Final days of desperate man cast a dark shadow

March 11, 2005

Alastair Hay draws lessons for handling state and media from his friend's death amid the 'sexed-up' Iraq dossier debacle

It is rare to see Tony Blair at a loss in public. But he really did appear shaken when the discovery of the body of biological weapons expert David Kelly was announced.

He had every reason to feel that way. Ten days earlier, the Prime Minister had been party to the decision to allow David's name to be made public.

That put unimaginable pressure on David, an esteemed colleague of mine, and a few days later he committed suicide.

Channel 4's The Government Inspector is a wonderful two-hour dramatic reconstruction of the events leading up to David's death as well as a fitting portrayal of his work to control and destroy biological weapons on behalf of both the UK and the United Nations.

David was used by the Government in a most shameful way. This drama shows how that occurred. As such it has lessons for all those who advise the state and then find themselves at odds with official policy.

David knew better than anyone what biological weapons Iraq had. He also knew that the British Government had exaggerated its case and he briefed a few journalists about this.

We know what he told Susan Watts of BBC Two's Newsnight programme because she taped the conversation. But we do not really know what he told Andrew Gilligan, whose report on Radio 4's Today programme claimed that Downing Street had "sexed up" the dossier and included information that it knew to be wrong.

It was inevitable that David would be found out. He was known to brief journalists, and MI5's profile of Gilligan's mole pointed to someone very much like him. Warned about this, David volunteered to the Ministry of Defence that he may inadvertently have been the source but claimed that he did not recognise the story broadcast.

The drama has Gilligan altering notes of the crucial discussion on his personal organiser well after meeting David, rather than contemporaneously, as the Hutton inquiry accepted.

My experience is that journalists generally report the facts accurately. On occasion, I have been badly misrepresented - embarrassingly so - but when I protested assiduously, my letters of correction were published.

When David was misrepresented he was in no position to fight back. It was one more humiliation in an overwhelming torrent.

Scientists often bemoan their fate at the hands of the media. We can fail to recognise the tight deadlines journalists work to and how difficult it is to accurately represent a subject about which they may know little.

Spending a bit more time to ensure reporters are clear of the facts usually pays dividends. David did that well, and not only for journalists. He often helped colleagues such as me understand the subtleties of his craft.

But it can be dangerous to brief against a Government as he did. Ignoring "duty of care" to a highly qualified civil servant, Downing Street had few scruples about David's name becoming public as they sought to rubbish the BBC story.

Governments will act in this way. You have to be very thick skinned to resist the onslaught. Politicians seem to survive the process rather well.

David's final humiliation was appearing in public before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. It badgered him. But it also reinforced the fact that he had not been honest about briefing journalists.

Incensed by government lies about Iraq, David then lied to protect himself.

For a man who valued the truth so much this must have been a profoundly damaging experience.

The Channel 4 drama reconstructs the events brilliantly. It is meticulously researched and maintains dramatic tension throughout, a tribute to the casting, writing and editing.

There are many fine performances including Jonathan Cake's overbearing, arrogant and knowingly powerful Alastair Campbell and Mark Rylance's wonderfully sensitive portrayal of David, from his interrogative best on the hunt for weapons in Iraq to a man increasingly withdrawn as his suicide approaches.

Channel 4 is to be congratulated on a fine programme that handles scientific issues adeptly. It should win awards.

This is a fine tribute to David, and achingly sad as you understand how dreadful it must have been for him. The Government fares badly and so it should. What happened should also make journalists reflect.

In the end it is a story about one man against impossible odds. A needless tragedy.

Alastair Hay is professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University.

The Government Inspector will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 9pm on March 17.

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