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21 July 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The blame game
The reaction to Dr David Kelly's death shows the UK media in the grip of cynicism.

by Brendan O'Neill

Who killed David Kelly, the government scientist who was the principal source for the BBC's report claiming that Downing Street 'sexed up' its dossier on Iraq? The police have confirmed that Kelly died by his own hand, after slashing his left wrist. Yet reading the media reaction, you could be forgiven for thinking that Kelly was all but murdered by politics.

'He was hammered to death on a bitter anvil forged by hatred, ruthless political manipulation and dubious journalism', said the Sunday Mirror, claiming that 'the business of politics has been polluted by a new brutality that eats up and spits out human beings' (1). Claims of Kelly being eaten up and spat out were a recurring theme. According to Saturday's Daily Mail: 'Yesterday, a decent, shy civil servant who had been savagely chewed up and spat out by a malign, amoral Downing Street machine met a tormented and tragic end.' (2)

The Independent on Saturday said Kelly was a 'casualty of war', as if he was killed by British state forces as surely as Iraqis have been (3). The Daily Mirror's frontpage headline on the same day put it more succinctly. 'SPUN TO DEATH', it declared, demanding 'no mercy for the hounds who mauled Kelly' (4).

In The Times, Joan Smith described Kelly as 'the quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics' (5). On his appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last week, Smith writes: 'A patently honourable and decent man had been dragged into a bearpit.' For Smith, Kelly's death raises questions about the British way of 'doing politics'. 'The larger lesson of [this] grim news is that the macho, brawling style of politics is not the victimless sport its participants fondly imagine…. This is a moment to think again about the way we conduct disagreements in this country.' (6)

These journalists scrabbling about for the most degrading terms with which to describe Kelly's death no doubt think they are being radical. In fact, their responses represent the height of cynicism. This is not political criticism of the WMD debacle, or a serious critique of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee; it is a kneejerk, cynical response, informed more by anti-politics than a desire to interrogate recent events. For the likes of Joan Smith, Kelly's death is another opportunity to have a go at the apparently 'macho' nature of debate and democracy that she finds so distasteful.

As with all morality tales, certain facts in the Kelly affair have had to be reworked
In earlier times, Kelly's suicide might have been taken as evidence that this particular individual wasn't suited to politics. Today, politics itself, that 'cut and thrust of accusation and counter accusation [that] is not a game at all', is instantly seen as being at fault (7). Many media reports have led with words allegedly written by Kelly in one of his last emails, where he referred to 'dark actors playing games' - a view that chimes perfectly with our cynical times, where public mistrust is widespread and individuals are seen as being at the mercy of sinister forces (8).

Kelly's death has been turned into a morality play for our times, with a shy retiring scientist on one side and big bad politicians on the other. And as with all morality tales, certain facts have had to be reworked (or invented outright) in order to suit the story.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee - before which Kelly gave evidence on 15 July, three days before he committed suicide - is now described as a 'savage bearpit' of MPs, whose 'ruthless interrogation' of Kelly potentially caused him to take his life. The Guardian's Kevin Maguire claims that Andrew Mackinlay, the MP who questioned Kelly, had been 'pugnacious', and, 'leaning forward and jutting his jaw in the direction of the lone figure', had 'aggressively' interrogated the 'barely audible' Kelly (9). One report claims that the committee had been 'vicious and unforgiving', while a letter to the Guardian says: 'I am outraged that this man was put through the Spanish Inquisition of the select committee….' (10)

Spanish Inquisition? The Foreign Affairs Select Committee? Such claims show how history can be rewritten at lightning speed today. Over the past two weeks, journalists have complained that the committee is 'bumbling' and ineffective. On 16 July, two days before Kelly was found dead, Alice Miles of The Times reported that this 'mild-mannered civil servant' had 'tied either the BBC or Number 10, or neither, or both of them, in knots' - not so much by the force of his argument, but because the committee wasn't really up to much (11).

In today's Guardian, Simon Hoggart writes of the 'worrying myth' that Kelly was 'sent to his grave' by the Foreign Affairs Committee's 'fierce and harsh interrogation': 'What nonsense that is! I was there for the whole of the hour Kelly faced the committee, and as he pushed past me at the end to leave…he was smiling. I cannot believe, and I do not believe, that it was the committee's questioning that pushed him to the edge of his reason.' (12) Yet in recent reports, the committee has been transformed into a monster, which chewed up, spat out, devoured, mauled (etc) its victims.

Colleagues claim that Kelly was 'tough enough to grind down Iraqi officers'
On the other side, Kelly has been turned into an unlikely hero, the quiet, local man who wasn't used to the hotheaded political arena that he was dragged into against his will. Against the 'vicious' committee, Kelly has been described as 'silver-bearded, slightly balding and bespectacled', 'quiet, unassuming', and 'not especially' interested in politics. Kelly may have been all of these things, but it seems disingenuous to refer to him as some kind of wide-eyed doctor who was the victim of ruthless politics.

Kelly was a scientist for the Ministry of Defence, with expertise in weapons and germ warfare. In the 1990s, he was a senior figure in the weapons inspection programme, which was continually used by British and American governments to justify the devastating economic blockade against Iraq and to ensure that Iraq existed under the permanent threat of war. For all the claims that Kelly was 'quiet and unassuming', his colleagues claim that he was fairly ruthless in his dealings with Iraqis during weapons inspections, where he was 'tough enough to grind down Iraqi officers who were trying to stymie weapons inspections' (13), and 'wouldn't take any sort of bluster from the Iraqis' (14).

Those who have leapt upon the Kelly fiasco as a way of bashing politics have no time for such subtleties. Instead, Kelly was clearly Good and political interrogation is plainly Evil. The truth is that Kelly was responsible for his death, not the Foreign Affairs Committee, or the BBC, or anyone else. His suicide is an individual tragedy for his family and friends - the response to his suicide is worrying for those of us who want to take up the culture of cynicism, and who think politics isn't nearly challenging enough.

Read on:

Hutton's 'transparency' is a threat to democracy, by Mick Hume

Out-of-control freaks, by Brendan O'Neill

spiked issue: The Hutton Inquiry

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Editorial, Sunday Mirror, 20 July 2003

(2) 'Proud of yourselves?', Daily Mail, 19 July 2003

(3) The death of a civil servant, a casualty of war, Independent, 19 July 2003

(4) 'Spun to death', Daily Mirror, 19 July 2003

(5) The quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 19 July 2003

(6) The quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 19 July 2003

(7) The quiet man who was a victim of our brutal politics, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 19 July 2003

(8) Kelly warned of 'dark actors playing games', Anonova, 19 July 2003

(9) Inquisition by MPs that left scientist tormented, Kevin Maguire, Guardian, 19 July 2003

(10) Time for resignations, Guardian Letters, 19 July 2003

(11) 'MoD deploys weapons of mass distraction', Alice Miles, The Times (London), 16 July 2003

(12) Don't blame the MPs; they perform a crucial role, Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 21 July 2003

(13) Collateral damage, Time, 28 July 2003

(14) Interview: Professor Alastair Hay, Ninemsn Australia, 20 July 2003

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