Whitewash and Cover-Up, UK-style

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Anyone who values the search for truth and defends liberty should rightly be incensed, as I am, by the crafty manipulation, the abject amoralism and the cynical disregard for human decency which government office-holders and officials have put into fine-tuning the recently-published conclusions of the Hutton inquiry, culminating in the last-minute leak of the report to a newspaper sympathetic to the government.

Perhaps it is a waste of energy to get worked up about what is in the end a dance to the music of the spinmeisters in the corridors of power, but there are moments when righteous indignation needs to be expressed, and this is one of them.

Lord Hutton’s ostensible brief was to examine, as an impartial and hitherto respected judge, the circumstances surrounding the death, in July 2003, of chemical weapons expert and microbiologist Dr. David Kelly — a suspicious and premature death which the government and the press had swiftly labelled a suicide.

His report in fact does nothing of the sort. Most fundamentally, it begins by accepting the government version of events, namely that Kelly committed suicide. From that dubious starting-point, which is at least as unproven as any plausible alternative explanation (such as murder), the rest is a combination of careful, selective omission of evidence submitted to the inquiry and a liberal application of whitewash. Office-holders and servants of the British government who are still alive are exonerated in their handling of the affair, but not the dead public servant David Kelly himself, who was employed by the UK Ministry of Defence (i.e., War), nor his messenger, reporter Andrew Gilligan, nor Gilligan’s bosses at the BBC, who are censured for effectively failing to meet, as Peter Oborne writes, "impossibly high thresholds for checking information."

Top bosses at the BBC, including popular director-general Greg Dyke, have done the honourable thing and resigned, prompting media hyperbole to the effect that the BBC faces its "biggest ever crisis" and talk of a mortal threat to "the last great open platform for hard investigative reporting."

Even if it does have some excellent programming and indeed, on occasion, some excellent hard investigative reporting, the BBC is not an open, independent platform. It is a state broadcasting company which has carefully cultivated an image of impartiality and objective reporting, but in fact it is owned and controlled by the government and funded by taxpayers’ money. This means that it has generally always been submissive to the government of the day, and broadly speaking has tended to pursue a liberal-managerial and politically correct line. A great deal of effective reporting can be accomplished within this framework, and a great deal of propaganda may also be put across as impartial and objective reporting, but it is quite clear, on either of these counts, that showing up the machinations of the government spinmeisters for the despicable expedients that they are is not included in the list of permitted activities.

In June last year BBC radio reporter Gilligan caused particular upset to the then government press secretary, Alastair Campbell, by coming very close to the substantive truth of how intelligence reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been doctored by government to convey a more threatening message to the public than the intelligence information actually warranted. As so often happens with the discovery of truth, Gilligan had stumbled almost accidentally on a highly sensitive vessel for conveyance of that truth, in the shape of Kelly. For Campbell, I surmise that the situation would in all likelihood have been perceived not only as threatening, but also as irritating in the extreme: none of the minions involved were behaving as they should. So, in Campbell’s none too sweet-smelling phraseology, this meant that "Gilligan had to be f***ed." Having been decreed this ominous fate Gilligan, as far as I know, is still alive. What, I wonder, was the verbal prescription concocted in these nether regions for the way-out-of-line David Kelly?

In earlier times such attitudes as Campbell’s would have been regarded as inadmissible in a public servant, and an outcome to a judicial inquiry such as we have seen with the publication of the Hutton report would have been considered a public scandal. Oborne labels it, accurately, a disaster for British public life. That it is generally not so regarded, or that there is possibly not even any general awareness of all its implications, and that there is now a chorus of official voices (including, most prominently, Blair and Campbell) saying "it’s time to move on," is a reflection of the manipulative skill of the government information managers, the dumb and disinterested acquiescence of much of the mass of the populace, and the smug self-satisfaction of the power-holders. More interesting still, Oborne’s article implies that the prime motive in the very selection of Lord Hutton was presentational calculation: a public appearance of impartiality and gravitas was secured in his person; at the same time, the "astonishing extent to which the Northern Irish judge has followed the Downing Street line" ensured that no boat would, finally, be rocked. Or, to do some real mixing of metaphors, a u2018safe pair of hands’ dealt satisfactorily with a hot potato.

The whole government information machine is dependent on this calculationist ethic and is built on the manipulation of such appearances. The media circus ensures that what is discussed is not the substance of the matters in hand, but only, as in some form of gladiatorial competition, the winners and losers in what is seen as a political game of tactical manipulation. Thus an electoral decision turns on tactical errors or tactical successes — something as superficial as a man’s (or woman’s) hairstyle and “grooming,” or a misjudged on-screen temper tantrum. The masters of spin (in the US it is presidential adviser Karl Rove) manipulate such “electoral factors” in the background. These are grey people, with a touch of the sinister about them, rarely in public view.

Although such techniques are by no means the monopoly of any single political party, they first came to prominence in Britain in 1997 with the election of Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” guided by his then eminence grise, Peter Mandelson: a party judged previously to be unelectable was turned around (and obtained a landslide victory) because the smart brains in it focused entirely on the methods of getting elected (i.e., they consciously said “forget the issues, focus on the mechanism”). Since then, by the way, the resulting government has presided over a huge increase in taxation, “created” all sorts of “facilitator”-type jobs in the public sector, and put British troops into war zones on at least 4 if not 5 occasions (Kosovo/Serbia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq) in the name of “liberal imperialism.” That’s before we even consider the rise in violent crime.

New Labour thus greatly reinforced an already existing tendency for the UK to become a managerial state, in the Gottfriedian sense of the term. That is to say, it is a country where a group of governmental managers have appropriated the vocabulary and outward appearance of liberal welfarism and the protection of rights to perfect a form of government in which substantive content (real life issues) at all times takes second place to securing and keeping hold of power. Their hubris is unbounded, for they do it, they say, for our benefit. They know what is best for us (and, so it seems, for a good deal of the rest of humanity as well).

The problem with this is that the rulers of such states and their servants, the bureaucrats, are indeed concerned not so much with ends, purposes and substance, nor with a search for what is best, but rather with perfecting the mechanisms and forms required in order for them, as managers, to be able to continue to manage and to stay in control. In such a context the successful manipulation of information by government is a key bureaucratic function, rewarded by power and position when it is "successful" on its own terms. Peter Oborne cites apparent reports that Mr. Blair is anxious for John Scarlett, the intelligence bureaucrat who in his u2018eagerness to ingratiate himself’ with the government, cooperated perhaps too closely with the spinmeisters, to become the new head of the Secret Intelligence Service.

Oborne rightly warns that we should not get too solemn about all this. So, as an antidote to the sickening sycophancy of most of the predictably superficial media coverage of the Hutton report’s publication, I strongly recommend the Telegraph article on this question by Boris Johnson, the editor of the Spectator. True to form, he has a rightful and at the same time entertaining blast at the creepy "Prime Minister, beaming his chipmunk grin," who "asked everyone to believe in what turned out to be a fraud."

On a more serious note, and in a key passage, Johnson pinpoints the nature of the liberal-managerial philosophy of governance: presentation, u2018textual negotiation’ and u2018grip on language’ is all. Substance is truly secondary:

"The intelligence chiefs — principally John Scarlett — were in constant textual negotiation with Downing Street, and the protests of their juniors were ignored. On September 20, an unnamed MoD official felt obliged to write a further letter of complaint. u2018The draft still includes a number of statements which are not supported by the evidence available to me … what I wish to record is that it has NOT been established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.’

His words were unheeded. It is extraordinary, reading the Hutton inquiry evidence, to see the grip that Downing Street exercised on the language of what purported to be an intelligence document."

Johnson concludes:

"Public and Parliament were presented with justifications for war that (a) did not reflect the opinions of those who knew most about Iraqi weapons; and (b) had been in key ways embellished by Alastair Campbell. Neither of these staggering facts would have come to light, had it not been for Andrew Gilligan."

Small wonder that those smugly celebrating a tactical victory display unseemly haste to bury the real issues. But questions which are awkward for the government remain unanswered, and in the sound and fury of the barrage of UK media coverage of this propaganda circus, there are significant details which will not go away.

First, while Lord Hutton has carefully avoided criticizing the mechanics of government spin by that time-honoured cop-out of all bureaucrats, “it’s not in my job description” or “it’s beyond my remit,” little reported amongst the general condemnation of the BBC and the ensuing round of resignations at the top is the fact that he has now been called before a select committee of members of parliament to be grilled on the whole question of how these judicial enquiries are conducted.

Secondly, serious questions need to be asked, and may well re-emerge, if the coroner presiding over the inquest into the death of David Kelly reopens it (or is permitted to do so). US-based freelance writer Jim Rarey, who has investigated the Kelly affair at great length and whose articles are online, wrote earlier this month (on January 19th, before publication of the Hutton report):

"If, as expected, Lord Hutton’s report on the u2018circumstances’ surrounding the death of microbiologist David Kelly claims he bled to death from a self-inflicted wound to his wrist, it will rank as one of the clumsiest cover-ups in recent memory.

If that is Hutton’s finding, Oxfordshire coroner Nicholas Gardiner almost certainly will be forced to reopen the inquest that was cut short by appointment of the Hutton inquiry. [...]

The major thrust of the Hutton inquiry, and the media coverage, has been who or what drove Kelly to u2018suicide.’ That is likely to be the thrust of Hutton’s report as well.

The evidence that it was more likely murder than suicide is contained in the transcripts on the website of the Hutton inquiry. The media has no excuse for ignoring it and if Nicholas Gardiner does not reopen the inquest you can color him part of the cover-up."

Finally, there are signs that many ordinary people are very angry, and will not take the government’s “tactics” lying down. A spontaneous demonstration outside the BBC following Greg Dyke’s resignation brought together at least 800 employees with the message “Cut the crap — bring back Greg” and a statement by BBC4 interactive editor Kate Bradshaw: “Everyone is outraged and sad. The government has successfully manipulated the BBC and damaged it in the process.”

Conclusions

Much has been said and written of late about popular skepticism and mistrust in relation to “the official version of events,” and belief in conspiracies. I believe it is not because it is official per se that we mistrust the official version of events. We mistrust the majority of individuals who are in official positions because as persons they have demonstrated by their consistent amoral (and sometimes immoral) behaviour over time that they are not to be trusted.

The main reason for this is that we in the Western u2018liberal democracies’ have a culture of social interaction which is focussed on the means and not the ends: for example, as I have mentioned above, the architects of New Labour in 1997 studied the mechanics of gaining power and focussed primarily on the effective manipulation of those mechanisms, in the process devaluing discussion of issues and policies — perfectly rational behaviour in the light of Labour’s earlier “unelectability,” but the problem with it is that the baby (the moral consequences and effects of decisions or non-decisions regarding those issues) goes out with the bathwater. The result is that we have no gurus, only managers: once in power, the mission just becomes self-perpetuating. There is no ulterior goal other than management of one’s strategic position or, as recent UK news has shown, devising ever more sophisticated ways of increasing the taxes which those managers will administer and out of which their salaries and index-linked pensions will be paid.

And so it continues: functionaries of the managerial state study when to release bad news or adverse statistics so that they will be “buried” by another, more dramatic story. The substance of the bad news or adverse statistics is of no significance to them other than for its value in promoting or hindering their immediate objective of holding on to power, or winning a turf or budget allocation war. Occasionally, like Jo Moore, the minor UK government official who described September 11, 2001, as a “good day to bury bad news,” they get caught out, and there are howls of self-righteous protest, as if this were the exception and not the default modus operandi of those who make it their business to run the political machines and keep them lubricated (I mean here the ‘civil servants’ as well as the politicians).

I think the problem with official versions of events is not so much with absolute truth (if there ever can be such a thing). More likely, we are being told partial, selective, shaded truths because it is partial, selective, shaded truths which suit the motivations and purposes of those individuals (the version managers) who design and deliver them. Those purposes, contrary to most theorizing about conspiracy, are not disguised or hidden: more often they are out in the open for those who care to read (of course I accept that many don’t bother, or can’t). Equally often they are not interesting in substance, merely technical or mechanistic.

Finally, I do not think there is a general “culture of mistrust.” This is a handy device to use to explain away truths which may be unpalatable to power. Yes, some individuals do not trust others, and too much trust can lead people to be tricked and deceived, but for most of those engaged in day-to-day social interaction there is a culture of friendliness and being well-disposed to others, which is reflected in plain dealing and voluntary exchange. What we have could better be described as a culture of cynically paternalistic exploitation and opportunism by the political and bureaucratic managerial classes: most of the time, people are either too lazy or too disorganized to do anything about this. But when the bureaucratic managers and whitewashers go too far, is it surprising that the people turn and say to them “We know your sort. And this time, you cried wolf once too often.”

Lord Hutton may well rue the day he came out of unblemished obscurity.

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Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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