The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, September 22, 2003

Not quite the Big Lie, but...

In the agonisingly slow progress towards enlightenment down at Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand - home, for what seems an eternity and a half, for Lord Hutton's great inquest - a potential small leap forward on Thursday.

In the witness box, was Richard Hatfield, Personnel Director at the Ministry of Defence, and intimately concerned with the limb of the inquiry dealing with the treatment of Dr Kelly by HMG. Hatfield took a notably combative approach, in the face of cross-examination from counsel for the Kelly family, Jeremy Gompertz, QC [1].

He was happy to stand behind the way the MOD behaved towards Kelly - in fact, suggested that it had erred in being excessively lenient [2].

On the question of the guessing game the MOD played with journos - the MOD had agreed it would identify Kelly if, and only if, his name was put to one of its press officers [3] - his comment appears typically bold and bullish (44:16, emphasis mine):
16 Q. Do you consider it was outstanding support by the MoD
17 not to inform him of the decision to confirm his name if
18 suggested by a journalist?
19 A. I am afraid I do not actually accept your question.
20 I think he knew all along if we were faced with
21 a serious statement that they knew that it was Dr Kelly
22 that we would have to confirm the name because the
23 Ministry of Defence cannot deny things that are true.

Now, I think that is the clearest statement we have had in evidence from HMG witnesses of what is, to judge from Hatfield's tone, supposed to be a killer argument to justify the guessing game. And I hypothesise that the statement is, in fact, a lie. (Or, at the least, a falsehood - despite his senior position in the MOD, one could not discount the possibility of ignorance on his part.) And that evidence might be adduced (should his Lordship be willing) to prove it to be a lie (or falsehood).

One or two points on this:
  • The usual sort of obfuscation, non-denial denials and the rest of the stock-in-trade of Alastair Campbell and his breed wouldn't count as denying things that are true.

  • But not confirming the name could be done without making such a denial (as by neither confirming nor denying): there is an ambiguity.

  • To falsify the strongest interpretation of Hatfield's statement, therefore, one would need to identify instances where facts have been deliberately denied by the MOD.

  • A single instance would be unsatisfactory: Hatfield was essentially alleging a rule (or established practice) that the MOD
    cannot deny things that are true.
    In theory, a single instance of a falsehood being uttered by the MOD would be the exception that proved the rule - false, in this case. But, for a thoroughly persuasive denial, one would need several.

The MOD was created in 1964; I would hypothesise that, on several occasions in its four decades of existence, MOD ministers or officials have done what Hatfield alleges they are not able to do.

I can suggest a number of cases in which this may well have occurred - though absence of online records militates against being able to confirm the fact [4].

  1. Sinking of the Belgrano

    The case of whistle-blowing civil servant Clive Ponting got going when Ponting determined that ministers were misleading Parliament of the circumstances surrounding the sinking (during the 1982 Falklands War) and leaked relevant documents to awkward squad doyen Tam Dalyell MP.

    Did the MOD deny things that were true? Apparently - small world! - the junior MOD minister in the frame was none other than scourge of Gilligan in Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir John Stanley [5]!

  2. Elimination of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar

    An amply justified HMG disinformation campaign on the SAS operation in 1988 - but surely more likely than not involving the MOD's denying things that were true?

  3. The disappearance of the trawler Gaul

    A bizarre 1974 case which might well have generated MOD truth denial.

  4. Greenham Common Nuclear Accident

    Evidence came to light in the mid 90s that a nuclear accident had occurred in 1957 involving a USAF aircraft at the base, which had been assiduously covered up in the interim. MOD truth denial?

  5. MOD dumping toxic waste

    Apparently, the MOD spent decades dumping radioactive waste in the sea. (Its record on land seems equally likely to have generated truth denial.)

  6. Arms to Iraq/Scott Inquiry

    The behaviour of HMG (Tory version) towards UK firms it greenlit to supply arms to Saddam, but then hung out to dry when executives got prosecuted for so doing, must surely have involved truth denial!

  7. Diego Garcia evictions

    When Uncle Sam wanted a base in the Indian Ocean in the late 60s, a few hundred natives were not allowed by HMG to stand in his way. Their removal involved a deal of Foreign Office deception, it appears: but perhaps the MOD put in their two pennyworth.

Very far from an exhaustive list, I'm sure; but illustrative of the rich seams to be mined for facts to contradict Hatfield's statement.

Would Lord Hutton allow counsel to lead evidence of this sort? Time is certainly against it. As well as the natural disinclination of all judges to bar fishing expeditions or diversionary tactics.

On the other hand, the question bears directly on a matter Lord Hutton evidently views as important: whether the MOD should have striven to resist Kelly's name becoming public, whether or not such efforts were likely to succeed. If it could be shown that the MOD had more than once denied (or avoided confirming) what it knew to be true, then no such rule as alleged by Hatfield could be adduced for its failure to do so to protect Dr Kelly.

  1. As interpreted by one of that peculiarly British (or so I believe!) breed, the parliamentary sketch writer (Guardian September 19).

  2. With hindsight, he said, he would have taken disciplinary action against Kelly: transcript 76:22.

  3. A procedure to which, to judge from questioning over the course of the hearings from Lord Hutton himself, he has taken a virulent dislike.

  4. Philip Larkin suggested that sexual intercourse had been invented in 1963; as far as most online repositories of government records, the Dark Ages only ended around 1997!

  5. Apparently, Sir Richard Mottram, then the Defence Secretary's Private Secretary, was called as a witness at the Ponting trial:
    Sir Richard was asked by Mr Ponting's counsel whether it had long been the constitutional practice that answers to parliamentary questions should be truthful and not deliberately ambiguous or misleading. After a long pause, Sir Richard replied: "In highly charged political matters, one person's ambiguity may be another person's truth".
  6. He seems here to be going rather further than Lord Armstrong's famous economical with the truth concept (during the Peter Wright Spycatcher trial in Australia).

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