Saturday, December 01, 2007


Richard Norton-Taylor is unconvinced by the conspiracy theories in The Strange Death of David Kelly by Norman Baker

Richard Norton-Taylor
Saturday December 1, 2007

The Strange Death of David Kellyby Norman Baker 399pp, Methuen, £9.99

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, is one of parliament's most persistent harassers of ministers and officials. Over the past year he has diverted his energy to the many theories, encouraged by some disturbing and unanswered questions, surrounding the death of David Kelly, the government's highly respected weapons expert whose body was found in a wood near his Oxfordshire home on July 18 2003. An unintentional whistleblower, his remarks to the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, about how the Blair government had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam's weapons programme, provoked an intense and ugly row between Downing Street and the BBC, leading ultimately to Kelly's death.

With terrier-like persistence Baker searches and turns over all the conspiracy theories, which began to hatch even before Lord Hutton's inquiry ended. The inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Kelly's death, which also became a quasi-inquest, shed a bright light on the way Downing Street, with the help of intelligence chiefs who should have known better, conspired to draw up the disgraceful Iraqi weapons dossier. Hutton, as we all know, cleared the government and criticised the BBC. He also concluded that Kelly had indeed committed suicide, but skirted over some of the questions about what exactly caused his death.

When his body was found, his left wrist was cut open and an empty pack of coproxamol painkilling tablets was in his jacket pocket. Baker makes much of apparently conflicting evidence about Kelly's last movements, when precisely he died and when his body was discovered. It is extremely rare, he writes, for a death to follow injury to the ulnar artery. He examines the motives of all those he says had a possible interest in getting rid of Kelly, including US and British agents. In the end, Baker seems to come down in favour of an Iraqi exile group on the grounds that more revelations from Kelly would have further dented its credibility.

This reviewer believes that Kelly was the victim of the escalating fight between Alastair Campbell's Downing Street and the BBC, with the Ministry of Defence - Kelly's employers - outing him, then continuing to hound him on the government's behalf. Baker points to an incident during Kelly's appearance before the Commons foreign affairs committee shortly before he died. Kelly was unsettled, the author agrees, by a detailed question from the Liberal Democrat MP David Chidgey, about a conversation the weapons expert had with the Newsnight science editor, Susan Watts. Kelly evaded the question, thus misleading the committee.

Kelly "would be exposed as less than truthful, something that went strongly against his personal ethic", writes Baker. "He thus took a sudden decision to end it all." This, according to him, is the "most plausible" explanation for Kelly's suicide. Surprisingly, what he does not say is that Kelly was asked about Watts after Chidgey had been briefed by Gilligan. The question, which Kelly was to remark later had "totally thrown him", contained material that Gilligan had supplied in an email to Chidgey. The Hutton inquiry was told that such email priming by Gilligan of Chidgey was unprecedented and "highly inappropriate". Baker passes over this.

There is no evidence supporting the many theories that Kelly was murdered and plenty of evidence supporting the conclusion that he was driven to suicide. Baker may have done a service by reminding us of one of the nastiest episodes arising from the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps he should now concentrate his energy on current iniquities.


brian in the tamar valley said...

What a waste of a review from 'The Guardian'. Mr Norton-Taylor skates over all the anomalies in the circumstances of the death of Dr Kelly. It would seem that like a number of others he has decided that whatever the contents of the book David Kelly committed suicide - end of story.

He talks about a quasi inquest. There's no such thing so far as I am concerned. For whatever reason Hutton and nobody else decreed that it was officially a suicide. I can't help thinking that an inquest jury of 12 people hearing evidence under oath would very likely have recorded an open verdict.

I really don't know why Norton-Taylor bothered to write such a short and unintelligent review which has given the reader practically nothing.

tim said...

A very polite and understated hatchet-job.

First a brief and selective rundown of the secondary (and obviously much more speculative) issue of 'whodunnit' - with an emphasis on the lurid. Then we segue straight into the reviewer's personal (and unsubstantiated) belief regarding the prior issue: was it suicide?

The reviewer of course claims to believe that it was. By deft use of quotation marks he even subtly misrepresents Mr Baker as identifying the '"most plausible" explanation of Kelly's suicide', as though suicide is a known fact and all that remains is to explain it.

Then the bald and quite untrue statement that there is no evidence of murder and ample evidence of suicide. The level-headed will recognise the truth of this, it seems, without needing details.

It is sad that those in the mainstream media are so easily panicked by the threat of being labelled conspiracy theorists that all objectivity goes out of the window.

As here, the approach is to start from the supposed implausibility/'far-fetched'-ness of various detailed theories, then on that basis to assume that preliminary issue (i.e., was there dirty work afoot?) is somehow decided. It's a kind of divide-and-rule strategy: as though one were to conclude that no-one won the lottery because each of the specific lottery-winner-scenarios is so unlikely as to be negligable.

Of course this gets it backwards. An unbiased assessment of the actual evidence leaves little doubt that Kelly was deliberately killed. Once this is recognised, the 'whodunnit' scenarios are no longer 'far-fetched' - since we know that one of them must be true.

Detailed analysis of real evidence is dismissed as crankily obsessive. Tangible and tractable evidence is disregarded in favour of the usual nostrums, as dubious as they are comfortable: 'it couldn't happen here', 'it could never be covered up', 'the suicide theory is simpler so must be true'. That's if the official narrative's truth isn't just assumed obvious, as it is here.

Compare Tom Mangold's rude, bullying and essentially vacuous attempts to rubbish Mr Baker on the Andrew Marr Show a couple of weeks ago - I expect it's available on the usual video websites. (Mr Mangold's locus standi and hence motives are questionable since this 'friend of the family' had only spoken to Mr Kelly infrequently, and solely on professional topics.)

I have a good idea of the reasons why Mr Norton Taylor produced this review, and they don't reflect well on him or on the Grauniad.

Anonymous said...

perhaps Mr Norton-Taylor himself could forget about security issues and writing nothing too controversial (lest he commits suicide in the woods or gets fed no titbits from the spooks)and get on addressing the real iniquities in society.
Yes, another reason why I don't bother with the Grauniad any more.
Poor show.