Bringing the House down

Bringing the House down

By Mark Chillingworth

The argument over the documents the British Government used to justify going to war with Iraq, the apparent suicide of an eminent biological weapons expert who disputed the government's claims, and the subsequent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death, brought Tony Blair's government to the brink of collapse. Mark Chillingworth investigates.

Dodgy dossiers", emails and personal diaries, the very documents behind the decision to go to war with Iraq, were placed online for the world to see earlier this year in Great Britain. As the media and government opened itself up to analysis, the Internet provided unique access to records, as part of the Hutton Inquiry.

The Hutton Inquiry was precedent setting in more ways than one. Over 9000 documents that were not intended to see the light of day in public for another 30 years were released on to the Hutton Inquiry website. The inquiry and its website heralded a new way of releasing inquiry evidence and government records into the public domain.

At the end of August, the Guardian newspaper ran a feature questioning the claim that August is a dull month. Traditionally August is quiet month on the news front. Most people are on holiday and there is little to report. This, in turn, has created a phenomenon known as the "silly season" as the newspapers desperately attempt to find interesting stories. But this year, for six weeks, the nation was riveted to the news, with politics taking centre stage.

Lord Hutton's inquiry was set up in response to the sad death of Dr David Kelly; an eminent biological weapons experts. Dr Kelly is believed to have committed suicide after he came into the glare of the public eye following a story by BBC Radio 4 journalist Andrew Gilligan which claimed the Labour government had deliberately "sexed up" claims about the potential of Iraq's armed forces. A government dossier released the previous September had claimed that Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be deployed in 45 minutes.

Gilligan interviewed Dr Kelly in a London hotel, but Dr Kelly remained an anonymous source for the radio story. Following Gilligan's story, a storm broke out between the government and the BBC as to how the BBC were able to question government claims, Dr Kelly's name entered the public domain as a result. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) allegedly leaked his name to the press, with the full approval of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence. The increased public attention disturbed Dr Kelly, including claims by some papers of "being a rat", and public appearances at a Parliamentary Committee. He is believed to have taken his own life whilst out walking in the Oxfordshire countryside, due to suffering from depression brought on by the pressure of life in the public eye.

In response, Lord Hutton's inquiry investigated the circumstances behind Dr Kelly's death. The six week inquiry mushroomed into the largest news event of the summer as the public learned that journalist Andrew Gilligan's version of his meeting with Dr Kelly was not consistent with his report for BBC Radio 4's Today programme. All levels of administration from the Prime Minister Tony Blair to the BBC Board were opened up for analysis. Never before have the major institutions of government and the BBC been under so much scrutiny.

The knives were out between the camps, as battles for the moral high ground raged between the BBC and the government, the intelligence services and Dr Kelly's defence. Ian-Duncan Smith, then leader of the Conservative opposition called for Tony Blair to resign, only to be ousted himself two months later. Jeremy Gompertz QC, representing the Kelly family said there was a "deliberate decision to use Dr Kelly as part of its strategy in its battle with the BBC," on the part of the government. The events even became a play in the heart of London's theatre land, just a stone's throw from the offices of the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

Mike Wicksteed was the Head of External Communications for the inquiry. As a member of the corporate communications team at the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA), Wicksteed is a veteran of major inquiries. His office in central London bears witness to the Bloody Sunday, Omagh bombing, and Rosemary West inquiries he has been involved in. The New Zealander has been in the UK for 13 years. He and his DCA team built and managed the Hutton Inquiry Website as a service to the inquiry.

"We arranged for and built the site and continue to maintain it," he says. The Department is no stranger to creating these sites, having already created the Saville Inquiry website. "The DCA is responsible for administering the inquiry. We are not involved in the substance of the inquiry and have no self interest," he maintains of their role.

The Saville Inquiry, referred to by Wicksteed, was set up to investigate the events of Bloody Sunday, in which British Army soldiers opened fire on civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 30th, 1972, killing 13 civilians.

Despite the DCA's involvement in the Saville Inquiry, Wicksteed says the Hutton Inquiry placed unique pressures on the Department. "It was big and it blew up out of nowhere." Luckily the inquiry came during the traditional summer recess, a time when workloads normally drop and DCA workers "regroup and catch up on things."

Open from the start

From the outset Lord Hutton wanted the inquiry to be fully open, a complete juxtaposition to the issue it was investigating.

"The openness was a result of Lord Hutton," says Wicksteed. "Everything was provided voluntarily at his request; there was no cudgel used."

The inquiry would reveal the shadowy communications involved in the production of government dossiers, the relationships between the intelligence services and experts like Dr Kelly, and the relationships between the government and the BBC, and BBC journalists and Labour spokesperson Alastair Campbell.

Over 9000 records were placed onto the Hutton Inquiry website soon after the members of the inquiry had seen them in the Royal Courts of Justice. Amongst the records was the so called "dodgy dossier." Andrew Gilligan's Radio 4 report, which included quotes from his interviews with Dr Kelly, and claimed that Labour spokesperson Alastair Campbell had "sexed up" the dossier contents in order to make the case for going to war. Also within the records were extracts from Mr Campbell's diary, emails between government ministers, transcriptions of telephone calls and BBC interview tapes.

"The difference between the Hutton and Saville inquiries was the speed that everything was done and this [Hutton] was the quickest something was done from the announcement of the inquiry," said Wicksteed. In the case of Mr Campbell's diary and other government documents, only the pages referred to in the inquiry were placed onto the website.

Documents were scanned at the Royal Courts of Justice and converted as TIF image files and uploaded onto the Website as PDF files. References to individuals were blacked out from the documents.

Transcripts of the inquiry proceedings, including cross-questioning, were uploaded to the site twice daily. Additionally, huge batches of documents presented as evidence were added to the site, including 900 documents on Saturday August 23, 2003, when the "dodgy dossier" was added. "It took 48 hours to prepare all the evidence for publishing on the 23rd of August," Wicksteed reveals. "We refined the process as we went on." The initial website was built in frames, but Wicksteed said it soon became clear that the site would need to be modernised to cope with the increased evidence and traffic. "We got very little notice and its structure evolved and that is the beauty of the web, it can evolve," he said. "All the time we were thinking of our users."

Wicksteed and his team were responsible for the site and management of the inquiry press office, which, as you can imagine, attracted a great deal of attention. Although many members of the press used the website regularly, Wicksteed said the site was not intended as purely an online press room. "We kept the navigation and terminology simple," he says.

"Traffic to the site was very pleasing and it justified the whole concept of making it," says Wicksteed. In August, the Hutton Inquiry website was the most viewed political website in Britain. "You can only guess why they [the public] were so interested," he says. There was also strong international traffic, with Wicksteed reporting that he received many emails from people interested in the inquiry from abroad. As you can see from the box out, traffic to the site was healthy. Sunday August 24, 2003 saw the greatest peak as the DCA uploaded the 900 documents to the site. The world's press awaited access eagerly. Even on the day of our interview, in mid-November, the site had received over 22,000 hits.

A permanent archive

Presently the intention is for the site to remain on the Internet for the long term as an archive to the inquiry, and to allow the public access to the records and lessons to be learnt from the Hutton Inquiry. "It will be there in its own right on our Cable & Wireless servers," Wicksteed said. "The final report will go onto the site as a permanent record and a copy of the site will go to the National Archives."

But as we go to press the DCA's work is not completed. Lord Hutton's report is due sometime towards the end of January and as can be seen by the traffic figures to the Inquiry website, it will be eagerly awaited. The entire report will be uploaded to the site at the time of publishing. "We are in touch with Cable & Wireless to cope with the traffic," Wicksteed says. "It will be a substantial document, but also a lot of people will be trying to access it at the same time."

The Hutton Inquiry website has shown that all government and judicial records can be placed online, instantly. But as Wicksteed points out, there is not a substantial business case for putting every court record onto the Internet for public access, despite their status as public records.

Judging by traffic figures alone, there is a healthy public interest in accessing government records at the time of their relevance, rather than 30 years later. It remains to be seen whether the interest was purely because of the tragedy of Dr Kelly's death, the public's anger at the government for taking Britain into a war with Iraq, or the initial excitement of something new - immediate public access to government records.

The Hutton Inquiry showed that government records can be managed and placed online instantly and that the public will access these sites, rather than relying on the media to interpret the records on their behalf. When Lord Hutton publishes his report, we will see if the ultimate lesson to be learnt is how people who manage sensitive knowledge are treated by employers and the media. Dr Kelly leaves a legacy of strong document and web publish-ing management behind him, but at tragic personal cost.

The last word is to be left to James Dingermans, the counsel to the Inquiry, "Somewhere along the way we lost a summer. I hope we exchange it for understanding."

Note-Lord Hutton's report was due for release at time of going to press.