Iain Cameron's Diary
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2004-01-25 - 11:31 a.m.
This ones from the Daily Telegraph and in my view gets it right:
I stood by, too, while the rogues destroyed Kelly
By Quentin Letts
Tyburnia, back in the days when we hanged miscreants in public, was the district of London between today's Paddington railway terminus and Marble Arch. On hanging days the streets would throng with ghouls. What these spectators liked best was to mimic the bulging of the eyes when the rope tightened round the condemned man's neck.
For good or bad, Tyburnia has gone. Or has it? We now have the committee corridor of the House of Commons, where as a parliamentary sketchwriter I joined a large crowd in the heat of last Tuesday afternoon. The "entertainment" was Dr David Kelly, an obscure scientist who had been named as a press informant by the Blair Government. Poor Dr Kelly exuded terror. His voice was little more than a whisper and his face was blotched by fatigue and worry. I regret to say that many of us reporters waiting outside the committee room beforehand exchanged jests with sweaty relish. We did not quite make our eyes bulge, but the bloodlust was not too different.
Dr Kelly's evidence session lasted a mere half hour or so. That seems to have been enough to tip a sensitive man over the edge. After his brief performance in the furnace of committee room 15 (when the fans were turned off so he could be more clearly heard, the temperature came close to 100 degrees), Westminster veterans were baffled. He had not "had a line". His evidence, as he admitted to the Tory MP Richard Ottaway, contained discrepancies. He did not seek to deny mistakes and nor did he hit back when he heard himself described as "chaff" and a "fall guy".
He had not even arrived at the meeting with the usual outriders of press advisers or supporters or legal briefs. He just sat there, totally alone, and took the punishment while blinking with unhappiness. What a loser! What a loser indeed, for the poor man has lost his life. His family is in mourning. For the rest of the world, Dr Kelly's death marks a terrible waste of his expertise in the important field of biological warfare.
The loss is grave but it has yet to tilt the political balance. In one pan of the scales we have this suffering and despair. In the other we have the career plan of Tony Blair's propaganda chief, Alastair Campbell. It has so far been a case of feathers versus lead, with Mr Campbell as the immovable lump of metal.
Mr Campbell is a former tabloid journalist. We should not expect him to be a creature of delicate taste. He is what he is and that is why Tony Blair places such a high value on his continued services. Campbell is coarse, committed and adroit.
What has been dismaying is the way that he has so long been tolerated. The nervous appearance of Dr Kelly before the Foreign Affairs Committee made one realise how murderously timid our political world has become in taking on this No 10 bully. He could never have become this controversial - I would argue wicked - force without widespread acceptance. Senior men and women have seen his bullying, his casual abuses, his slovenly regard for propriety and wise precedent, and they have not chosen to object. They have let bad things pass without comment because they were cowards. They have gulped hard and swallowed their principles. But they have kept their jobs and their pensions.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which has been at the centre of the dossiers investigation, is at best a slightly frail craft. Crewed by a collection of motley backbenchers and skippered by the creaky Donald Anderson, the Labour MP for Swansea East, it has found itself in tumultuous seas.
Barnsley's Eric Illsley, a low-ranking Labour matelot in this tub, broke with convention and gave the media a pro-Campbell preview of its hotly-awaited report. Why? What was in it for him? Was there a nudged suggestion that "Alastair would be grateful"? Illsley's Labour sidekick, Greg Pope, also behaved strangely. Mr Pope, a flush-faced, trembly-fingered 42-year-old, slipped The Guardian a copy of the report on the day before it was published. Again, why? Was this member of a supposedly independent committee given reason to suspect that assisting Mr Campbell might be a good idea?
On Thursday, after a closed meeting of his committee, Mr Anderson stepped in front of the cameras to disclose what had been discussed at that "private" meeting which was merely trying to establish if Mr Gilligan would reveal his sources. This was highly improper. As it happened, his remarks were damaging to Mr Campbell's opponent, Andrew Gilligan, and set things up nicely for Mr Blair's big speech in Washington DC. How convenient. Arise, Sir Donald?
So far as we know, no one forced Dr Kelly to meet Mr Gilligan in that London hotel bar. His evidence to the committee was shaded by evasion and regret. He probably was Mr Gilligan's main source, and he probably told the BBC journalist more than he was prepared to admit to the committee. Yet the very fact that he was prepared to talk to Mr Gilligan shows that he, unlike so many others, spoke out. Here, at last, was someone who placed truth above his job security.
In this age of instant rebuttal units, point-of-incident press releases, go-now-live telecasts, and breaking news appraisal, sadly, Dr Kelly was hopelessly out of his depth. It is no great mistake to leak or fib. It is a mistake to do so without "a line" that finesses and defends your position. That is why his encounter with the "High Court of Parliament" was such a terrible mismatch, as hopeless as when the Polish cavalry galloped into battle against Hitler's Panzers.
We onlookers in modern-day Tyburnia were thirsty for gore last week. We wanted a bit of political "juice", because that is the way politics works and I suppose that is what sells newspapers. We hoped, however, that the victim would be someone in power and influence.
Say a prayer, if you go to church today, for a man who knew much about nuclear and chemical weapons, but too little about the brutal, self-serving warfare of modern British politics. Say a prayer for David Kelly because he was a frightened man, but a brave one. The rest can go hang themselves.
I have actually appeared before a Select Committee and been coached for it. The whole point is that in law the Civil Servant in that position appears as proxy for the Minister - and answers as the Minister should. Usually its only done by Permanent Secretaries - who hate it - and get massive departmental support. The point about the isolation is the critical one - they hung him out to dry on his own because it suited them. When push comes to shove its what they usually do!