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 mass destruction.

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.






E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles