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The storm that Hutton created


... and with the publication of his report, there are widespread indications that `the establishment' is generally not trusted.


A tough week in power for Tony Blair.

DURING weeks of nervous anticipation, there was a general feeling that the publication of the report by Lord Hutton into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly, the weapons scientist, would bring closure to the controversy. Quite the reverse has happened. Controversy continues; indeed it has reached a kind of frenzy. It now centres, however, on a much wider range of issues.

In simple terms, the report — by a senior judge from the House of Lords, the highest court in the United Kingdom — exonerated the Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government from wrongdoing, and savagely criticised the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) both for its report which began the whole affair, and for its editorial and managerial handling of the initial complaint.

All concerned have agreed that the initial report, by Andrew Gilligan, was flawed. He has accepted that, and has resigned from the BBC. His was the third of a dramatic series of resignations: first by the chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors, Gavyn Davies, then by the Director General, Greg Dyke, who was in effect forced out when the Governors, by a majority, accepted his offer of resignation. It has been the worst week for the BBC in the whole of its history.

So much for the — much curtailed and simplified — chain of events. The repercussions have been equally dramatic.

First, there has been a huge outpouring of support for Greg Dyke from some 10,000 BBC staff, who expressed it in an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph. It reflects both a loss of confidence in the Governors and a belief that the Hutton Report was unfair - not in criticising the BBC but in the manner and extent of its criticism.

Criticisms of the Report have not been limited to BBC staff. There is a widespread feeling that he let the government off the hook. There have been suggestions that he did not understand the law of qualified privilege as it applies to journalists. He has been criticised as being too much of an establishment figure.

There are widespread indications, too, that "the establishment", in which, of course, is included the Government, is generally not trusted. Significantly, a poll conducted by ICM for The Guardian after publication of the report showed that whereas 31 per cent of those polled put more trust in the BBC to tell the truth, only 10 per cent put more trust in the Government. (Seven per cent trusted both but — bad news for the Government and BBC — 49 per cent trusted neither.)

Confidence in the Judiciary is also not particularly high.

There have been too many cases of exposed miscarriages of justice in recent years to leave the public feeling as sure about the quality of judges as the judges themselves feel. And a very recent case, in which during a criminal trial the judge fell asleep has not helped.

The Hutton inquiry was concerned with a relatively narrow issue. On the wider questions about the war in Iraq, there is still great scepticism about the main reason given for the U.K. Government's decision — the existence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. It seems ever more apparent that the intelligence about such weapons was wrong. Even President Bush has admitted to doubts about its accuracy. Why, it is being increasingly asked, has no such admission come from Mr. Blair?

More questions have been raised than answered by the Hutton Report. I have just been looking at one of Britain's sharpest satirical television programmes, "Bremner, Bird and Fortune". Rory Bremner, John Bird and John Fortune were scathing about Tony Blair, Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition and judges generally (in a brilliantly and cruelly funny sketch).

You do not have to depend on satirical programmes for such scathing comments. In a range of conversations during the week, I have not come upon anyone who was wholly convinced by the Hutton Report. For most people, neither politicians nor journalists are to be trusted — though it has to be said that the BBC is much more likely to be believed than the popular tabloid newspapers.

Understandable though all this doubtless is, it has serious implications. It is healthy to subject all authority figures in a democracy to critical scrutiny. But when the mood is of deep cynicism, and we assume that everyone in a position of authority or leadership is untrustworthy, we need to worry.

When the Hutton dust has settled — and that will take a long time — I fear that cynicism will have been fortified and nourished.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him

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