David Kelly leaving Parliament on 15 July 2003 after giving evidence to a Commons select committee. Image: Johnny Green/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.
I’ve been watching with interest the debate on this website between Peter Oborne and David Aaronovitch on the subject of my recently published book about the David Kelly affair. I had not expected that An Inconvenient Death was going to generate this sort of discussion but, now that these two writers have had their say, I have been invited to add some thoughts on the matter.
I was flattered that The Times devoted a page to Aaronovitch’s review of my book on 7 April – just two days after it was published (the review is quoted in full in Aaronovitch’s response to Oborne on this site). As I read Aaronovitch’s 1,200 words, however, I became increasingly puzzled. The first 40 per cent was a self-defensive commentary about Kelly’s death and the Blair government’s management of it. Then, when Aaronovitch concluded: “It stinks, really, does this waste of publisher’s, purchaser’s and reviewer’s time and money,” I couldn’t help wondering why he had bothered to read and then write about the book in the first place. Why did he waste his time – and the highly prized space on the pages of The Times – on what he considers to be worthless material? Why not ignore it?
To borrow a term, I think this stinks
One thing is clear to me: the fact that Aaronovitch has now devoted yet more time to this concern by responding to Oborne’s deconstruction of his Times review indicates that he feels very strongly about the Kelly case. He is, contrary to his suggestion that my book "stinks", quite willing to pledge many hours to it. Indeed, his review followed a 1,200-word comment piece in The Times in October 2007 lambasting the former MP Norman Baker’s book on the same subject. He returned to the Kelly episode – again in The Times – in a critical 1,000-word comment piece in August 2010. And – again in The Times – in June 2013 he reviewed a book by Robert Lewis about Kelly’s life and work, also negatively. From this I deduce that Aaronovitch thinks it's OK for him to write about the Kelly case; it's just that he doesn’t want people like Baker, Lewis and me doing the same thing.
Had Aaronovitch written a straight review of my book, saying that it was rubbish because it was badly written, poorly structured and full of sloppy research, I would have been stung, but I would have accepted it as his considered opinion. Certainly, I would have said nothing about it publicly, because doing so would trigger justifiable accusations of sour grapes. But what Oborne appears to think, and what I also think, is that without critical observations of this type, but instead presenting a caricature of the book to Times readers, Aaronovitch’s review was an attack launched at the earliest opportunity that may have damaged its prospects – intentionally or otherwise.
As Oborne has demonstrated, Aaronovitch misrepresented my book and portrayed me as an unhinged conspiracy theorist. In fact, the book is intended to be a careful analysis of the Hutton Inquiry into Kelly’s death and the ramifications of that process. Its aim is to show how Tony Blair's desperate government rode roughshod over the long-established method of inquiry into this event – a coroner's inquest – and installed its own, less rigorous investigation. As a result key witnesses were excluded, evidence was concealed and loose ends allowed to remain untied. I believe, though I accept I may be wrong, that Aaronovitch began his review with a firmly closed mind. Let me explain why I have arrived at this interpretation.
In his Times review, Aaronovitch presented himself as something of an expert on the subject. He reminded readers of a book he wrote on conspiracy theories which was published in 2009, a chapter of which is devoted to examining sceptically any sense of mystery surrounding Kelly’s death. He may think his 25 pages on this topic makes him a specialist in the field, but I would suggest it means simply that he has a position to defend. Certainly, it would be understandable if Aaronovitch feels somewhat exposed when it comes to this period of British politics. In April 2003 he wrote regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.”
I couldn’t help wondering why he had bothered to write about the book in the first place
I have recently read the aforementioned chapter of Aaronovitch’s book. It is titled “Mr Pooter Forms a Theory” and largely focusses on criticising Norman Baker’s 2007 book about Kelly’s death. It begins by criticising Baker on a personal level. Charges against him include his having a “receded chin”, a “receding hairline”, not having a “distinguished dress sense” and being “exceptionally ordinary”. Aaronovitch’s perceptions of Baker have nothing to do with the matter at hand, of course. They are an attempt to belittle Baker and, by extension, his endeavour. Aaronovitch obviously thinks he is witty and clever for ridiculing Baker in this way. But don’t these unpleasant and irrelevant words merely reinforce the possibility that Aaronovitch boils so furiously at anybody questioning the official David Kelly story that he feels the need to spend his precious time thinking up ways to humiliate them publicly? Well, to borrow a term, I think this stinks.
The errors of Aaronovitch
Aaronovitch will not welcome this, but I have noticed that his Kelly thesis appears to contain a number of errors which suggest that he is not as familiar with the issue as he wishes Times readers to believe.
These are some problems I can find in his book:
1. Page 262, paragraph 1: Aaronovitch writes that "it was probably inevitable" that Kelly's contact with the journalist Andrew Gilligan would become public and “the government took no very stringent steps to ensure that it didn’t”. This is at best a limited interpretation of what actually happened, which is that Blair chaired a meeting in Downing Street on 8 July 2003 at which it was actively decided that Kelly's name could be given by the Ministry of Defence press office to any journalist who guessed it. Even if his “probably inevitable” remark is not a deliberate understatement by Aaronovitch, it certainly isn’t a fair reflection of the facts either.
A number of errors suggest that he is not as familiar with the issue as he wishes Times readers to believe
2. Page 262, paragraph 1: he writes of a "besieged Kelly… giving evidence to the televised committees...". Note the plural “committees”. The clear inference is that this level of public exposure on two occasions helped tip him over the edge. In fact, Kelly gave evidence at only one televised select committee hearing. The second was held in private. This is a small error, but an error nonetheless.
3. Page 264, paragraph 3, last sentence: Aaronovitch says Kelly "had at least one characteristic which, in statistical terms, probably made him an enhanced suicide risk”. This is wrong. See next point.
4. Page 266, paragraph 2: Aaronovitch says: "David Kelly's own mother committed suicide." He says this makes it more likely that Kelly would have done the same thing and quotes psychiatric research from 2002 to support his point. But at the coroner's inquest into Margaret Kelly's death in 1964 , the coroner recorded an open verdict. He did not determine that David Kelly’s mother had taken her own life. This point feeds into the key consideration any coroner must make when dealing with an apparent suicide, and one which I write about in my book: intent. Specifically, a coroner must ask himself or herself: “Did the person whose death I am considering intend to take their own life?” Very often, the coroner will record an open verdict because they cannot satisfy themself “beyond reasonable doubt” that the deceased really did intend to do so. Furthermore, as I say in my own book (page 284), when Professor Keith Hawton – an expert witness who appeared at the Hutton Inquiry – was required to judge whether Margaret Kelly's death influenced her son’s, he dismissed this possibility. Aaronovitch was apparently unaware of this when he published his book six years later in 2009.
5. Page 266: Aaronovitch makes great play of evidence given by a former British diplomat, David Broucher, to the Hutton Inquiry. Broucher said that Kelly once told him that if an invasion of Iraq went ahead, he, Kelly, would “probably be found dead in the woods”. Aaronovitch says this comment was akin to Kelly sharing what amounts to a mental dress rehearsal of his suicide with Broucher, and may prove Kelly had the idea of ending his life in his mind long before he did so. This is surely an amateur interpretation which Aaronovitch, who is not a psychiatrist, has no right to make. More importantly, why should Broucher be believed? By his own admission, he couldn't recall the details of his contact with Kelly. He couldn’t remember whether they had met once or twice; he couldn’t remember when their meeting or meetings took place; and he couldn’t remember where they had met – not even in which country. I would say Broucher was not a reliable witness; Aaronovitch, apparently, would say he was. Even if Broucher’s memory was accurate, one chance remark cannot prove that Kelly intended to kill himself and then did so. No coroner would use this as evidence of intent, but Aaronovitch is happy to accept it as gospel.
6. Pages 269-71: Aaronovitch writes of the 29 co-proxamol tablets that Kelly allegedly swallowed. In fact there is doubt as to how many pills he did swallow, as Alex Allan, the toxicologist who gave evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, explained. He told the inquiry that the drug levels in his system were “somewhat lower than what I would normally expect to encounter in cases of death due to an overdose of co-proxamol.” (see pages 272-3 of my book). There is also the point that Kelly’s friend, Mai Pederson, said Kelly had an aversion to swallowing pills – one of many key points not raised at the Hutton Inquiry but which his widow, Janice Kelly, has acknowledged.
7. Page 271: Aaronovitch speaks in terms of Kelly being “intent” on suicide – yet, as discussed, intent was not ever discussed at Hutton, though it should have been. (See pages 281-2 of my book.) It is worth saying again that a coroner must satisfy himself or herself “beyond reasonable doubt” that someone intended to kill themself and then did so. This bar is set deliberately high at coroners' inquests. I am not even sure that this bar existed at the Hutton Inquiry.
8. Page 272: Aaronovitch endorses the forensic pathologist Nicholas Hunt, who investigated Kelly’s death. In so doing, he tries to undermine legitimate queries which Baker made in his book and which I have also made. As it happens, in my book, I take the opposite view about Hunt. Perhaps Aaronovitch should have looked at Hunt’s record more closely as well. At the time Aaronovitch published his book in 2009, Hunt was under a five-year warning for breaching General Medical Council guidelines. His misdemeanour was to have shown to members of the public photographs of the mutilated bodies of three Royal Military Police officers killed in Iraq in 2003. Regarding his inquiry into Kelly’s death, many medical professionals have criticised Hunt for waiting seven hours before taking Kelly’s body temperature at the location where it was found, complicating the process of establishing what time he died. In his autopsy Hunt recorded Kelly’s height and weight incorrectly (he recorded that Kelly was more than two stones lighter than he was) and also recorded the weight of his liver incorrectly. Incidentally, Hunt has said repeatedly that he thinks there ought to be a coroner's inquest into David Kelly’s death – something which Aaronovitch obviously does not want.
A Kelly monopoly
The evidence indicates that Aaronovitch objects passionately to anybody asking searching questions about Kelly’s death. This is a surprising response for a journalist, given that the matter falls squarely into the public interest. But in his world, he – and nobody else – decides what is a legitimate journalistic inquiry and what is a conspiracy theory. For having written my book, I have been branded a money-grabbing "conspiracy theorist”. In fact, anybody who, like me, believes there ought to be a full coroner’s inquest into Kelly’s death is also a “conspiracy theorist”. This includes, presumably, the two coroners whom I met earlier this year at separate social occasions, both of whom called Hutton’s finding “unsafe”.
Aaronovitch objects passionately to anybody asking searching questions
It’s not obvious to me why Aaronovitch should feel he has a monopoly on this situation. Neither is it apparent why he slavishly follows the official version of events about Kelly’s death without considering the many unanswered questions surrounding it, or wanting others to do so. But it does seem unusual that one journalist would actively want to prevent the excavations of another journalist from being read as widely as possible.
Luckily, for me, Aaronovitch is not in charge of deciding whether journalists are allowed to probe this business, and I intend to carry on doing so. Even more luckily for me, the two newspaper reviews of my book (only one online) published after his were both objective. This is all any author should be able to expect having pulled off the notoriously tricky task of getting a book published. And, as it happens, both were very supportive of the book.