The author of An Inconvenient
Death asks why Aaronovitch has spent so much time on a book he believes
worthless – and argues that Aaronovitch’s own writing on the subject does not
stand up well to scrutiny.
I’ve been watching with interest the debate on this
website between Peter
Oborne and David
Aaronovitch on the
subject of my recently published book about the David Kelly affair. I had not
expected that An Inconvenient Death was going to generate this sort of
discussion but, now that these two writers have had their say, I have been
invited to add some thoughts on the matter.
I was flattered that The Times devoted a
page to Aaronovitch’s review of my book on 7 April – just two days after it was
published (the review is quoted in full in Aaronovitch’s
response to Oborne on this
site). As I read Aaronovitch’s 1,200 words, however, I became increasingly
puzzled. The first 40 per cent was a self-defensive commentary about Kelly’s
death and the Blair government’s management of it. Then, when Aaronovitch
concluded: “It stinks, really, does this waste of publisher’s, purchaser’s and
reviewer’s time and money,” I couldn’t help wondering why he had bothered to
read and then write about the book in the first place. Why did he waste his
time – and the highly prized space on the pages of The Times – on what
he considers to be worthless material? Why not ignore it?
To borrow a term, I think this stinks
One thing is clear to me: the fact that Aaronovitch
has now devoted yet more time to this concern by responding to Oborne’s
deconstruction of his Times review indicates that he feels very strongly
about the Kelly case. He is, contrary to his suggestion that my book
"stinks", quite willing to pledge many hours to it. Indeed, his
review followed a 1,200-word comment piece in The Times in October 2007
lambasting the former MP Norman Baker’s book on the same subject. He returned
to the Kelly episode – again in The Times – in a critical 1,000-word
comment piece in August 2010. And – again in The Times – in June 2013 he
reviewed a book by Robert Lewis about Kelly’s life and work, also negatively.
From this I deduce that Aaronovitch thinks it's OK for him to write about the
Kelly case; it's just that he doesn’t want people like Baker, Lewis and me
doing the same thing.
Had Aaronovitch written a straight review of my
book, saying that it was rubbish because it was badly written, poorly
structured and full of sloppy research, I would have been stung, but I would
have accepted it as his considered opinion. Certainly, I would have said
nothing about it publicly, because doing so would trigger justifiable accusations
of sour grapes. But what Oborne appears to think, and what I also think, is
that without critical observations of this type, but instead presenting a
caricature of the book to Times readers, Aaronovitch’s review was an
attack launched at the earliest opportunity that may have damaged its
prospects – intentionally or otherwise.
As Oborne has demonstrated, Aaronovitch
misrepresented my book and portrayed me as an unhinged conspiracy theorist. In
fact, the book is intended to be a careful analysis of the Hutton Inquiry into
Kelly’s death and the ramifications of that process. Its aim is to show how
Tony Blair's desperate government rode roughshod over the long-established
method of inquiry into this event – a coroner's inquest – and installed its own,
less rigorous investigation. As a result key witnesses were excluded, evidence
was concealed and loose ends allowed to remain untied. I believe, though I
accept I may be wrong, that Aaronovitch began his review with a firmly closed
mind. Let me explain why I have arrived at this interpretation.
In his Times review, Aaronovitch presented
himself as something of an expert on the subject. He reminded readers of a book
he wrote on conspiracy theories which was published in 2009, a chapter of which
is devoted to examining sceptically any sense of mystery surrounding Kelly’s
death. He may think his 25 pages on this topic makes him a specialist in the
field, but I would suggest it means simply that he has a position to defend.
Certainly, it would be understandable if Aaronovitch feels somewhat exposed
when it comes to this period of British politics. In April 2003 he wrote
regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “If nothing is eventually found,
I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told
by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point,
neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.”
I couldn’t help wondering why he had bothered to write about the book in the first place
I have recently read the aforementioned chapter of
Aaronovitch’s book. It is titled “Mr Pooter Forms a Theory” and largely
focusses on criticising Norman Baker’s 2007 book about Kelly’s death. It begins
by criticising Baker on a personal level. Charges against him include his
having a “receded chin”, a “receding hairline”, not having a “distinguished
dress sense” and being “exceptionally ordinary”. Aaronovitch’s perceptions of
Baker have nothing to do with the matter at hand, of course. They are an
attempt to belittle Baker and, by extension, his endeavour. Aaronovitch
obviously thinks he is witty and clever for ridiculing Baker in this way. But
don’t these unpleasant and irrelevant words merely reinforce the possibility
that Aaronovitch boils so furiously at anybody questioning the official David
Kelly story that he feels the need to spend his precious time thinking up ways
to humiliate them publicly? Well, to borrow a term, I think this stinks.
The errors of
Aaronovitch will not welcome this, but I have
noticed that his Kelly thesis appears to contain a number of errors which
suggest that he is not as familiar with the issue as he wishes Times
readers to believe.
These are some problems I can find in his book:
1. Page 262, paragraph 1: Aaronovitch writes that
"it was probably inevitable" that Kelly's contact with the journalist
Andrew Gilligan would become public and “the government took no very stringent
steps to ensure that it didn’t”. This is at best a limited interpretation of
what actually happened, which is that Blair chaired a meeting in Downing Street
on 8 July 2003 at which it was actively decided that Kelly's name could be
given by the Ministry of Defence press office to any journalist who guessed it.
Even if his “probably inevitable” remark is not a deliberate understatement by
Aaronovitch, it certainly isn’t a fair reflection of the facts either.
A number of errors suggest that he is not as familiar with the issue as he wishes Times readers to believe
2. Page 262, paragraph 1: he writes of a
"besieged Kelly… giving evidence to the televised committees...".
Note the plural “committees”. The clear inference is that this level of public
exposure on two occasions helped tip him over the edge. In fact, Kelly gave
evidence at only one televised select committee hearing. The second was held in
private. This is a small error, but an error nonetheless.
3. Page 264, paragraph 3, last sentence:
Aaronovitch says Kelly "had at least one characteristic which, in
statistical terms, probably made him an enhanced suicide risk”. This is wrong.
See next point.
4. Page 266, paragraph 2: Aaronovitch says:
"David Kelly's own mother committed suicide." He says this makes it
more likely that Kelly would have done the same thing and quotes psychiatric
research from 2002 to support his point. But at the coroner's inquest into
Margaret Kelly's death in 1964 , the coroner recorded an open verdict. He did
not determine that David Kelly’s mother had taken her own life. This point
feeds into the key consideration any coroner must make when dealing with an
apparent suicide, and one which I write about in my book: intent. Specifically,
a coroner must ask himself or herself: “Did the person whose death I am
considering intend to take their own life?” Very often, the coroner will record
an open verdict because they cannot satisfy themself “beyond reasonable doubt”
that the deceased really did intend to do so. Furthermore, as I say in my own
book (page 284), when Professor Keith Hawton – an expert witness who appeared
at the Hutton Inquiry – was required to judge whether Margaret Kelly's death
influenced her son’s, he dismissed this possibility. Aaronovitch was apparently
unaware of this when he published his book six years later in 2009.
5. Page 266: Aaronovitch makes great play of
evidence given by a former British diplomat, David Broucher, to the Hutton
Inquiry. Broucher said that Kelly once told him that if an invasion of Iraq
went ahead, he, Kelly, would “probably be found dead in the woods”. Aaronovitch
says this comment was akin to Kelly sharing what amounts to a mental dress
rehearsal of his suicide with Broucher, and may prove Kelly had the idea of
ending his life in his mind long before he did so. This is surely an amateur
interpretation which Aaronovitch, who is not a psychiatrist, has no right to
make. More importantly, why should Broucher be believed? By his own admission,
he couldn't recall the details of his contact with Kelly. He couldn’t remember
whether they had met once or twice; he couldn’t remember when their meeting or
meetings took place; and he couldn’t remember where they had met – not even in
which country. I would say Broucher was not a reliable witness; Aaronovitch,
apparently, would say he was. Even if Broucher’s memory was accurate, one
chance remark cannot prove that Kelly intended to kill himself and then did so.
No coroner would use this as evidence of intent, but Aaronovitch is happy to
accept it as gospel.
6. Pages 269-71: Aaronovitch writes of the 29
co-proxamol tablets that Kelly allegedly swallowed. In fact there is doubt as
to how many pills he did swallow, as Alex Allan, the toxicologist who gave
evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, explained. He told the inquiry that the drug
levels in his system were “somewhat lower than what I would normally expect to
encounter in cases of death due to an overdose of co-proxamol.” (see pages
272-3 of my book). There is also the point that Kelly’s friend, Mai Pederson,
said Kelly had an aversion to swallowing pills – one of many key points not
raised at the Hutton Inquiry but which his widow, Janice Kelly, has
7. Page 271: Aaronovitch speaks in terms of Kelly
being “intent” on suicide – yet, as discussed, intent was not ever discussed at
Hutton, though it should have been. (See pages 281-2 of my book.) It is worth
saying again that a coroner must satisfy himself or herself “beyond reasonable
doubt” that someone intended to kill themself and then did so. This bar is set
deliberately high at coroners' inquests. I am not even sure that this bar
existed at the Hutton Inquiry.
8. Page 272: Aaronovitch endorses the forensic
pathologist Nicholas Hunt, who investigated Kelly’s death. In so doing, he
tries to undermine legitimate queries which Baker made in his book and which I
have also made. As it happens, in my book, I take the opposite view about Hunt.
Perhaps Aaronovitch should have looked at Hunt’s record more closely as well.
At the time Aaronovitch published his book in 2009, Hunt was under a five-year
warning for breaching General Medical Council guidelines. His misdemeanour was
to have shown to members of the public photographs of the mutilated bodies of
three Royal Military Police officers killed in Iraq in 2003. Regarding his
inquiry into Kelly’s death, many medical
professionals have criticised Hunt for
waiting seven hours before taking Kelly’s body temperature at the location
where it was found, complicating the process of establishing what time he died.
In his autopsy Hunt recorded Kelly’s height and weight
incorrectly (he recorded that Kelly was more than two stones lighter than he
was) and also recorded the weight of his liver incorrectly. Incidentally, Hunt
has said repeatedly that he thinks there ought to be a coroner's inquest into
David Kelly’s death – something which Aaronovitch obviously does not want.
A Kelly monopoly
The evidence indicates that Aaronovitch objects
passionately to anybody asking searching questions about Kelly’s death. This is
a surprising response for a journalist, given that the matter falls squarely
into the public interest. But in his world, he – and nobody else – decides what
is a legitimate journalistic inquiry and what is a conspiracy theory. For
having written my book, I have been branded a money-grabbing "conspiracy
theorist”. In fact, anybody who, like me, believes there ought to be a full
coroner’s inquest into Kelly’s death is also a “conspiracy theorist”. This
includes, presumably, the two coroners whom I met earlier this year at separate
social occasions, both of whom called Hutton’s finding “unsafe”.
Aaronovitch objects passionately to anybody asking searching questions
It’s not obvious to me why Aaronovitch should feel
he has a monopoly on this situation. Neither is it apparent why he slavishly
follows the official version of events about Kelly’s death without considering
the many unanswered questions surrounding it, or wanting others to do so. But
it does seem unusual that one journalist would actively want to prevent the
excavations of another journalist from being read as widely as possible.
Luckily, for me,
Aaronovitch is not in charge of deciding whether journalists are allowed to
probe this business, and I intend to carry on doing so. Even more luckily for
me, the two newspaper reviews of my book (only one online) published after his were both objective. This is all any author should
be able to expect having pulled off the notoriously tricky task of getting a
book published. And, as it happens, both were very supportive of the book.