbell's hasty narrative, his boss is only ever the voice of reason, appealing always for calm, while hot-headed advisers such as himself, and, of course Ministers like Hoon urged revenge.
As a last hurrah, Campbell's diaries also happily offered up a headline, which conveyed exactly the message he had been trying for so long to have the world accept (and of course dutifully, almost every newspaper splashed with it: 'Gilligan is fucked' the headlines announced, and so it may prove).
Again, though, the truths Andrew Gilligan - with Dr Kelly's help - stumbled towards are revealing. In his account of his conversation with Kelly, Gilligan reported how, when asked who had been responsible for 'sexing up' the dossier, David Kelly replied with the shorthand 'Campbell'. If he was wrong in this instance, the Hutton inquiry clearly revealed that he would have been right in applying that shorthand to almost any other aspect of government business.
Seen at close quarters, as the inquiry briefly allowed, Downing Street appeared to be staffed by unelected senior figures crowded round computer screens, drafting press releases under Campbell's brilliant direction. Whatever else this image conveys, it did not give the impression of what David Kelly once referred to as 'real work'.
At the end of the first stage of James Dingemans's questioning (so adroitly performed, that he was asked, on occasion, for his autograph on leaving the courtroom) he offered the routine opportunity for each witness to add anything they wished that might have been relevant to an understanding of Dr Kelly's death. Some, like Susan Watts, used the occasion to reiterate their case; most saw it as a chance to scarper; and a few, including Campbell remembered what it was actually all about and offered their condolences to the Kelly family (strangely given his gift for ad hoc eulogy, the Prime Minister declined this opportunity.)
Sitting on Harrowdown Hill, a silver glimpse of the Thames in the near distance, I set out my own little version of an answer to Dingemans's question. At some point in the drift of events that led to Dr Kelly's death, the story seemed to take on a momentum of its own. And so on a notepad I jotted down the things that, had they happened differently might have changed the scientist's fate.
The list began with the drink in the Charing Cross Hotel; it continued with Andrew Gilligan's 'erm'; it took in Alastair Campbell's history with the journalist, and the BBC's desperation to be seen to maintain its independence at all costs (regardless of the facts); it included Geoff Hoon's naming policy, and MoD man Sir Richard Hatfield's callous understanding of Kelly's employment rights (with personnel directors like this, Kelly might have asked, who needs rogue dictators?), and it went on with the MP Andrew Mackinlay's childishly aggressive questioning ('you are chaff') in the Foreign Affairs Committee. By the time I got to 'Prime Minister determined to follow America into war come what may' I had filled two pages, so I stopped and began to walk back toward the village.
Kelly's daughter mentioned how her father used to walk out here in order to think, perhaps, you imagined, to attempt to reconcile some of the tensions of a life divided between the murderous politics of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the hedged-in domesticity of rural Oxfordshire. Between, you might says, his mission to find biological weapons systems - to save the world, no less - and what his wife referred to as his 'gardening duties'.
Some combination of that long list of what-ifs had conspired to close one of these lives to him for ever, and it seems that on some level, towards lunchtime on 17 July he felt that he could not cope with that fact. Iraq, the inquiry made clear, had become an addiction for him. He had been 40 times or more, and brought little bits of it back home: practising the Baha'i faith that had its origins in Baghdad at his local Spiritual Assembly of the Vale of White Horse in Abingdon; retaining friendships and powerful loyalties to the people he had worked with. One of the great ironies in this addiction, as James Dingemans pointed out, is the fact that Dr Kelly was one of the few men on the planet ever likely to be able to locate the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction.
As his sister pointed out, 'he desperately wanted to go back to Iraq and to finish the job... I think he felt he carried an awful lot of thoughts and information in his mind... he thought they were masters at hiding things but he had a pretty good idea where he would go if he had a free rein to do so.'
The reason for his talking to Gilligan in the first place was to get a briefing about the situation in Iraq to help get on with 'finishing the job'. Once it became clear that, through his own fatal unguardedness and his employers' systematic betrayal, that opportunity was to be denied him, you wonder if, perhaps, in his disturbed state he came up with an alternative plan to get to the truth.
As his wife said, David was always 'very factual. That is what he tried always to be, to be factual.' What event has produced more facts than the inquiry which followed her husband's death? Kelly would, no doubt have appreciated the rigour and openness of Lord Hutton's investigation. It has achieved for him, tragically, in death what he seemed always to aspire to in life: he has made a difference.
©Copyright 2003, The Guardian (UK)
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