Lies laid bare

The Hutton enquiry exposes a gaping democratic deficit, argues Manny Neira

Following the Hutton inquiry is like watching a striptease: you do not see anything you were not expecting, but somehow it holds your attention.

The idea that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction has become a joke: quite literally. Dead ringers recently broadcast an impressionist mimicking Tony Blair, wandering around a shopping centre and stopping bemused passers-by with requests to look through their purchases. Closely examining a can of deodorant, the fake prime minister caught the people’s view of the genuine article, as he questioned its hapless owner on the possibility that it might once have been part of Saddam’s chemical arsenal.

Joke or not, the need to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction was the nominal justification for the war. The ‘dossiers’ of evidence the government published arguing that Iraq possessed such weapons should therefore have been a vital part of the democratic process, providing the British people with the information they needed to understand government actions. The democratic deficit exposed by the invasion of Iraq therefore operated on two levels. Firstly, it was taken against the wishes of the British people, which was historically expressed when at least 1.5 million of them marched through London on February 15. Secondly, the people were lied to by a government which was neither accountable nor subject to recall.

This case was clearly made in the Weekly Worker as the story unfolded, and in a sense the Hutton inquiry adds nothing but confirmation. The confirmation, though, is spectacular in the cynicism and contempt for democracy it reveals. Through its website, the inquiry has published a huge selection of documents, including the internal memoranda and emails of the cabinet office. Studying these gives an extraordinary glimpse into the real nature of what passes for British democracy.

The inquiry is nominally investigating the suicide of Dr David Kelly, a civil service expert in WMDs. Dr Kelly was the source who provided BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan with the story that the nominally objective security reports on Iraqi WMDs had been ‘sexed up’ by the cabinet office. The government’s director of communications, Alistair Campbell, was in the frame as Blair’s top fiction writer, and decided (like that other stalwart of democracy, Napoleon) that the best defence was a good offence. He furiously and publicly denied the stories, and accused the BBC of bias and a lack of professionalism.

When Dr Kelly admitted to his employers that he had spoken to Gilligan, the government clearly felt they had an opportunity to rubbish the BBC’s case. They wanted Kelly to give evidence to the foreign affairs select committee investigating the dossiers and deny claims of political interference. It now transpires that Blair and Campbell were both personally involved in releasing Dr Kelly’s name to the press, and discussing the political use which might be made of his evidence.

The problem was that Kelly substantially agreed with Gilligan’s report. John Scarlett of the cabinet office emailed Campbell as follows: “I am sure that he does need careful briefing in advance, especially for the public session with the FAC. His views are supportive of our key assessment, but he will be sceptical about the trailers. It depends how widely the FAC seek to question him.”

In fact, the government substantially underestimated Dr Kelly’s scepticism. Gilligan had illustrated his original accusation of government evidence-tampering with the example of the claim that Iraq could deploy WMDs within 45 minutes, which he attributed to Campbell. When Susan Watts of BBC’s Newsnight asked Dr Kelly if he could say Campbell was personally responsible, he answered: “No, I can’t. All I can say is the No10 press office. I’ve never met Alistair Campbell, so I can’t. But I think Alistair Campbell is synonymous with that office because he is responsible for it.”

A later note from Scarlett revealed a hardening attitude: “... Gilligan has only talked to one person about the September dossier ... If this is true, Kelly is not telling the whole story. Gilligan must have got the 45-minute single intelligence report item from somewhere, presumably Kelly. Conclusion: Kelly needs a proper security-style interview in which all these inconsistencies are thrashed out. Until we have the full story, we cannot decide what action to take. I think this is rather urgent.”

Torn between his own views and the pressure applied by the government, Dr Kelly gave his evidence haltingly and under obvious stress: though how much stress did not become clear until news of his suicide broke.

Ironically, this led to the inquiry, which in turn led to the publication of an email Campbell sent Scarlett about the dossier. In it can be read: “On page 17, two lines from the bottom, ‘may’ is weaker than in the summary.” The ‘may’ became ‘are’ in “The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so.” The smoking gun had been found.

Not that this single line is the limit of Campbell’s intervention. It is merely one of 15 recommended changes in one of many emails Campbell sent, and he was not the only author of spin. The government’s general approach is typified in this excerpt from the email of the foreign office’s Daniel Pruce: “Can we insert a few quotes from speeches he has made which, even if they are not specific, demonstrate that he is a bad man with a general hostility towards his neighbours and the west?”

Overall, the material so far published by the inquiry tells us little we did not already know about the government’s propagandising, but it does highlight the problem which all bourgeois democracies face. Whatever advantages they might enjoy in their propaganda - money, staff and access to mass broadcasting and print media - they are trapped in an inescapable contradiction. They must serve the interests of their own ruling class, while securing its continued survival and apparent democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the working class. As the aims of these classes are irreconcilable, the propagandists must lie.

Only communists - authentic communists, that is - who serve no minority interest, can consistently portray reality as it is. An unswerving commitment to the truth, simple and militant in the face of the sophistry of our enemies, patiently argued in front of our own class, is our most valuable weapon.

Rough guide to Hutton

The inquiry’s publications can be found at www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk. Click the ‘Evidence’ tab, and then ‘Full documentary evidence’. This will display a list of sources. Begin by clicking ‘Cabinet office’ and have a look at:

Also mentioned in this article was Susan’s Watts interview transcript, which can be found at SJW/1/0039 and makes interesting reading.

For some lighter relief, select the BBC documents and read BBC/4/0156, which contains some of the letters of complaint Campbell sent to the BBC over their coverage of the war. Here we have evidence not so much of the British democratic deficit, as Alistair’s personal reality deficit:

“Of course, if we are looking at demonstrations, the BBC gave immense coverage to the anti-war demonstration in London before the conflict began which, although claiming to be national, involved only a tiny proportion of the population and took place in only a small area of London. With regard to the demonstrations in Baghdad on Wednesday [when coalition forces arrived], neither Mr Edwards nor Mr Paxman could have had the faintest idea of what was happening in those areas of this huge city, where cameras and reporters were not present. I believe the BBC has much to answer for in its coverage of these events, and request your response.”

My own immediate response is, sadly, unprintable.