Blair cleared, but he's not out of the woods yet

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 2004, 12:00am

Tony Blair has emerged smiling from his 'week of hell'. With the decision by a judicial inquiry to clear him of blame for events leading to the death of a government weapons scientist, the British prime minister has survived his biggest crisis since winning power in 1997. But this is not the end of the story. Doubts about the official justification for going to war in Iraq are growing - and will not be so easily dispelled.

The focus of the investigation conducted by Lord Hutton was narrow, confined strictly to the circumstances leading to the suicide of David Kelly. The retired judge resisted pressure to extend its scope, avoiding any need to assess the strength and reliability of intelligence used by the government to support the invasion of Iraq last year. As a result, the findings are of limited value to Mr Blair on this all-important issue.

However, the allegations which Lord Hutton did consider were extremely serious and, had they been substantiated, would have greatly undermined the credibility of the government. Essentially, it stood accused of wilfully exaggerating evidence of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in order to swing public opinion behind the war. Then, when the allegations were made public, officials identified Kelly as the source of the media reports concerned, adding to the pressure on the scientist which, tragically, led to his death.

The most damning accusation, made in a broadcast last May by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, was that the government 'probably knew' claims that Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes were false when it inserted them in an intelligence dossier used to support the case for war.

A battle between the government and the BBC ensued, one which the broadcasting corporation has now lost. Lord Hutton cleared officials of misconduct and placed virtually all of the blame for what happened on the BBC. There were few shades of grey in his report.

He attached enormous importance to the inaccurate suggestion that the government had deliberately included unreliable information in the dossier. Lord Hutton's statement that this was 'a very grave allegation' cannot be disputed. Gilligan had admitted being mistaken, describing this particular part of his broadcast as a slip of the tongue. The error made by the reporter, on such a crucial matter, was a huge one. He must now bear the consequences. The impact on the BBC, attacked by Lord Hutton for its lack of editorial scrutiny and of adequate complaints mechanisms, is also likely to be severe. While there is a clear need to review procedures, it would be regrettable if the corporation is weakened or its investigative journalism curbed.

Lord Hutton was on less convincing ground when rejecting claims the government had 'sexed up' the intelligence it made available to the public. The furthest he was prepared to go was to accept that the desire by Mr Blair to make the case for war a strong one may have 'subconsciously' influenced those responsible for compiling the dossier. But the resulting document was, nonetheless, one which was consistent with the available intelligence, Lord Hutton found.

It was clear from evidence tendered at the inquiry that Kelly believed the weapons claims in the dossier had been exaggerated as a result of government pressure. He felt uncomfortable about its contents. The failure to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the growing belief none will be found, suggest Kelly was right to be concerned. Lord Hutton may have cleared Mr Blair and his government, but the suspicion the British people were misled - through bad judgment, at least - over the reasons for going to war is one which long remains.