Monday, 16 August 2010

Piss and Wind: David Aaronovitch on the death of David Kelly

…in Saturday’s Times (August 14, 2010)

There is no mystery over David Kelly's death proclaims the headline. Well, in one sense you might say that: no mystery, no esoteric ineffables, no transcendent unknown. Of course that is not the sense in which the headline is supposed to be taken – not officially – but it sounds a lot more plausible than ‘no room for doubt’, ‘no stone left unturned’ or ‘no unresolved issues’.

Because whether or not the uncritical reader might assent to the absence of ‘mystery’, there remains the small matter of a suspicious death and a flagrant failure to investigate it. There’s a stiltedness about ‘no mystery over’, too, perhaps suggesting that ‘mystery’ might have been substituted for some other word – but it's a bit early for idle speculation.

The lead line summarises Aaronovitch’s argument admirably:

A body, a knife, pills, a cut wrist - conspiracy theorists and campaigning doctors must accept the truth

Simple, hardheaded and tinfoil-free. No brains falling out of too-open minds here. Simple, like a stick figure.

A principle of simplicity in explanation is all very well as a tie-breaker between otherwise equivalent propositions, though its status is as much a matter of convenience as anything, and it is in practice irrelevant outside philosophical ontology and the most abstract reaches of theoretical science. Aaronovitch’s approach is more radical – simplicity of explanation actually justifies ending empirical inquiry, even dismissing great swathes of information. The difficult and complex data - the shading and sketchmarks that crowd Aaronovitch's stick figure - are banished, wiped away by a powerful new implement - Occam’s Eraser.

Every six months or so since 2004, a group of doctors or "medical experts" has written to the newspapers calling, in effect, for a new inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly, who died seven years ago this summer. Yesterday's letter in The Times, which received significant coverage, was different in so far as the names were mostly new, and the qualifications were more relevant. The content, however, was much the same.

Aaronovitch must get a really good discount on scare-quotes. I haven't been following the letters pages, but I doubt very much that Aaronovitch can produce an instance of a false claim to medical expertise. On the contrary, all those I've heard expressing doubt of the official narrative on medical grounds have been careful not to misrepresent their expertise, for example the first paramedics on the scene: "we're not medical experts. All we commented on was the amount of blood…"

Note "calling, in effect [i.e. not actually] for a new inquest": there was no inquest. By a peculiar and highly irregular process, the original inquest was adjourned since it was to await the outcome of the Hutton inquiry. This was odd since the relevant provision (the Coroners Act 1988 s17A(1)) was intended for mass deaths, and previous invocations had always been accompanied by a proper statutory public inquiry, not some half-baked setup like the Hutton job. In fact the coroner initially expressed what appeared to be disquiet at the informal nature of the proposed inquiry, in particular the lack of essential subpoena powers. Further, Hutton's terms of reference (‘circumstances surrounding the death’) seemed designed to look at anything but the matter in hand, which is indeed what it did, being largely a vehicle for Alistair Campbell to fuck (as he would say) the BBC.

But the key to the Hutton stitch-up was a really flagrant move: the inquest, having been adjourned pending the outcome of the inquiry, was reopened and the coroner leant on to perform the most cursory - token – inquiry, which was for all practical purposes conducted in secrecy. It was from this hurried and clearly inadequate source that a final death certificate emanated, which was then treated by Hutton as establishing suicide.

The signatories argue that the cause of death ascribed by the pathologists who appeared before the Hutton inquiry - which effectively stood in for an inquest - are "unsafe". They write: "It is extremely unlikely, from a medical perspective, that the primary cause of death would or could have been haemorrhage from a severed ulnar artery in one wrist without any evidence of a hlood-clotting deficiency."

The inquiry did stand in for an inquest – that was supposed to be the whole point of it. Presumably Aaronovitch is using ‘effectively’ to mean ‘in effect’ – which seems redundant since not only in effect but officially, technically, any way you like, it stood in for an inquest. It didn't do so effectively though, as the most cursory look at the transcript shows. No cross-examination occurred. There were constant leading questions, interruptions and instructions to provide little detail from Hutton. The inquiry was not empowered to subpoena witnesses even had it wanted to. The medical evidence was a tiny fraction of the whole, which as we all remember was mainly given over to a massive punch-up between the BBC and the government. Any one of these factors would render it worthless - all together make it a charade.

As the Hutton transcript shows, the pathologists who spent many hours examining the body, both at the scene and in the lab, gave the severed artery and consequent blood loss as the primary cause of death, but the swallowing of 29 co-proxamol tablets (painkillers) and an existing (undiagnosed) artery condition as contributory factors.

In fact, those findings were straight from the death certificate issued after the inquest was illicitly and briefly reopened. As for the Hutton transcript, here’s the concluding section of Dr Hunt’s ‘evidence’, as he is led over the jumps by Hutton:

12 Q. What role, if any, did the coronary disease play?
13 A. As with the drug dextropropoxyphene, it would have
14 hastened death rather than caused it, as such.
15 Q. So how would you summarise, in brief, your conclusions
16 as to the cause of death?
17 A. In the formulation, the cause of death is given as 1(a)
18 haemorrhage due to 1(b) incised wounds of the left
19 wrist. Under part 2 of the formulation of the medical
20 cause of death, Coproxamol ingestion and coronary artery
21 atherosclerosis.
22 Q. You have already dealt with this, I think, but could you
23 confirm whether, as far as you could tell on the
24 examination, there was any sign of third party
25 involvement in Dr Kelly's death?

1 A. No, there was no pathological evidence to indicate the
2 involvement of a third party in Dr Kelly's death.
3 Rather, the features are quite typical, I would say, of
4 self inflicted injury if one ignores all the other
5 features of the case.
6 Q. Is there anything else you would like to say concerning
7 the circumstances leading to Dr Kelly's death?
8 A. Nothing I could say as a pathologist, no.
9 LORD HUTTON: Thank you for your very clear evidence,
10 Dr Hunt.

And how about a little excerpt from the testimony of ‘Mr Green’, a forensic biologist in the case (who was not even consulted by the coroner in the mini-inquest that produced the final death certificate in such a rush):

15 Q. That concluded your investigations on the day, did it?
16 A. On that day, yes.
17 Q. And what further investigations did you make?
18 A. Well, since then I have had upwards of -- I could count
19 them but at a guess 50 items sent to the laboratory.
20 Q. To analyse?
21 A. To analyse, to carry out DNA profiling, to look at some
22 of the staining in a little more detail.
23 Q. Right. And you have carried all that out and reported
24 back to Assistant Chief Constable Page or through his
25 senior investigating officer?

1 A. Well, my examinations are still ongoing.
2 Q. Right.
3 A. I have provided a spreadsheet with a kind of --
4 a snapshot of where we are today about what items have
5 been examined, what has been found on them, which items
6 were profiled, the results of those profile tests,
7 although I have not put my evidence down in a statement
8 form as yet.
9 Q. Because you are just finishing off the testing of that
10 material?
11 A. Exactly.
12 Q. I think when all that is concluded Assistant Chief
13 Constable Page is going to come back and tell us the
14 results.

There is no indication on the Hutton site that ACC Page ever returned. Nor, it seems, did Mr Green, so his detailed forensic work appears to have shelved or binned (there is no trace of written submissions, proofed or otherwise, either).

[Update, 10 Jun 2011: this is incorrect. (ht Andrew Watt in comments). AAC Page was called a second time, 20 days after Green on the afternoon of Tuesday, 23 September 2003, to rattle through a list of various outstanding issues, in each case assuring the inquiry - unchallenged and in the vaguest possible terms - that various hitherto unexamined issues are irrelevant, and that anomalies had been cleared up.  His only mention of Green's findings is:

...I think as I pointed
22 out in my last evidence, the examination of the scene
23 and the supporting forensic evidence made me confident
24 that actually there was no third party involved at the
25 scene of the crime and therefore, to all intents and

1 purposes, murder can be ruled out.
2 One is then left with the option that Dr Kelly
3 killed himself.
4 LORD HUTTON: Sorry, may I just ask you Mr Page, you say no
5 third party was involved at the scene of the crime. Did
6 you consider the possibility that Dr Kelly might have
7 been overpowered and killed elsewhere and his body then
8 taken to the wooded area where it was found?
9 A. Yes, my Lord; and I think, again, upon examination of
10 the pathologist's evidence and of the biologist's
11 evidence, it is pretty clear to me that Dr Kelly died at
12 the scene.
13 LORD HUTTON: Yes. Thank you.

Which tells us nothing and gives no indication that AAC Page has even received any update from Green in the last 20 days, still less that he has seriously considered the contents thereof, still less that he has reconsidered the case.

Not that one should confuse Page with a case officer: he's a front-of house man, a safe pair of hands. He's also very busy and important (the inquiry were fawningly apologetic to him about having to wait to give his evidence, and rattled through it at a ridiculous pace) who hasn't got time to mess about reading detailed evidence and doing painstaking detective work. His opinions and assurances about substantive aspects of the case are worthless, and given that in a few minutes of evidence he provides airy assurances that a sizeable list of loose ends which are all now tucked away (or snipped off) - according to his  -  that's pretty important for the inquiry's credibility. (Page also seems to give false evidence about a lack of fingerprints on Kelly's dental records, which appear to have been stolen from his dentist and returned a few days later. The dentist is not called, nor possible alterations to the records investigated by the inquiry nor, so far as one can tell, the police.)]

This is unfortunate, since a diligent and determined inquisitor, such as Hutton may actually believe himself to be, would have wanted to reconcile the findings that seem - so far as one can tell given that Hutton was so uninquisitive - to suggest (a) that Dr Kelly was sitting or lying down throughout the time he was bleeding (to death), and (b) that he knelt in a puddle of blood. There are also many other matters, concerning stomach contents and suchlike, which a competent inquiry would have attempted to resolve before reaching a conclusion.

In 2007 the BBC’s The Conspiracy Files interviewed Professor Robert Forrest, a toxicologist, and then the President of the Forensic Science Society, on the subject of David Kelly. "I've got no doubt," Professor Forrest said, "that the cause of David Kelly's death was a combination of blood loss, heart disease and an overdose of co-proxamol ... it is important that all of them interacted to lead to the death."

That’s Honorary professor, Aaronovitch – or maybe you think that’s even better than bog-standard prof? I’m sure the President of the Forensic Science Society is a safe pair of hands - Aaronovitch’s kind of guy. Unfortunately gaining such a post has no positive correlation with any particular expertise, only with self-promotion and a willingness to take time out of proper work.

This is a cherry-picked opinion from a non-practitioner unconnected with the case. Without wishing to trash the bloke too brutally, I'll just mention that half of the bewildering variety of ‘selected publication’ topics are entirely unrelated to technical aspects of forensic science, for example, ‘Ethical aspects of workplace urine screening’.

Neither of the two signatories of yesterday's letter whom I spoke to seemed to be aware of this opinion. Indeed, one initially denied that there could be such an opinion. Even so, the signatories themselves go to some pains to say that they are not conspiracy theorists and that they have no alternative explanation of Dr Kelly’s death. I am inclined to believe them.

Or in other words, neither of then happened to have watched the string of selective anecdotes that comprised this particular specimen of the debunking genre. Their initial incredulity is rather obviously open to an interpretation quite different from the one Aaronovitch wants to put on it. It’s not clear what Aaronovitch means by ‘conspiracy theorists’ if it doesn't mean people who have an alternative explanation (other than suicide). And ‘go to some pains’? What pains? I bet they didn't bring the topic up, either. But Aaronovitch seems intent on making their demurral sound suspect. He is though, ‘inclined to’ believe them - very charitable of him.

There is an element of the legal purist at work here. Sure, the probabilities are pretty clear, and they are (to be blunt): dead guy, knife, pills, blood, wrist cuts, no sign of struggle or of any second-party presence. But if you can't absolutely prove that death was caused this way, then, in the letter writers’ view, the verdict must be open. What people then deduce from that is their affair.

Well that clears that up then. Aaronovitch seems unable or unwilling to notice the beam in his own eye here. Others may perhaps be willing to excuse 'pills', even though only one pill was apparently found, and that outside Kelly's body. (A suspicious person - such as one investigating a sudden and deliberate death, might wonder if the apparent ingestion of a presumed 29 pills, stopping short of the last one, wasn't just a bit convenient, as if somehow to show that the packs had indeed had pills in, or to provide a sample for conclusive analysis).

Whether Kelly had taken other pills, and if so how many and when, is precisely one of the things the inquiry might have hoped to - but didn't - determine. Instead, it seems to have been more or less presumed that he had indeed taken 29 of them. If I understand correctly, that would be far in excess of a fatal dose, so if he had in fact taken and retained them all (none were recovered from the vomit, which was supposed to have been regurgitated in situ and while supine), then the levels in his body should - one must surmise in the absence of any serious attempt at analysis - also have indicated a fatal dose.

The real clanger drops when Aaronovitch, in his determination to make a clear-cut case seems also to have applied his eraser to some other obvious facts there for all to see in the Hutton transcript. These render his assertion of ‘no sign of struggle or any third party presence’ dependent on a very strong presumption of suicide - exactly the same kind of prejudice he projects onto his 'opponents'.

The erased information arises in the testimony of Dr Hunt:

2 Q. Did you see any other signs of injury or marks on the
3 body?
4 A. I did. Over the left side of his head there were three
5 minor abrasions or grazes to his scalp, and of course
6 that part of his head was relatively close to
7 undergrowth.
8 In addition to that --
9 LORD HUTTON: Were those abrasions consistent with having
10 been in contact with the undergrowth?
11 A. They were entirely, my Lord; particularly branches,
12 pebbles and the like. There was no bruising deep to
13 those, I should add, at this stage.
14 MR KNOX: Were there any other injuries or bruises?
15 A. Yes. Those were only revealed during the dissection
16 part of the examination. There was a bruise below the
17 left knee. There were two bruises below the right knee
18 over the shin and there were two bruises over the left
19 side of his chest. All of these were small and affected
20 the skin but not the deeper tissues.
21 Q. Would you be able to say how those bruises or injuries
22 could have occurred?
23 A. They would have occurred following a blunt impact
24 against any firm object and it would not have to be
25 a particularly heavy impact. They may be caused -- some

1 of them may have been caused as Dr Kelly was stumbling,
2 if you like, at the scene. They may have been caused
3 well before he got to the woods. It is not possible to
4 age them so precisely.

No-one seemed terribly exercised over that. ‘Stumbling, if you like’. Yes, we do like. Then, later:

9 Q. Did you notice anything about the mouth?
10 A. Yes, in the mouth there was a small abrasion on the
11 lower lip. This was of the order of 0.6 by
12 0.3 centimetres, so very small; and there was no
13 significant reaction to it.
14 Q. How could that abrasion have occurred?
15 A. With the particular appearance and location of this
16 abrasion then it may have been caused by contact with
17 the teeth, in other words biting.

I thought people only bite their own lip in story books. If one were to countenance the possibility of another person’s presence, one might suggest various other means, such as shoving something into the mouth.

Aaronovitch’s last sentence of the paragraph characterising the view he imputes to the ‘legal purists’: "What people then deduce from that is their affair", is probably the only absolutely correct sentiment in the whole of Aaronovitch’s little polemic. Unfortunately he seems to offer it with more than a touch of irony, as the next paragraph confirms:

Part of the problem for them is context. This letter is manna for those who argue that there was official skullduggery involved in Dr Kelly's death. They don't require any "evidence" in the usual sense at all to reach their conclusions. For the theorists, the "artery doubt" plays the same role as the magic bullet in the JFK conspiracy, or the contention that the twin towers couldn't possibly have fallen because of being hit by jet airliners. It is the first big building block necessary to erect an edifice of improbability far greater than David Kelly dying of a severed artery and co-proxamol.

Aaronovitch’s now gone, riffing to the tune in his own head, singing of slippery slopes and conspiranoid confederacies. But the overall message is clear. Responsible folk like Aaronovitch realise that ‘legal purism’ must sometimes be relaxed, to avoid the masses drawing certain conclusions. Thus does a half-innocent cover-up proceed.

Extraordinarily, the leader in this field of fantasy is now in government, in the shape of the Lib Dem junior Transport Minister, Norman Baker MP. In 2007 Baker published The Strange Death of David Kelly, which is something of a primer in conspiracist technique. I deal with it at length in my own book, Voodoo Histories, because it is such a good example of how to build a baroque cathedral of allegation out of piss and wind.

Actually, Aaronovitch’s treatment of the book is rampantly biased, and itself an object lesson in the many varieties of misrepresentation. Baker is being pressed into service here because Aaronovitch's already done some cursory research and thinks Baker’s an easy target: certainly easier than, say, Dr Michael Powers, QC

[Here, the stock image of a harassed David ‘Walter Mitty’ Kelly in front of a parliamentary committee, after he had been hung out to dry by Aaronovitch’s mate Tony:

Caption: David Kelly is being used by those like Norman Baker MP, below, who paint him as an anti-Iraq war martyr who was rubbed out by sinister forces. The indisputably honest and earnest Mr Baker is, as suggested, depicted below in cutout among the text. The photo is not one I could find via Google, and has caught Baker with narrowed eyes, giving a slightly cruel cast to his broad grin. Obviously the photo has nothing to do with the Kelly case, but Baker almost appears to be gloating, perhaps over all the distress he has been able to pile onto Mrs Kelly by suggesting that her husband may not in fact have widowed her of his own volition.]

Beginning with "artery doubts" and an entirely ignorant set of assumptions about suicide, Mr Baker then creates the theory that Tony Blair, those around him, the security services, the police and the Oxfordshire coroner, connived in the murder of, or the cover-up of the murder of, David Kelly. In the process Mr Baker insinuates that Lord Hutton and Dr Kelly's wife, Janice (an inconvenient witness for conspiracy theorists) were persuaded to be part of the conspiracy.

No, not that they connived in the murder, but only the cover-up. Aaronovitch is no logician, but he knows, however dimly, that only one of the disjuncts need be true for him to get away with it. He could just as well have said: ‘teaching ravens to fly under water or conniving in the cover-up’.

Even ‘connived’ overstates things. Cover-ups need not be a matter of deliberate connivance of the kind Aaronovitch wants us (incorrectly) to think Baker argues for. A slight, possibly entirely unconscious, bias in favour of the dominant account; a desire to close the case quickly; an awareness of the need to avoid public consternation; a vague sense that, no matter who soiled it, this is dirty laundry and for private washing only: these would be enough for most of the whitewashers to play the role required of them. Perhaps the odd intervention here and there by one or two well-placed people would help. There is of course the possibility of blackmail that’s one of the few possible explanations for the presence of a bizarre document about child abuse posted on the official Hutton website. But on the whole, official stories can be maintained with very little in the way of contrivance, unless rigid procedures are in place which force them to be properly challenged.

Mr Baker’s book concludes with anonymous security-linked men telling him how the "murder" was carried out by pro-invasion Iraqis, an accusation for which there isn't a scintilla of evidence.

Well, I’m inclined to agree that this sounds implausible, though of course the cover-up would be the same whoever did it. The fact that operation Mason – the uniform investigation into Kelly’s disappearance appears to have begun a bit too early suggests at least some foreknowledge by someone in a suitable position, but not much more than that can be said in favour of direct domestic involvement, and it’s unlikely that were there any such involvement, it would ever be established even to the satisfaction of reasonable people, let alone Aaronovitch, especially since he and his ilk, along with Hutton and the New Labour government, have done such sterling work in delaying any serious investigation that might yet occur. There has been ample time for trails to cool, personnel to turn over and loose ends to be tied up. It’s a bit rich for Aaronovitch to be suddenly so squeamish about ‘anonymous security-linked men’, though. I suppose we'll have to wait a while for him to adopt such a fall-back position, though the seeds of it are being planted, just in case the far-off storm clouds should ever eventuate in the proverbial rainy day.

If you scroll down the online comments whenever this story is repeated' you'll find the same thing — writers arguing that Kelly was, in effect, an anti-Iraq war martyr who knew there were no WMD' and was rubbed out by the evil Blair. In fact, of course, Kelly was in favour of the invasion, and certainly thought that Saddam possessed some WMD. Now he is being used.

Not satisfied with Mr Baker as a foil, Aaronovitch casts his net significantly wider in search of straw men. Even given the optimal nutpicking conditions this provides, there’s still some decidedly nebulous phrasing – we have ‘in effect’ again, and ‘martyr’ – normally suggesting a willing self-sacrifice, but able to cover anything from politically-motivated suicide, through death willingly risked, to mere victimhood. This flexibility of meaning is constrained somewhat by the ‘rubbed out by the evil Blair’ motif, but that’s surely not meant, even by Aaronovitch, to be taken literally?

More importantly, we're told that "Kelly was in favour of the war". Well that would certainly be news to me – and it’s oddly short-sighted bit of misrepresentation, since failing to prevent the war is actually one of the more plausible reasons why Kelly, who wasn't depressive nor facing a seriously desperate personal plight, might have been driven to override his survival instinct and his stoical outlook and give up on life entirely. But then it appears that Aaronovitch has a bit of trouble with the notions (a) that the war was a moral catastrophe, and (b) that anyone might feel responsibility for having inadequately opposed it (or in his own case, publicly advocated it, from a position of some influence).

Aaronovitch says that ‘in fact, of course’ Kelly supported the war. This may be slightly disingenuous, since as in the case of ‘Blair the murderer, or possibly just participant in a whitewash’, Aaronovitch can rely on a less extravagant alternative: ‘certainly’, he says, Kelly thought Saddam possessed some WMD. Here, this means ‘certainly, unlike the preceding, which is not certain’. Not certain, though Aaronovitch happy to call it a matter of fact, and a matter of course…

Strangely, no one in Norman Baker's party seems quite to have realised the implications of his behaviour. One of three things must be true: he’s right and there is a vast conspiracy (in which case they should worry about MI5); he's wrong but sincere in libelling various people, in which case he shouldn't be allowed out without a guide; or he's wrong and he knows he is.

Hang on. Aaronovitch seems quite keen to get Baker in trouble with his employers – a particularly low tactic which one associates with debt collectors or witchhunters like the ADL. This is because of the implications of his ‘behaviour’ – a loaded term which places a person’s actions outside the realm of normal, responsible conduct and well down the path to full-blown pathology or deviance. And when Aaronovitch gives you a set of alternatives, one of which he says ‘must be true’, you had better inspect his wares pretty closely before agreeing. In this case, not much analysis is required to identify the false trichotomy. First of all, let’s look at the simplest item: he’s (a) wrong and (b) knows he’s wrong. This, if accepted, is a straightforward accusation of lying on a grandiose scale – which, undiluted by other alternatives, would surely be a libel.

That’s a touch ironic, given the next item up for inspection: that he’s (a) wrong but (b') doesn't know it. Left at that, this would be a relatively charitable suggestion, in the spirit of acceptance that honest differences of opinion are possible, and would represent an exhaustive subdivision of the possibilities once (a) is assumed. But Aaronovitch isn't happy with leaving it at that: he insists on some further corollaries to (a,b'): that Baker is a (c) guilty of multiple libels, and (d) radically incompetent, to the point of being mentally defective.

Of course (d) is supposed, if focused on, to appear jocular and non-literal, but there really is no way to read it as metaphorical or otherwise non-literal, only as at best a gross exaggeration and at worst – and more probably – a fabricated smear. (c) also seems unsupported by any evidence I’m aware of. While he doesn't shy away from properly-signposted speculation, Baker is in fact careful not to make bold accusations, as anyone familiar with his persona would expect him to be, both on moral and prudential grounds. That’s quite apart from the fact that so far as Baker’s book is concerned, the lawyers at Methuen would undoubtedly have had their finest-toothed combs out.

So that’s (a) he was wrong. we'll allow that the only alternative is (a'): he is right, but again, Aaronovitch bolts on an extra assertions to deter anyone from opting for this alternative: there was a ‘vast’ conspiracy, the politicians should worry about MI5 (is this meant to imply that they should fear assassination?). The ‘vast conspiracy’ is a favourite straw man among missionary debunkers. Conveniently vague, its constant appearance in the hackneyed phraseology of the genre means that it has the unmistakable ring of fantasy about it, and almost seems to carry with it a silent ‘all-powerful’. In other words, it’s a formula – a cipher whose effect is felt rather than understood. Nothing Baker says suggests a conspiracy that could in any way be regarded as ‘vast’, and as I've already pointed out, nudges, both Pythonesque and Sunsteinian play, and can be relied on to play, a significant part in the unwitting co-option of coverers-up.

So Aaronovitch claims that we must accept one of these three:

(1) Kelly* was murdered by a ‘vast’ conspiracy, which extends to MI5 posing a threat of some kind to current members of the Lib Dem party
(2) Baker is mentally defective and multiply libelous
(3) Baker is a liar

I suppose the availability of alternative (1) allows Aaronovitch to escape a libel suit, though I’m not entirely sure about that. If it stated ‘the moon is made from green cheese’, there would be no such escape. It’s a matter of judgement how much more credence Aaronovitch intends people to give to his own formulation, and how much objective credibility it has in the form stated. I wouldn't expect Baker to be interested anyway, and the outcome would be very far from assured, so the point is more of a curiosity than a live issue.

What can be said is that these three possibilities are obviously not, contra Aaronovitch, exhaustive, and that he is guilty of some highly dubious debating tactics. Part of the confusion Aaronovitch exploits here involves the distinction between the justification and the truth of beliefs or hypotheses: Baker could be making it up but right by accident, or he could be entirely justified in his observations and still wrong. Whether he happens to be right or not has no necessary connection with his rectitude, competence (nor, indeed, his liability to be found to have defamed anyone). Aaronovitch doesn't really get any of this, I don't think - a distinct drawback when he is writing about matters which really come down to epistemology.

My sympathy is with Lord Hutton, the case pathologists and the Kelly family. One reason why Hutton requested (not, as is often asserted, ordered) a 70-year limit on the disclosure of the post-mortem records was, as he said in January, that he had been concerned that the publication of that report "would cause Dr Kelly's daughters and his wife further and unnecessary distress". This request has now been withdrawn by Hutton. (Incidentally, in the case of Dunblane, non-disclosure was ordered for 100 years.) Perhaps now, whatever the cost to the family, a new inquest is necessary.

Sympathy with the family, perhaps – though I don't think it too uncharitable to express doubt about Aaronovitch’s bona fides here. For a start some of the family at least do not share Mrs Kelly’s desire to draw a line under the event. But sympathy for Hutton? And the case pathologists? I suppose there is some equivocation here between ‘sympathy’ in the sense of agreement, and in the more usual sense of compassion. It appears just to stem from woolly thinking on Aaronovitch’s part - I can't really see what advantage he could expect to gain from it.

As for the feelings of Mrs Kelly, she seems to be the only member of the family adamantly opposed to further investigation and I’m afraid it’s not really her decision. I have great sympathy for her, but it is a sad fact that the lesser ordeals does have to follow the greater.

Plenty of relatives are expected to co-operate with murder investigations, and generally do so when called, because permitting murder with impunity is not considered acceptable. One assumes that they too would often rather not go through an investigation – or indeed a trial - especially if there are further matters they might prefer not to come to light, like Dr Kelly’s relationship with Mai Pederson (or as the Hutton transcript has it, ‘Mike Peddison’ – I don't know whether Mrs Kelly changed the name, or if a steno error has been allowed to stand or if it was altered in the transcript). [Update, 10 Jun 2011: another mention of MP in the transcript also uses a different incorrect form of her name, again getting both eth forename and surname wrong. At p.199 here, she is referred to as 'Mia Pedersen'.]

Further, if Kelly was indeed murdered, it must almost certainly have been a professional job. If so, there’s a significant likelihood that Mrs Kelly was pressurised or manipulated into silence, and opposition to an inquiry, in some more or less subtle way.

After all, on the hypothesis that Kelly was hit, there is the strong possibility that the sudden, brief and unexplained incapacitating illness that put Mrs Kelly out of the way immediately before Dr Kelly’s death was deliberately induced, and also possibly that someone entered the house to retrieve Kelly’s penknife. These would be unremarkable elements of such a plan, as would be some intimidation or blackmail, however subtle, of Mrs Kelly. If the murder hypothesis is to be entertained – and it is – then within that context, all of these possibilities come with the package. Sorry, but that’s not seriously in question – is it?

The parallel (not really ‘incidental’, of course) drawn with Dunblane is odd, though consistent with Aaronovitch’s MO of piling ignorance upon ignorance.

In that case non-disclosure was ‘ordered’ (or whatever you want to call it) against the wishes of the family, and the order was lifted (as Aaronovitch doesn't acknowledge) after pressure from them. The lesson of this is not that it is meet and right that those family members who express a preference (if unanimous?) should determine such matters, but that the Dunblane sealing instruction was itself lifted and so does not provide any kind of precedent for treating the family's privacy or presumed distress as an overriding concern.

Still, while the sympathy card is invisible to factual analysis, and surely only of marginal relevance to the decision to conduct a proper investigation, it’s a strong debating point if done correctly. Jury points like that are Aaronovitch’s stock in trade, and work especially well in a live debate:

Myself, I have offered in several places and on several occasions to debate this matter with Norman Baker in public, but have had no response. I see he is commenting on the issue, so membership of the Government should be no barrier to such a discussion, and I offer the chance of a debate again.

Yes, come on, Baker – let’s have a good old bunfight over it. That should help Mrs Kelly no end. Of course, Aaronovitch knows perfectly well that Baker is not going to do anything of the sort, since making whatever comments he has made about it is one thing (Michael Howard, of all people, has also recently outed himself as an inquest-denier): a full-blown media circus and battle of the book plugs is another. Talking of which, lest we forget:

David Aaronovitch is the author of Voodoo Histories (Vintage).

[updated 17 Aug 21:53: minor revisions, substantially unaltered].
*[+ 18 Aug 01:03: 'Hutton' changed to 'Kelly'].


  1. Thanks very much indeed for posting this! You have certainly gone to town in demolishing Aaronovitch's argument - I'm glad someone has. I'm also more than a little annoyed by John Rentoul and Tom Mangold, they seem to be cast in the same mould as DA.

    One of the things that peeves me is the repeated assertion that Kelly swallowed 29 coproxamol tablets, purely on the basis that 29 were missing from the packets (and how thoughtful of Kelly to leave one in the packet to point the way to the investigators). If Mai Pederson is correct about DK's aversion to tablets (something that could be tested by cross examination at a new inquest) then this would help dispel the swallowing 29 tablets suggestion. According to Norman Baker the tablets were about half an inch long, again adding to the difficulty of being swallowed.

    I could go on and on but for the moment just want to thank you again for posting such an incisive article.

  2. Rentoul and Aaronovitch appear, as far as I can tell, just to be bog-standard 'safe pairs of hands', rather than one of the fair number of 'friends' and 'agents of influence' that experience and common sense tells us the secret services must have in the media.

    Mangold is more obviously shady. He's a journalist 'with intelligence contacts', who masqueraded as a friend of the family in order to go on telly doing a particularly aggressive Emperor's New Clothes act immediately after Dr Kelly's death.

    He sent (or submitted evidence that he sent) an email to Kelly as he was in the process of being outed by the government. In it he offered a shoulder to cry on (also describable as soliciting info, and as exerting pressure). He (abnormally) titled it "'ullo", and signed it "bestest" - a degree of familiarity that seems very odd for an occasional work acquaintance.

    The email was rebuffed by Kelly ('not a good time to be in communication. David').

    I can think of three reasons why Mangold might have used the strangely overfamiliar - almost childish - terms he did:

    1. He thought this might actually be reassuringly friendly (A strange belief), thus making it more likely that Kelly would open up to him (a forlorn hope).

    2. The opposite: to actually apply some menacing pressure by preverse use of highly unnatural terms of endearment. (1 and 2 are not necessarily exclusive - this kind of ambiguity is an important part of the kind of mind games used by manipulators, both professional and amateur.)

    3. Probably the most plausible: to provide some token cover for his 'friend of the family' act. This would of course imply either that he expected to want to put on such an act (not necessarily that he had any reason to expect Kelly to die), or that he fabricated the email later. The latter might seem unlikely since the email was accepted into evidence by the Hutton inquiry; but I have no evidence and no confidence that the Hutton process would have checked the email's authenticity properly.

    Norman Baker alludes to reports (denied by Mangold) that M had turned up - uninvited, of course - at the funeral, and was asked to leave. I haven't been able to find out any more about this.

  3. Interesting piece, Tim.

    (Nitpick: "Hutton was murdered by a ‘vast’ conspiracy" presumably means "Kelly was murdered by a 'vast' conspiracy".)

  4. Shit, I knew I should have kept quiet about Mangold's dodginess. Aaro has pounced on it as an excuse to ignore my entire post (see subsequent posts).

  5. So glad Aaronovitch is behind the Anti-Murdoch Protection Wall

  6. You say it would be news to you that Dr Kelly was in favour of the war. Can I direct you to the evidence given to the Hutton Inquiry by Sarah Pape, Dr Kelly's sister, pages 93-6 on day 24 of the hearings.

    Dr Kelly not merely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, he also believed that no action other than regime change by invasion could change their minds; he persuaded members of his family to support the war.

  7. And here is an article written by Dr Kelly before the liberation of Iraq (although not published until after), in which he sets out his views in full.

    I encourage you to read the full thing but the conclusion is a good summary: "The long-term threat, however, remains Iraq's development to military maturity of weapons of mass destruction - something that only regime change will avert."

  8. Well that's certainly news to me!

    Thanks for this stuff - I'll look into it when I have time, and if appropriate make the necessary (flagged) amendments.

    I'm not sure of its relevance to the issues, mind.

  9. Had a chance to have a quick look in case my criticism of Aaro was undermined, and I'm not impressed.

    Both sources seem to be cooked up - the Kelly article (If the Hutton email exchange COM/4/0145,COM/4/0146 - 0148 is to be trusted) was some kind of Iraq crisis propaganda - the kind of thing it was Kelly's job to produce and to stick to an official line on.

    The testimony, like the article, is very, very mealy mouthed about what Kelly thought about the actual war that actually happened, and seems calculated to give the impression he was a supporter without actually saying so.

    The fact it was specifically volunteered from prepared notes adds to this impression. I have no idea what the point of creating this impression might have been, and obviously neither the family nor their QC is likely to reveal the details of the strategy involved.

    This is one more example of the worthlessness of testimony not subjected to cross-examination (or perhaps some similar form of scrutiny).

    In other words neither of those sources justify Aaro in claiming that 'of course, in fact' Kelly supported the war.

    And let me preempt anyone (if indeed anyone ever reads this at all) acting all ingenuous about he very ordinary kinds of spin involved here. Even on the strongest reading, this stuff has Kelly supporting some kind of military intervention at some point in the future, always suitably proportioned to the very limited threat posed by Saddam. That is not a description of the war.

    But I don't want to spend much time on it. The relevance of any of this to any substantive issue, for example whether Kelly was killed, is unclear to me.

    My target is Aaronovitch's bullshit, and I see no reason based on this stuff to revise my assessment of that.

    Nonetheless thanks to David Boothroyd for his comment.

  10. A brilliant analysis of a piece by a blinkered heavyweight.
    I have read Kelly's sister's gentle guiding by Hutton and am not convinced either of his support for invasion. Notice the same,extraordinary open invitation to give a scripted answer, just as was offered to Nicholas Hunt by Hutton.
    One person who ought to be brought before a future inquest for cross examination is German UN weapons inspector Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack who probably knew as much as Pederson and was also a friend of Kelly.

  11. Further to my comment above,
    Odd that Kelly's sister at 70/ 71 (a strange complete exchange indeed) on the page of her evidence on Day 24 says her brother had no answer phone at home yet Susan Watts can leave a message on one at Dr Kelly's home as at para 12, 13 Aug am transcript here

  12. Tim,

    ACC Page was actually called back to give evidence (including about Roy Green's forensic biology report) here:

    Neeedless to say ACC Page said nothing of any value in terms of the forensic biology.