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U.K.: Hutton Inquiry Ends, With Reputations Of Blair, BBC Tarnished

The independent public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of British weapons expert David Kelly ended yesterday. The final day at the Royal Courts of Justice in London saw lawyers for all the main parties present their closing arguments.

London, 26 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After three weeks of hearings and testimony from almost 80 witnesses, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the public inquiry into the death of British weapons expert David Kelly ended yesterday.

While the judge, Lord Brian Hutton, weighs the evidence, one conclusion can already be drawn -- the inquiry has severely damaged the reputations of both the Blair government and the BBC.

The controversy over the government's justification for war in Iraq is Blair's worst political crisis since taking office in 1997, while the BBC -- one of the world's most respected broadcasters -- finds itself defending the integrity of its own reporting.

The Hutton inquiry was called to investigate Kelly's apparent suicide in July. Kelly was a Defense Ministry weapons expert and an unnamed source for a BBC report in May by Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan's report claimed the Blair government had exaggerated its case for war in Iraq by "sexing up" a crucial intelligence dossier, including a claim that Iraq had the capability of launching weapons of mass destruction with as little as 45 minutes' notice.

Kelly was found dead, with a slashed wrist, shortly after being named in connection with the BBC report.

Closing statements were made yesterday by lawyers representing Kelly's family, the government, the BBC, Gilligan, and the inquiry itself. As "The Independent" daily highlights on its front page today: "One Death, Five Versions."

The lawyer for Kelly's family, Jeremy Gompertz, accused Gilligan of twisting Kelly's words in his BBC report:

"It is submitted that [David Kelly's] account [of his meeting with Gilligan] has been substantially consistent, accurate, and truthful. By contrast, Mr. Gilligan's accounts of the meeting, in his evidence and elsewhere, have been demonstrated to be unreliable, particularly with regard to the words spoken by Dr. Kelly," Gompertz said.

The government's counsel, Jonathan Sumption, criticized Gilligan for not accurately reporting what Kelly had said to him: "Dr. Kelly did not actually say that the government put the 45-minute point into the dossier, probably knowing that it was wrong. Mr. Gilligan accepts that. Nor did Dr. Kelly say that Downing Street had ordered the dossier to be 'sexed-up.' In fact, he didn't use the word 'sexed-up' at all. That was Mr. Gilligan's sound bite."

The BBC's lawyer, Andrew Caldecott, defended the actions of the broadcaster, saying it "feels it was right to broadcast" the story. But Caldecott admitted that Gilligan's reporting had been flawed.

"[The report] did not sufficiently distinguish between what Dr. Kelly had said and Mr. Gilligan's interpretation of what he had said in two respects: Dr. Kelly did not say -- as [Gilligan's] broadcast suggested -- that the government had put the 45-minute claim in when they probably knew it was wrong. Nor did Dr. Kelly say that Downing Street had ordered more facts to be discovered [about the Iraqi threat]. The BBC regret the inclusion of these statements," Caldecott said.

"The Daily Telegraph" today calls Gilligan's actions "unprofessional and irresponsible." The "Financial Times" says in an editorial that the BBC's handling of the story "is likely to hasten the arrival of an outside regulator for the broadcaster."

Blair's popularity, meanwhile, has plunged throughout the course of the Hutton inquiry. According to a poll in yesterday's "Guardian" daily, 61 percent are unhappy with Blair's job performance.

As for Blair's standing within his own Labour Party, the real test will come next week at its annual conference. Working in Blair's favor, however, are the findings of a recent parliamentary committee report that found that Blair's government did not deliberately exaggerate the dossier on Iraq's weapons. However, the Intelligence and Security Committee did criticize the government for its claim that Iraq had been prepared to launch chemical and biological weapons on 45 minutes' notice.

Opposition Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith said yesterday that Blair should consider resigning over the affair.

Charles Kennedy, the head of Britain's third main political party, the Liberal Democrats, said that whatever the eventual judgment in the Hutton inquiry, the political implications are already clear -- "a devastating indictment of Labour in power."

Whatever the inquiry's findings, observers say it has been a useful exercise in democracy. The proceedings have taken place in full view of the media and the public, as Hutton himself promised before it began.

"It is important that the public should know every word of evidence which is spoken in this inquiry and should know the full contents of every document which is referred to in evidence," Hutton said.

Hutton says he hopes to have his report ready by late November or early December.

As "The Times" daily states in an editorial today: "Whatever the institutional failings pointed up by this unusual hearing...the answer to the question at its heart is clear. There can be no doubt that Lord Hutton will find that the person who killed Dr. Kelly was Dr. Kelly himself."