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David Kelly and the silence of British media - 10 years on

Are concerns over the official narrative "conspiracy fodder", or have the media failed to adequately challenge the state's account of what happened?

         Flickr/Simon Li. Some rights reserved.

The controversy surrounding the official explanation of David Kelly’s death has once again resurfaced, albeit at the margins of mainstream media coverage. Kelly was the outed source of the BBC’s controversial news report in 2003, suggesting the government had lied in making its case for war with Iraq. His death quickly prompted the unprecedented halting of a formal coroner’s inquest, to be replaced by a public inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton. But in Hutton’s 328-page report into “the circumstances surrounding and leading up to” Kelly’s death, the actual investigation and cause of death took up less than 15 pages, and merely confirmed initial reports that Kelly had slashed his wrist and died principally from arterial bleeding.

The problem was not so much obfuscation by Hutton, but the holes in the investigation that were exposed at the hearings themselves. Conflicting testimony over the amount of blood found at the scene, the position of the body, and Dr Kelly’s state of mind was of little concern to Hutton or indeed journalists. Amidst the outrage over Hutton’s apparent absolving of the government and castigation of the BBC, it is perhaps understandable that few journalists paid heed to an official explanation of death that was, at the very least, unsafe.

But once the cries of whitewash had receded, and Hutton became yesterday’s news, there followed a prolonged period of silence and omission by the media in response to the on-going controversy over Kelly’s death. It soon became clear that the problem was not just conflicting testimony over the forensics. The near-impossible statistical likelihood of the official cause of death according to a group of senior medical and coronary experts failed to make waves in the news.  Nor did a subsequent campaign in 2004 to re-open the coroner’s inquest that was quashed by the government. Nor did an investigation and book written by Norman Baker, a former front bench MP (now minister), which poured scorn on Hutton’s verdict. Nor did the revelation of extraordinary levels of state secrecy surrounding the case, including the sealing of documents and evidence for 70 years.

It was not until seven years after Kelly’s death that the campaign started to gain significant traction in the news media. It was prompted by signals from the new coalition government that a re-opening of the inquest was not beyond the horizon of possibility. But when a formal legal submission by campaigners was eventually rejected by the attorney general in 2011, the coverage fell silent once again. Even amidst the story’s fleeting moments in the news spotlight, several broadsheet columnists were outspoken against the campaign, dismissing the unanswered questions posed by campaigners as conspiracy fodder.

The problem with these arguments is the implication that campaigners had been peddling a theory about conspiracy in relation to Kelly’s death. But this was never the thrust of the arguments made by senior doctors including an expert in coronary law, Dr Michael Powers QC. He told me that:

From what I've seen the evidence of murder is really no better than the evidence of suicide. It may put me in a rather grey, less interesting and rather boring middle ground. But simply because you can't prove suicide doesn't mean to say that you can prove murder. They've both got to be proved positively and you may not be able to prove either positively.

Ten years after Kelly’s death, the unanswered questions are still yet to be asked in the formal setting of a coroner’s inquest. The official justification for this rests on protecting the interests of Kelly’s family. They have already suffered a tragic bereavement made all the more difficult by the public controversy surrounding the death. But the sole reason we have coronary law is precisely because there is a public interest in properly investigating any sudden and unnatural death, which supersedes all else. However tragic and difficult the circumstances, there is no exemption based on the private interests of the bereaved.

Above all, it is the failure of journalists to adequately scrutinise this case which is of ultimately more concern than the continued refusals of an inquest by successive governments. Indeed, the fleeting media spotlight has been turned on and off in line with government responses to calls for an inquest. Journalists ought to be proactive rather than reactive agents of accountability. It says something about the health and vitality of our fourth estate if newsrooms require the official sanction of a ‘process’ in order to bring attention to a clear failure of justice and accountability.

About the author

Justin Schlosberg is a media activist, researcher and lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of Power Beyond Scrutiny: Media, Justice and Accountability

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