An inconvenient book? Read Miles Goslett on the death of David Kelly – not Aaronovitch's caricature

The case for a full coroner’s inquest to find out the truth regarding the tragic death of a government scientist in the wake of the Iraq war has been trashed for no good reason. Why?

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne
24 April 2018

July 15, 2003. Microbiologist Dr David Kelly during questioning by the Commons select comittee, in London. PA/Press Association. All rights reserved.First, I should state my position. I admire Miles Goslett.

I came across him about six years ago when he helped break the Jimmy Savile sex abuse story that Newsnight and several newspapers were too scared to touch.

In 2015 he exposed the corruption at the heart of the venerated Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Kids Company. He’s won Scoop of the Year four times.

Investigations like these, and I’ve done my share, are lonely and hard. Savile and Batmanghelidjh both had powerful protectors in the media and political establishment. Goslett had almost no resources except the art of asking difficult questions of respected people and spotting inconsistencies.

It was a long, demanding job bringing those stories into the open so Goslett demands respect. We reporters live in a world of sharply contracting budgets where, as Nick Davies explained in his brilliant and definitive Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly dependant on PR and government hand-outs. There are far too few like Goslett who treat journalism like a vocation, and my word we need more of them. 

A few years ago Miles Goslett told me he was investigating the death of David Kelly, the government scientist who died, apparently through suicide, after he was caught up in the post-mortem into the Iraq War calamity.

When it was finished Goslett asked me to read the book. I liked it, and introduced him to my publisher, Neil Belton at Head of Zeus. Neil read it, admired it and decided to publish. Some words of mine explaining the importance of the book appear on the back cover.

Goslett’s work was published two weeks ago. Within days a review appeared, written by the Times columnist David Aaronovitch. He wrote: “It stinks, really, does this waste of publisher’s, purchaser’s and reviewer’s time and money.”

Aaronovitch accused Goslett of being "blinded by his desire to get another publication and another payday out of the Kelly affair." He accused Goslett of pandering to "conspiracists".

I thoroughly approve of hostile book reviews. There is much too much backscratching on the literary pages of newspapers, far too little forensic examination.

However I do believe that a hostile review should be intellectually honest. This means giving the ordinary reader a fair account of the book before demolishing it.

David Aaronovitch doesn’t even begin to do that in his review. Instead he describes a book that doesn’t actually exist and nobody, least of all Goslett, has actually written.

The real book written by Goslett (as opposed to the Aunt Sally created by Aaronovitch) is a notable contribution to contemporary political history. Goslett makes no wild assertions. He has as far as I can tell no political agenda. He simply examines with scrupulous care the sequence of events surrounding the scientist’s sad and tragic death.

He convincingly shows Hutton failed to call the right witnesses, or ask the right questions. As a result there remain a number of unanswered questions about the death of David Kelly which Lord Hutton ought to have addressed, but didn’t. Aaronovitch’s hatchet job disgracefully does not even give Times readers a hint of this crucial context.

This book is, however, a breakthrough moment because till now political journalists like me have tended to look at Hutton from the Westminster point of view. That has meant that we have concentrated on challenging Lord Hutton’s conclusion (in defiance of much of the evidence) that John Scarlett and his Joint Intelligence Committee produced their dossier on Saddam Hussein’s so-called weapons of mass destruction free from political pressure.

We were by contrast lazy in our examination of the primary purpose of the Hutton Report, namely his investigation into “the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly.”

I was a lobby journalist at the time and we took for granted the official account that Kelly killed himself by slashing the ulnar artery of his left wrist and swallowing a large number of Comproxamol painkiller tablets.

This is the territory that Goslett makes his own. He notes first of all the crucial fact that the government cancelled the coroner’s inquest. This remains a strange decision. Both the Hutton Inquiry and the inquest could have gone on simultaneously. Evidence presented to a coroner is given under oath. Not so with the Hutton Inquiry, which was established on a non-statutory basis, meaning it had no legal powers and that witnesses could mislead Hutton without committing perjury.

This may help to explain why crucial witnesses weren’t called and relevant information wasn’t brought to light. The scientist’s former colleague Mai Pedersen, who could have told Lord Hutton that Dr Kelly had damaged his right arm and was incapable of cutting steak, let alone cutting his left wrist, wasn’t called.

Lord Hutton did not call John and Pamela Dabbs, friends of the Kellys who were some of the last people to see him alive in the days before his death.

Neither did he call the so-called “boat people”, who were moored on the river next to where Dr Kelly was found the night that he died – the closest witnesses to where Dr Kelly was found.

He didn’t call the police officer in charge of the investigation into Dr Kelly’s disappearance, Chief Inspector Alan Young. He did not call Sergeant Simon Morris, the police officer who led the initial hunt for Dr Kelly. Hutton failed to discover that the knife Kelly supposedly used to cut his wrist had no fingerprints on it. Nor did some of the other items found beside the body including a water bottle, some empty pills packets, a watch, a pair of glasses and a mobile phone. All despite the fact, says Goslett, that Kelly was not wearing gloves that day and none were found with his body.

Neither did Lord Hutton call Judith Miller, an American journalist and acquaintance of Dr Kelly’s to whom he wrote on the day of his death that there were ‘many dark actors playing games.’

Nor did he call the man who briefed a team of volunteer searchers; the police photographer who could have shed invaluable insight into the position of Dr Kelly’s body; 10 people who watched the autopsy; and a forensic biologist who went to the scene of the body. In the light of all this he makes the case there should be a full coroner’s inquest to find out the truth of what happened. In the light of a mountain of evidence showing that Lord Hutton was negligent, it’s impossible to argue with that.

Pointing out all these (and many other) failures and inconsistencies seems to me to be a valuable piece of investigative journalism, but Aaronovitch leaves Times readers in the dark about them all. We have all noticed a new and disturbing coarseness in modern political and media discourse, marked in particular by a failure to understand or even acknowledge other points of view.

Aaronovitch’s review is instead chiefly given over to vulgar abuse and smears designed to create the idea in the mind of a Times reader that Goslett is a crackpot. He does attack Goslett on a few specific points. I will deal with one of these attacks in detail as it is an example of the general dishonesty of Aaronovitch’s approach.

This concerns a strong and well-researched section of Goslett’s book which wonders how Tony Blair was able to call a public inquiry into the “suspected suicide” of David Kelly only minutes after being told of Kelly’s apparent death whilst on a long-haul flight, long before Dr Kelly had officially been declared a suicide victim, or the body confirmed as his.

Aaronovitch writes:

His contention is that Blair moved suspiciously quickly, once he knew of Kelly's death, to call an inquiry into a suicide that he couldn't be sure was a suicide. Why, asks Goslett, did Blair not also consider the possibility that Kelly had "been the victim of a random assault by a psychopath"? Answers, as they say, on a postcard.

This account gives the impression to readers of The Times that Goslett is a nutter who thinks that Tony Blair should have entertained the proposition that Kelly might have been subject to a random attack by a psychopath. Except Goslett doesn’t argue anything of the sort. He is making an entirely different point to illustrate the speed with which Tony Blair reacted to Kelly’s death. This is what Goslett actually wrote.

"The wheels of power were certainly turning remarkably effectively in the Whitehall machine. But is this sequence of events really plausible? Nobody by this stage had, formally, the faintest knowledge as to how Dr Kelly had died.

How did Blair, Falconer, Phillips and Bingham know that Dr Kelly hadn’t had a heart attack while walking, tripped and accidentally cut his wrist? Come to that, how did they know that Dr Kelly hadn’t been the victim of a random assault by a psychopath? How did they know Dr Kelly hadn’t been murdered in a premeditated attack by somebody who knew him – or who didn’t know him? The answer is they didn’t know because they could not possibly have known. Yet the speed of their reaction, and the decision taken to hold a public inquiry, suggests that somebody had some advance warning before 9.20 a.m., when the volunteer searchers found his body, that Dr Kelly was dead."

So Miles Goslett is not here putting forward the theory that Kelly was killed by a psychopath, as Aaronovitch disingenuously suggests to readers of The Times. He was using the psychopath example as a rhetorical device in order to evoke the state of ignorance inside Whitehall at the time about the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s death.

Aaronovitch’s review is not just misleading. It is also riddled with elementary and avoidable errors.

Aaronovitch (who claims to be an expert on Kelly) says that Dr Kelly's body was exhumed shortly after November 5, 2014. It was not dug up till 2017. He says that Kelly fled to Cornwall on July 10, 2003. Yet according to the official version of events, the date on which Kelly fled his house was actually July 9.

Some of Aaronovitch’s errors strike me as malicious as well as false. He claims that Goslett is ‘cashing in’ by writing this book. Goslett and I share the same small, independent publisher. If his advance is anything like mine, it’s probably roughly the same as Aaronovitch gets for just one of his weekly Times columns.

I’ve written investigative books of this nature. The work involved brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. Months and months of lonely, unrequited effort, fact-checking and considerable expense in return for a derisory publishers’ advance. Aaronovitch has been around more than long enough to know this.

I checked. The initial print run of Goslett’s book was 2,500 copies, though I am happy to learn that a further 1,000 copies have been printed in response to heavier than expected early demand. Whatever Goslett’s motive in writing this book, it wasn’t money. It really wasn’t. To claim that it was is absurd. As a fellow author I say this with a heavy heart.

Aaronovitch calls Goslett a former Mail journalist, and there are several sneers at the Daily Mail (where I write a weekly column) in his review. No problem with any of that. Aaronovitch is an expert at sneering and he can sneer about the Daily Mail as much as he likes, but he ought to have told his Times readers that Goslett worked for the Mail on Sunday.

This newspaper, as Aaronovitch again must know perfectly well but the majority of Times readers probably wouldn’t, is editorially independent of the Daily Mail. It has always had a different tone, philosophy and set of political beliefs. Aaronovitch should have explained this.

Aaronovitch casually insults the book’s publisher, saying that it is wasting money on a book for conspiracy theorists. On this front I have news for Aaronovitch. Neil Belton of Head of Zeus is one of Britain’s finest publishers, and as it happens, a friend of mine. Previously an Editor at Faber, Jonathan Cape and at Granta he has published and edited Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life), Orlando Figes (A People’s Tragedy), Will Hutton (The State We’re In), Brian Keenan (An Evil Cradling), Eric Lomax (The Railway Man), Misha Glenny (The Balkans) and James Hamilton Patterson’s Empire of the Clouds.

Neil is a hard headed as well as a decent and creative individual who wouldn’t have survived in his world for long by being intellectually mugged by nutcase conspiracy theorists. The same applies to Anthony Cheetham, chairman of Head of Zeus, and one of London’s most respected post-war publishers. Aaronovitch, if he has a scrap of decency about him, will give Belton and Cheetham an apology.

We have all noticed a new and disturbing coarseness in modern political and media discourse, marked in particular by a failure to understand or even acknowledge other points of view. This collapse into insult and caricature rather than well-informed and civilised argument damages us all.

David Aaronovitch can be a good writer. I haven’t read it but friends of mine say his recent memoir is one of the best accounts of growing up in a communist household ever written – a remarkable book. He is chairman of the Index on Censorship, a wonderful organisation one of whose objectives is to ensure that 'Everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution.'

Aaronovitch should ask himself whether his snide and dishonest attack on an author whose only fault is to question an official narrative is compatible with the noble objectives of the organisation he chairs.

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