Hutton Report: A cautionary tale for Hong Kong
SCMP February 9
It was fascinating to be in London at the time of the Hutton report
into the suicide of David Kelly, a government expert on Iraqi weapons.
The bizarre report has not only raised more questions than provided
answers about the origins of the Iraq war, it has left two British institutions
with badly dented reputations: the judiciary and the BBC. The lesson
that trust in institutions is hard to build but easy to lose is worth
noting in Hong Kong.
If the Hutton report had appeared in, let us say, Argentina or Indonesia,
it would have been assumed either that the judge had been bought or
that the inquiry was a political fix. Of course, no such aspersions
could be cast on a senior member of the British judiciary, in this case
a retired former chief justice of Northern Ireland.
But it must be scant solace to the judiciary that a majority of Britons
thought it unbalanced and almost half, according to one poll, agreed
it was a "whitewash".
Prime Minister Tony Blair's supporters were relieved but the popular
perception was - at best - of a judge lacking common sense, obsessed
with the narrowest of legalisms and willing on almost every occasion
to believe the word of ministers and officials rather than that of outsiders,
especially journalists. The report also implied that officials had no
right to give off-the-record briefings to the media, however concerned
they might be about informing the public of the truth.
The relevance to Hong Kong was given added weight last week when Secretary
for Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping told the service that it must
be apolitical but at the same time "loyal to the chief executive".
Civil servants must indeed carry out the lawful instructions of their
superiors. But that obligation does not extent to lying to protect that
higher authority. The duty of loyalty is to the public in general and
the codes of practice of the service, not to the chief executive - that
way lies a boss mentality and personality cults.
In Britain's case, one man, Mr Blair, appointed another man to judge
him. The remit of the inquiry was narrow in the first instance. Lord
Hutton chose to narrow it still further and even exempted Mr Blair from
cross-examination. This enabled him to heap blame on the BBC and its
reporter for its over-hyped phraseology about the "sexing up"
of a dossier on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction which was
used to justify the war.
In the process, Lord Hutton ignored a mass of evidence that the government
had gone out of its way to rewrite intelligence reports in such a way
as to present a case for the existence of easily deployed weapons of
He also ignored the links between the head of Britain's Joint Intelligence
Committee, which was supposed to present facts and analysis on which
policy could be based, and Mr Blair's press office, involved in presentation.
Lord Hutton castigated the BBC, setting it the most exacting standards
of proof, while exonerating the government from any need to provide
reasonable standards of proof for claims made to justify the war.
Lord Hutton has left the impression of an out-of-touch judiciary, a
body appointed through opaque processes from a barrister profession
known for protectionist practices, and where freemasonry runs deep.
Antipathy to the BBC is also ingrained in the unionist establishment
in Northern Ireland because of its alleged republican bias. In short,
it was a bad day for British justice.
The report was also a blow to the BBC, one of Britain's few internationally
regarded institutions. Its chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned and the
board asked director-general, Greg Dyke, to resign. The disaster comes
at a time when the BBC's prerogatives are under fire from assorted political
and commercial interests. But the BBC was far from blameless. The inquiry
showed up a weak, self-serving and politicised management unwilling
to admit that its original report, though substantially true, had itself
been "sexed up".
Such attitudes towards news have been evident for a while. There has
been a dumbing down, the news becoming more parochial in pursuit of
ratings and in an effort to compete with the sensationalism of Britain's
notorious tabloids. Priority has been given not to quality but to, in
the extraordinary words of its latest annual report, "making news
and current affairs more relevant to younger audiences".
The BBC has been headed by highly political people who well reflect
the parochial attitudes of the nation but may not be fit to run a broadcasting
organisation with a global reach and reputation. They seem not to realise
that the global role of the English language puts the BBC in a uniquely
privileged position. Serious foreign reporting has been cut back. Mr
Dyke has been reported as saying that the BBC had too many reporters
overseas. Instead of recognising the pearl for what it is, its leaders
have undermined its reputation at home and abroad with attempts to beat
commercial channels at their own game. Mr Dyke may well have deserved
to lose his job for those attitudes, but not because of the Hutton report.
The lessons for Hong Kong: keep RTHK free of government interference,
which its former head, Cheung Man-yee, now publicly admits she faced.
And keep it free from sexing up stories to compete with the Apple Daily
or de-sexing them to conform with Ta Kung Pao.
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