Europe/Great Britain

Suicide and Suspicions over War with Iraq

Tony Blair arrives in Tokyo soon after hearing of David Kelly's apparent suicide.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Tokyo on July 18, soon after hearing of weapons expert David Kelly's apparent suicide (Photo: Eriko Sugita/AFP-Getty Images).

The July 18 suicide of British Ministry of Defense (MoD) weapons expert David Kelly has intensified the ongoing British row over the reasons Britain went to war, the quality of Western military intelligence, and news media bias. British commentators from across the political spectrum agree that it also represents the most serious challenge Tony Blair’s government has yet faced.

Kelly, 59, committed suicide after being named by the government as the source for a press leak. In a conversation with British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reporter Andrew Gilligan in February, Kelly was an unnamed source who debunked Downing Street’s claim that weapons of mass destruction could be launched from Iraq within 45 minutes. That information was part of a dossier of evidence against the Iraqi regime, published by the British government last September and thought to be enormously influential in giving a moral justification for removing Saddam Hussein. Asked who had been responsible for “sexing up” the dossier, Gilligan’s source named Blair’s top press secretary Alistair Campbell.

Kelly later denied that he had been the main source for Gilligan’s story, telling a parliamentary committee on July 15 that “from the conversation I had I don't see how [Gilligan] could make the statements he was making.” By that time, Gilligan’s story was dominating the news and the pressure on Kelly was apparently intolerable. Four days after he gave his evidence, he was dead.

In the aftermath of the suicide, British commentators were divided as to whether the lion’s share of blame for Kelly’s suicide rested with the government or the BBC. Some blamed the news agency for refusing to release Kelly’s name sooner; other fingers pointed at the MoD for violating its normal rules of secrecy by telling reporters that it would confirm the mole’s name if they submitted it to the ministry. For its part, the government accused the BBC of having an antiwar bias that had led to sensationalist reporting.

“Make no mistake, this is serious,” wrote David Cracknell in the conservative Sunday Times (July 20). “Early in the Iraq dossier row, one MP said this was New Labor’s Watergate. That looked like hyperbole then. It does not now.” Kelly’s death “is not merely a political event, it is a moral event, and it has made people feel not only sad, but ashamed,” William Rees-Mogg wrote in The Times the next day (July 21).

Britain’s conservative tabloids were eager to point fingers at the BBC. “Are the BBC to blame?” asked the conservative, mass-circulation News of the World (July 20). “Maybe….It is the reputation of the BBC that will be covered in Kelly’s blood.” The Sun (July 21) was even more damning in its rhetorical questions: “The BBC is in the gutter…How can we ever trust them again?”

But others argued that it wasn’t clear exactly what the BBC could have done to save Kelly. Writing in the liberal Guardian on July 21, Jackie Ashley offered an explanation for the conservative attacks on the corporation. “The attacks on the BBC have been led by two groups—Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and New Labor spin-doctors—which have been closely intertwined in recent years. The covert Murdoch message is clear enough: Tony, we are your real, reliable supporters, not the dodgy lefties of the BBC.”

Others cautioned against making too much of the battle between the BBC and press secretary Alistair Campbell, saying that they were simply actors in a larger drama. “Blair went to war arguing that Iraq posed an imminent threat,” said an editorial in London’s liberal Independent on Sunday (July 20). “It is not scientific advisors, or Campbell, or the BBC...who should be in the dock but the prime minister….We need [an inquiry] into the real reasons why this country was taken into a war that has claimed not only too many lives as its victims but the nation’s trust in its leaders as well.”

Blair, who was on a tour of Asia when Kelly’s death was announced, appeared visibly shaken in press conferences and immediately announced that an inquiry—led by Irish judge Lord Hutton—would be launched into the scientist’s death. He averred that he would appear before the inquiry’s commission himself. Hutton subsequently announced that he would also be calling Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and Campbell to the witness stand.

But for some editorialists, the Hutton inquiry was doomed before its first hearing. “Limits have been imposed on Lord Hutton…His investigation, however rigorous, is likely to produce only half the story,” wrote Glasgow’s centrist Herald (July 22). “He is being asked to consider Kelly’s death as if it occurred in isolation from other events. In truth, however, it was but one part of a larger narrative.”

British headlines after the inquiry’s first days focused on internal BBC memos indicating that Gilligan’s “loose use of language and lack of judgment” in his choice of words had been a millstone around the corporation’s neck. “BBC admits Iraq scoop was flawed,” The Times trumpeted in its top headline on Aug. 13. “Gilligan report ‘flawed,’ “ The Scotsman announced. The Guardian, which had declared itself to be “gunning for the BBC” in a July 22 editorial, conceded an “Inquiry blow for the BBC” in its lead headline on Aug. 13. Of the most prestigious British papers, only The Independent devoted its top headline to the other important revelation from the previous day’s proceedings: that Kelly had also told Susan Watts, science editor of BBC2’s Newsnight, that Campbell had insisted that the controversial “45-minute claim” be inserted into the September dossier.

In the days before the inquiry opened, the controversy had taken a new turn. On Aug. 3, Tom Kelly, the prime minister’s spokesman, referred to the Nobel Prize-nominated David Kelly as a “Walter Mitty” character. Newspaper columnists and editorialists were quick to seize on the comment as an example of the government’s desperation and increasing reliance on spin.

“The sheer incompetence and self-destructiveness of this administration’s handling of the Kelly crisis has become epic,” wrote Iain MacWhirter in Glasgow’s Herald (Aug. 6). “The government propaganda machine seems to have taken on a life of its own; has turned on its masters, and is now destroying them. Terminator meets All the President’s Men.”

“Even before Lord Hutton begins his inquiry into the death of David Kelly, the government manages to keep itself on the front pages as if it is determined to alienate public opinion in advance of the formal proceedings,” wrote Steve Richards in The Independent. “The once-sharp antennae of the publicity-conscious New Laborites have been blunted by power, and the prospect of power for years to come.”

The reference to Mitty, the protaganist of a 1939 short story for the New Yorker whose name has become a byword for a person who dreams about a life much more exciting than his own, caused one columnist to do some literary sleuthing and to conclude that the comment was more of a compliment than a slur.

“The whole point of Thurber’s story…is that Mitty fantasizes wildly about becoming someone else, but never actually changes,” Andrew Buncombe wrote in The Independent (Aug. 7). “Mitty is a hero for every one of us who has played the lottery….So, it’s perfectly possible that, from time to time, the Nobel Prize nominee Kelly was a Walter Mitty character; but then, so, hopefully, is his namesake who tried to undermine the scientist’s reputation with such a cheap shot.”

On Aug. 5, the day before David Kelly’s funeral, Tom Kelly apologized for the comment. Nevertheless, the centrist Financial Times felt that “Tom Kelly should be suspended,” while the conservative Daily Express described him as a “the fall guy.” There was much speculation about whether his comment had been a case of individual tactlessness, or part of a calculated strategy by the administration to smear the eminent weapons expert.

“[Tom] Kelly’s briefing was not part of a carefully planned operation,” wrote Steve Richards in The Independent (Aug. 6). “Such a development would be a clear sign the collective forces in Downing Street had gone insane. Imagine the conversation: ‘Why don’t we get it into the newspapers that we regard David Kelly as a fantasist just before his funeral?’”

“If the government is found to be engaging in the character assassination of a dead man then the implications could prove devastating. The wider public will find the whole business distasteful in the extreme,” read an Aug. 6 editorial in the Irish News. However, the paper concluded, there were larger issues at stake. “The tragic death of David Kelly looks set to dominate Tony Blair’s political life for months.”