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Press review

'Blair without flaw - official!'

Ros Taylor rounds up the newspapers' response to Lord Hutton's report

Thursday January 29, 2004

If Tony Blair thought that the Hutton inquiry would draw a line under the Kelly affair, he was utterly mistaken.

So unequivocal was Lord Hutton's report - and so apparent his willingness to give the government the benefit of the doubt - that only two papers swallow it whole.

Those papers, as anyone who has followed their coverage of the inquiry will know, are the Sun and the Times.

Quite how the Times obtained the information that made it possible for journalists to identify David Kelly is one of the many "awkward questions" that the Hutton report leaves unanswered - and it seems unlikely that Alastair Campbell, in his new job as a sports columnist on the paper, will shed any further light on the goings-on in Number 10.

As Simon Hoggart puts it in the Guardian: "The gist of the inquiry is: Blair without flaw - official!"

Apart from a minor criticism of the failure of the Ministry of Defence to inform Dr Kelly that his name was about to become public, Lord Hutton exonerated the government from blame. His disdain for the BBC, on the other hand (of which more below), was plain.

"Whitewash?" asks the Independent, on a largely blank front page.

"We could not believe it when we got it," a senior cabinet minister confided to the Telegraph.

"UNFOUNDED ... the charge they 'sexed up' dossier. UNFOUND ... the WMD they took us to war over," the Mirror splashes.

The Daily Mail sets out "what Hutton chose to ignore". "The dossier was altered at Campbell's request," writes an incredulous Edward Heathcoat Amory.

"Hutton attacked the BBC hierarchy for allowing one of their journalists to criticise the government on the basis of one uncorroborated report from a source ... But he was only too happy in another part of his report for the government to make the 45-minute claim on the basis of - yes - a single uncorroborated report from within Iraq."

"Nor," add the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton-Taylor, "does he address the extracts from the diary of Alastair Campbell ... hinting at a personal vendetta against Gilligan ...

"Also in his diary, Mr Gilligan refers to a conversation with the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, in which he spoke about "a plea bargain", suggesting that the defence secretary would offer a deal to Dr Kelly. Lord Hutton again brushes this aside."

The paper also points out that Lord Hutton ignored the evidence of the BBC's Newsnight science editor, Susan Watts, which corroborates a great deal of Mr Gilligan's report.

At times, says the Independent's Donald Macintyre, the law lord's verdict "[bordered] on what looks like naivete."

What sort of a man is Lord Hutton? The Guardian paints a picture of a "master of fact" who applied the "criminal standard of proof" to the inquiry. "He is a trusting man as far a officialdom is concerned," one QC tells the paper.

Mr Blair, most of the papers agree, has been very fortunate. "It is just flipping unbelievable," complains Boris Johnson in the Telegraph.

"He is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness ... Blair, Hoon, Scarlett, the whole lot of them, have been sprayed with more whitewash than a Costa Brava timeshare. Hutton has succumbed to blindness of Nelsonian proportions. As snow-jobs go, this beats the Himalayas."

Even the Telegraph's leader, which largely agrees with Lord Hutton's robust criticism of the BBC, concedes that there are "various issues that Lord Hutton decided not to explore and that parliament might now consider".

Mr Blair will find some comfort in the FT, where Philip Stephens berates the cynics in the media who cannot bring themselves to believe that a politician might be telling the truth.

"Had the inquiry pronounced the prime minister a liar, Lord Hutton's words would have been held up as if inscribed on a tablet of stone. Because he decided otherwise, many of those who had attacked the integrity of the prime minister were already last night beginning to turn their fire on Lord Hutton."

But there is little doubt among the papers - even the Times - that the report will not completely restore voters' confidence in Mr Blair's government.

The venerable WF Deedes says the PM will find it hard to escape the "weight of his past". Like Harold Macmillan, who survived the 1963 Denning report but soon suffered a bout of ill-health that led to his replacement, Mr Blair may leave Downing Street sooner rather than later.

Dr Kelly is not entirely forgotten in the scores of articles devoted to Lord Hutton's report. He was, the judge said, "not an easy man to help".

Matthew Parris retraces the scientist's steps on his last walk to the woods. "Do you, on a journey like this, rehearse the arguments? Yes, you spoke out of turn to a journalist. But no, you didn't quite say what the world now says you said - or didn't mean it like that.

"Yes, you did deny the whole conversation. Or sort of. Actually, you said you couldn't have been the source of that report, because it wasn't what you said.

"Your head aches. How often have you picked through the tortured justifications at night with your wife asleep beside you, and besides, who's going to be interested in splitting hairs when the tabloids come to call?"

The Sun, meanwhile, is in a boisterous mood this morning.

"The Sun has got its Hutton,
Ship, Ship, Ship, Hooray!
The Sun has got its Hutton,
And now Gavyn's on his way."

Much self-congratulation ensues. "Here he is ... our mole," teases the red-top, in a page sure to infuriate Lord Hutton. A small furry animal sits on top of a copy of the law lord's report. Photoshop designers have added the Sun's masthead and a mask.

"Bavarian Radio," the paper adds proudly, "in its morning phone-in after the headlines, said: 'The paper seems to have scored an extraordinary coup over rivals in Europe's most competitive media market.'"

Bavarian radio, eh? It's a long time since the Sun has had much time for anything of German origin. But it is not the only paper to warn the BBC that Lord Hutton's report has very grave implications for the corporation.

Gavyn Davies, the chairman, has already resigned. The Telegraph and Times say that more BBC executives should follow his example, with the director general, Greg Dyke, and the editor of the Today programme, Kevin Marsh, singled out for special criticism.

Lord Hutton said that Mr Gilligan should not have been allowed to broadcast such a serious allegation against the government from home, and without his editor approving his copy. Then, he added, the governors failed to hold a proper investigation into the report when Number 10 complained.

Most expect that Ofcom, which regulates other broadcasters, will soon begin to monitor the BBC's output. "This ludicrous state of affairs came about because of an aggressive commercial culture encouraged by Mr Dyke," the Telegraph says. "Gilligan had been hired to get scoops and headlines, like a reporter from a commercial media outlet."

The Guardian agrees that the BBC "should have been much quicker" to admit to the errors in Mr Gilligan's report. Nonetheless, "BBC journalists must go on probing, must go on asking questions - and must go on causing trouble."

Times: Leader: A serious inquiry demands an appropriate response

Times: Matthew Parris: Last walk of the proud man who lost it all

Telegraph: Boris Johnson: The BBC was doing its job - bring back Gilligan

Telegraph: The BBC must reform itself or it could end up sold off

Independent: Hutton is accused of a 'whitewash'

Mirror: Where are the WMDs?

Guardian: Crisis cuts through the BBC

Guardian: Simon Hoggart: PM revels in gloating - and subconscious it isn't

Guardian: Judge and journalist

Sun: World of praise for Trevor

· This press review is an extract of The Wrap, one of Guardian Unlimited's paid-for email services. If you would like to subscribe, go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/wrap

Full coverage
Special report: the Hutton inquiry

Special reports
MediaGuardian.co.uk: the media and Hutton
Guardian Unlimited Politics: the David Kelly affair

Full text
Read the Hutton report (pdf)

At a glance
28.01.2004: Key points of the Hutton report

What Hutton said
What Hutton says about ... | Tony Blair | Alastair Campbell | Geoff Hoon and the MoD | Intelligence services | Dyke and Sambrook | Gavyn Davies | Andrew Gilligan | BBC governors
Resources
Hutton inquiry: key players
Hutton inquiry: key documents

Best journalism from eleswhere on the web
Weblog special: David Kelly

Official site
the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk

In pictures
28.01.04: The Hutton inquiry report is released




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