Earlier this summer I interviewed the award-winning investigative journalist Miles Goslett about his investigation into the death of Dr David Kelly which had culminated in the publication of An Inconvenient Death: How the Establishment covered up the David Kelly Affair.
There was no pain involved in my reading the book in preparation. It was a veritable page-turner. I have always been an Agatha Christie fan and if this was not a fitting title for ‘whodunit’, I don’t know what is. What was so compelling, however, was that this was not a figment of a novelist’s imagination but a contemporary unsolved political mystery. So, unlike the final denouement a thriller offers, for all his painstaking investigation over several years Miles Goslett has not, frustratingly, found the answer to his questions about what happened to Dr Kelly and why.
David Kelly was the government scientist caught up in the post-mortem on the Iraq War calamity in 2003. In early July he was exposed as the likely source for a ‘preview’ by Andrew Gilligan for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, broadcast in May, which stated that the government had ‘sexed up’ the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD. Three days later, in the Mail on Sunday, Gilligan in effect accused Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, of this. Campbell lashed out not at the newspaper, but at the BBC: his diary entry for 26 June records that he wanted to ‘nail Gilligan completely’. But it was David Kelly, in the event, who was hung out to dry. His body was found by two volunteer searchers on July 18 in a wood at Harrowdown Hill in Oxfordshire in what appeared to be a suicide.
Goslett was never satisfied that the question of why Dr Kelly, given the mysterious and unexpected nature of his death, had been deprived of the full coroner’s inquest that is the right of every citizen, had been neither asked nor answered.
In An Inconvenient Death he details the route he took to find out. It starts with a a graphic reconstruction of the hours before Dr Kelly died, reading like a novel: ‘Shortly after 3pm on Thursday 17th July 2003, Dr Kelly left his house in the Oxfordshire village of Southmoor to go on one of his regular walks.’
In true detective novel style, he was never to return. Shortly before midnight his family contacted the police. Goslett describes in detail the overnight hunt that would involve more than forty police officers, a helicopter, a mounted unit and an underwater search team. In the early hours, Met Special Branch Officers were told to search his London office. All for a mere civil servant missing for a few hours.
At 9am a body matching Dr Kelly’s description was found. Within minutes, the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer was on the phone to Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in mid-air between Washington DC and Tokyo ‘and in a surprisingly brief call was instructed to set in motion a full-blown public inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death’.
What was it about Kelly’s death which disturbed Falconer and Blair so much, Goslett asks, that they went on to interrupt and ultimately to derail the coroner’s inquest which had been opened routinely?
According to Goslett, Kelly’s death ‘is the only occasion on record when a coroner’s inquest into a single death has been adjourned using [an] obscure law so that a non-statutory public inquiry could be held instead’. The significance? This public inquiry, chaired by Lord Hutton, was nothing like a coroner’s inquest for one simple reason – its premise was, despite inconclusive and highly contradictory and unsatisfactory evidence, that Dr Kelly killed himself. What’s more, not a single witness was compelled to give evidence under oath.
Mai Pederson, a US military linguist in Iraq and a close friend of Kelly, told police officers reporting to Hutton that she had introduced Kelly to the Baha’i faith, which forbids suicide. She was never called to give evidence. Yet she is on record as saying she doubted that Dr Kelly could sever his left ulnar artery as a horse-riding injury had left his right hand weak and that he had great difficulty swallowing pills, both officially given as causes of his death. Goslett painstakingly details the the inexactitudes and oversight of Hutton. When it comes to his description of the evidence given by Dr Kelly’s widow, one is left wondering whether, for whatever reason, she had been encouraged to repeat the official line.
Goslett himself resists any speculation and there are tantalising discoveries left unaccounted for – that Kelly did not flee to Weston-super-Mare to escape the media, as his wife claimed, but at that time was playing cribbage at the Hinds Head pub near his home. According to members of his cribbage team he seemed fine. None of these witnesses appeared before Hutton.
Likewise the striking revelation that after Dr Kelly disappeared but before his body was officially found, his dentist discovered that his patient records had disappeared from her surgery. Three days later they reappeared in her filing cabinet.
Then there are questions over the exhumation of the body and other possible inconsistencies in Mrs Kelly’s evidence. It is true that not every oversight or inconsistency will have a sinister motive. But there are enough to leave the reader questioning why Attorney General Dominic Grieve, having claimed when in opposition in early 2010 to be in favour of investigating the Dr Kelly affair properly, muddied the waters further in 2011 by rejecting calls for an inquest. Instead of throwing light, Goslett’s account shows how his inquiry too was riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies.
In my interview with him, Goslett said of Grieve that ‘for a man who considers himself to be a serious intellect, [he] should be ashamed of his incompetent handling of the Dr Kelly case. He is now chairman of the intelligence and security committee – a uniquely powerful position for a backbench MP to hold given he is privy to a large range of deeply sensitive information concerning national security matters – so he could and should be forced to account for himself.’
That is the conclusion the book leads the reader to. That Grieve, along with the former Prime Minister, Lord Falconer and Lord Hutton should be forced to account for themselves. And that tomorrow is not too soon to open a coroner’s inquest into the death of Dr Kelly.