Choose format 

Related topics

Kelly: the death of a scientist

Hutton: when the lights came on

The Kelly affair and the Hutton inquiry

Our common inhumanity: anti-semitism and history

Israel, Palestine and the tiger of terrorism: anti-semitism and history 

Life in the death camp

A brief history of blasphemy

Liberalism's holy war

Reconsidering the Rushdie affair

The dark mirror of Islam

The politics of the body

Was Hitler a racist?

Policing racism 

Imaginary homelands




David Kelly: the rise of a conspiracy theory


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24 August 2010, This revised and expanded edition was completed on 14 September and first published on 23 October 2010.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

IF THE RESULTS OF OPINION polls are to be trusted, the proportion of people in the United Kingdom who believe that the biological warfare expert David Kelly committed suicide declined significantly between February 2007 and August 2010.

Dr Kelly was 59 when he was found dead in woods near his Oxfordshire home in July 2003. Three days earlier he had been questioned by MPs at a hearing of the Foreign Affairs select committee, after having been revealed as the source behind a BBC report claiming that the government had ‘sexed up’ its dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. When his body was found many believed that he had been driven to suicide by the manner in which his name had been leaked to the press and by the pressure he had subsequently been put under. Others, however, believed he had been murdered by government agents or by persons unknown.

One of the reasons the Hutton Inquiry was set up in 2003 was to settle this question once and for all. Indeed the government ruled that the inquiry would actually take the place of a full inquest. If government’s purpose was to put a stop to conspiracy theories, however, it failed.

In February 2007, when BBC2 broadcast a programme about Dr Kelly in their series The Conspiracy Files, the programme commissioned an opinion poll to establish how the public viewed his death. Even at this stage only 40% of those questioned believed that he had killed himself. When, in August 2010, the Daily Mail commissioned a similar poll, the percentage who believed Kelly committed suicide had fallen from 40% to 20%. On Monday 16 August the Mail carried a banner headline on its front page in which this finding was loudly proclaimed: ‘ Dr Kelly: Just one in five believes it was suicide as medical report calls official verdict “impossible”.’

Dark actors

The apparent decline in the number of those who accept the official verdict on Dr Kelly’s death should not be surprising. This is because, over the past seven years, propagating the belief that Dr Kelly was murdered, or might have been murdered, has become for some people the equivalent of a religious crusade. The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker held this belief so fervently that he that he resigned from his post of shadow environment secretary in order to research a book. This was serialised in the Daily Mail in October 2007 under the headline ‘Why I know weapons expert Dr David Kelly was murdered, by the MP who spent a year investigating his death.’

Rowena Thursby

Norman Baker is a relatively recent recruit to the cause. A more established figure is Rowena Thursby, a former publishing executive and lucid internet campaigner. Thursby has suggested that ‘dark actors’ were involved in Dr Kelly’s death and that this ‘may have been murder made to look like suicide. For seven years now, as the leading presence in something she calls ‘The Kelly Investigation Group’, she appears to have dedicated her life to persuading others that a full inquest into Dr Kelly’s death should be held. She helped to co-ordinate a group of doctors who put their names to letters which have been published prominently in reputable newspapers (including the Guardian). These letters, signed by physicians who have specialist knowledge of their own fields, but none of whom are forensic pathologists, have persuaded many to doubt the conclusion of the Hutton inquiry that Dr Kelly committed suicide.

As such doubts have become respectable, more physicians have been recruited to the cause. Last week the Daily Mail reported that ‘nine top doctors’, eight of whom had not expressed their views in public before, had written to ministers to urge that it was ‘unlikely the weapons inspector could have bled to death in the way the authorities claim’. Soon after this development the Daily Mirror,
which has in the past enjoyed a reputation for combining populism with good sense, effectively joined the Mail’s campaign. It did so by publishing under a front page photograph of Dr Kelly, the banner headline ‘No more lies’.

Meanwhile the doctor who is perhaps the most important of the all the physicans associated with the Kelly Investigation Group has publicly endorsed the view that dark powers were involved in Kelly’s death. David Halpin, a retired consultant in orthopaedic and trauma surgery at Torbay Hospital, has gone on record as saying: ‘We reject haemorrhage as the cause of death and see no contrary opinion which would stand its ground. I think it is highly likely he was assassinated.’ More recently still the former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard, has aligned himself with calls for an inquest.

The power of conspiracy theories

One possible reaction to these calls is simply to dismiss them. This was the course taken by John Rentoul in his blog on the Independent’s website on Friday 20 August. Rentoul writes that ‘The Mail’s deranged campaign’ has dragged in ‘all sorts of politicians and journalists who ought to know better.’ He goes on to describe Michael Howard as having joined ‘the bananas brigade’ and ends his column with the words ‘Roll on September’. The problem with this view, with its implicit suggestion that what has been happening is merely an eruption of ‘silly season’ madness, is that it trivialises the issue in a manner which is unhelpful. The Daily Mail’s championing of the cause has not emerged suddenly this August. The newspaper has been acting as the unofficial mouthpiece of the campaign which Rowena Thursby has led for some years now. Nor is it the case that those calling for an inquest, or even those who explicitly back the conspiracy theory by claiming that Kelly was murdered, are, on any ordinary definition of the word, ‘deranged’.

To place the current problem in perspective, it is perhaps worth recalling that one of the oldest and most popular conspiracy theories of them all continued to fascinate its adherents for a great deal longer than the month of August, and appealed to countless people who were very far from being insane. This was the theory which maintained that the world was in thrall to a plot headed by Satan, who was supposed to be the dark power behind all manifestations of death, disease and sin. This theory retained a vast number of highly intelligent believers deep into the twentieth century, one of whom was C. S. Lewis. Those who do not recognise the description of Christianity which is offered here have failed to read the New Testament as carefully as Lewis himself undoubtedly did.

The reason I call attention to the fact that traditional Christianity (as opposed to the pale and bloodless version of the faith embraced by most modern Christians) is a conspiracy theory is that it may help us to understand that good conspiracy theories resemble religions in all kinds of significant ways. As well as encouraging belief in the existence of a dark enemy, they often sustain a world-view which involves a battle between this enemy and the forces of light with which believers align themsleves. In order to sustain their world-view in the face of disconfirmatory evidence, conspiracy theorists are sometimes obliged to offer highly ingenious explanations of certain events — explanations which fly in the face of most of the available evidence. Because of the counter-factual nature of their enterprise, such theorists have a tendency to misrepresent, misreport or simply conceal the evidence which actually exists. What is perhaps no less important is that the most ardent conspiracy-theorists, like many religious believers, are usually highly intelligent. This means that they tend to be at least obliquely or intermittently aware that their favoured explanation is unlikely, implausible or absurd.

It is the uncertainty of the most fervent believers which is the engine of their faith. Although some people might describe a church as a group of people who are united by a strong belief, a church can be, and very often is, a group of people who are united principally by their inner doubts. In order to preserve beliefs which, because they are not founded on any solid, visible facts, are inherently fragile, they seek the reassurance of outward fellowship as a substitute for the evidence that they lack. Not only this but they sometimes labour to persuade others to embrace their beliefs in an attempt to conceal from themselves their own lack of certainty. Converting unbelievers can become a psychological compulsion because it is in practice the only way of sustaining a faith which is in reality empty or false.

Setting the cause alight

Of all the people associated with the campaign for a full inquest into Dr Kelly’s death, it is perhaps David Halpin, the 70-year-old retired West country surgeon, who has done most to propel the issue to its current prominence. An engaging and eloquent speaker, who is an active supporter of the Palestinian people and a passionate opponent of the invasion of Iraq, Halpin has a charismatic presence and a world-view which is utterly coherent. He recalls that his passion to help others was ignited, at the age of 13, when he encountered the teachings of Albert Schweitzer and adopted Schweitzer’s principle of ‘reverence for all life’ as the basis for his conduct.

David Halpin at the Totnes Truth Festival. Click on image for BBC5TV's internet video and note that BBC5TV is a broadcasting collective and not related to the BBC

A deeply compassionate man and a tireless campaigner for those he sees as victims or underdogs, Halpin was made the subject of a Guardian profile in January 2003. This was because he had recently chartered a Brixham trawler and was about to sail it 3,000 miles to deliver supplies and medical equipment to the one million Palestinians living in Gaza.

Later that same year, after his return from Gaza, he became the first medical professional publicly to question the Hutton Inquiry’s suicide verdict. As somebody who believes that most newspapers and broadcasters are intent on concealing the truth from the public, he did this in the Morning Star, which he has described as ‘truth amidst the capitalist and imperial mire’. In a letter to the paper which was published in December 2003 he suggested that Dr Kelly could not have died fr
om cuts to his wrist:

As a past trauma and orthopaedic surgeon I cannot easily accept that even the deepest cut into one wrist would cause such exsanguination that death resulted. The two arteries are of matchstick size and would have quickly shut down and clotted.

A copy of this letter was brought to the attention of Rowena Thursby, who at this point had posted two article on the internet suggesting that Kelly may have been murdered. She had already received an email from Dr Searle Sennett, a specialist in anaesthesiology from Johannesburg. He had declared himself ‘quite satisfied that cutting the ulnar artery in the manner described could not have been fatal’ and went on to write that Kelly was ‘clearly murdered in some other manner’. He then described a method which involved a volatile anaesthetic agent and asphyxiation with a plastic bag. Thursby recalls, however, that it was only when she received a copy of David Halpin’s letter that ‘things were set alight’.

When she contacted Halpin he joined forces with her and Sennett. A third physician, radiologist C. Stephen Frost, also got in touch. With Thursby acting as their co-ordinator, the three submitted a letter to the Guardian in which they reiterated Halpin’s point about the ulnar artery. The letter, which gave Thursby’s email address as a contact point, was published on 27 January 2004, on the eve of the publication of the Hutton report. It created a media storm, which included a story in the Evening Standard headlined ‘Was Dr Kelly murdered?’.

In response to this wave of publicity three other physicans, including the epidemiologist Dr Andrew Rouse, contacted Thursby and lent their support to the cause. Focusing on the cuts to Dr Kelly’s wrist, and the alleged non-lethal nature of such wounds, these physicians have since campaigned unceasingly for a full inquest. In 2009 the same six doctors launched a legal action in an attempt to force the government to hold a full inquest.

A ‘psychopathic mafia’

While Halpin’s argument about arteries has been prominent throughout, what has not been generally visible is the unusual world-view which prompted him to take up the issue in the first place. Although his medical colleagues almost certainly do not share his beliefs (and may not even be aware of them), Halpin himself appears to see the call for a full inquest as part of a greater struggle. This is because he regards much of recent Western history as being shaped by powerful forces of which Zionism is the most important. In his view we are pitted against ‘a psychopathic international mafia of the most massive proportions’. He concedes that ‘this is not all to do with Jewish Zionism’ and that it is ‘partly to do with corporate power’ and capital.

He also assigns a very large role to the ‘Christian Zionists’ he sees as the dominant force in American and British politics and in the media. He describes the present Archbishop of Canterbury as a Christian Zionist and refers to the BBC as the ZBC, because of what he sees as its pro-Zionist bias. He once wrote to the editors of the Morning Star to complain that ‘apologists for Zionists and their acts upon this earth should not be given space in a truthful paper.’

Since Halpin’s world-view appears to depend for its coherence on dividing the world into the powers of darkness — Zionism and corporate capitalism— and the powers of light, which necessarily include Palestine and the Arab world, some aspects of modern history are subject to re-interpretation. It is Halpin’s view that Barack Obama, by continuing the occupation of Iraq and by sending more troops to Afghanistan, has demonstrated that ‘his policies are as bloody as the previous incumbent’. While some right-wing Republicans disseminate the view that the president is a secret Muslim, Halpin adopts a contrary position. He says that Obama, who has ‘all the neurolinguistic skills of Hitler’, was ‘chosen early by the Zionists to be a future leader’ and was funded by Zionists in his presidential campaign.

Perhaps even more remarkably, he expresses on his website his strong belief that both 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings were ‘false flag operations’, a term which has frequently been used by those who allege Zionist involvement in (or instigation of) these acts of terrorism.

Halpin’s deep interest in the death of Dr. Kelly appears to be part of the same world-view, and was expressed in a talk given in May 2010 to the Totnes Truth Festival (and filmed for the internet by the conspiracy-minded broadcasting collective which calls itself BBC5TV.). The talk was entitled ‘Zionism, David Kelly and the BBC’, three subjects which, he says, ‘occupy a continuum’. Although he does not go into any detail in this talk about who he believes to be responsible for Dr Kelly’s death, he clearly states his view that Kelly was murdered. He apparently believes that his assassins belonged to some section of the ‘psychopathic international mafia’ of which Zionism is a part.

A modern prophet

One of the most remarkable dimensions of David Halpin’s world-view is its resemblance to that of some traditional religious prophets. Like such prophets he evidently believes that he has a duty to stand up for truth against an establishment which is deeply corrupt. Like Martin Luther, who was passionately convinced that the Jewish people were the children of the Devil and the enemies of Christendom, he sees Zionism as a dark conspiracy in which the Western world and much of the Middle East is enmeshed.

Like Luther and many other traditional prophets he also believes that the forces of light, with which he aligns himself, will ultimately triumph over the forces of darkness. This is not, however, because Zionism and ‘the Zionist entity’ (which is how Halpin sometimes refers to the state of Israel), will be destroyed by military power. Indeed he takes issue with those who attribute to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the desire to see Israel ‘obliterated’ or ‘wiped off the map’. He takes the view (which has some scholarly backing), that this is a mistranslation of the Farsi: ‘He did not speak about obliterating Israel, the Zionist empire. He said that it would die. And so it will. All things which have an evil basis — and it has an evil basis because of its exclusivity — these things that have an evil basis do die. There’s no question about that.’

If the core beliefs of David Halpin were more widely known, it is unlikely that his views on the death of Dr Kelly would have been given wide currency. However, his larger views were effectively edited out of the campaign at an early stage. Indeed, when Halpin himself was interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme in March 2004, few who listened would have suspected that he was an anything other than an incarnation of

moderation and sound judgment. It is no doubt because of this appearance of moderation that so many of his fellow medical professionals have rallied to the cause. Because the Guardian chose to publish their letters and because their campaign was subsequently taken up by the Daily Mail, countless thousands of new converts have been made to a conspiracy theory which some or most of the doctors involved do not even subscribe to.

Since one of the factors which drives the most zealous kind of conspiracy theorist is their intelligence and a seemingly immoderate love of lucid, coherent explanations, attempts to dismiss their concerns out of hand are likely only to feed their zeal. Conspiracy theories always thrive on the poverty of alternative explanations for the anomalies they highlight. Whether or not a full inquest is now necessary, a fuller and clearer explanation of the medical and other circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death undoubtedly is.

Arteries and overdoses

Given the particular role the Mail has chosen to play it should not be surprising that its presentation of the case has been one-sided. Its recent front-page headline, announcing that only one in five of those it surveyed believed Dr Kelly’s death was suicide, is a case in point. What the headline conveniently obscured is the fact that 56% of those who responded weren’t sure what they thought and that the number of those who believed the biological warfare expert had been murdered (24%) only narrowly exceeded the number of those who accepted the suicide verdict (20%). Much more importantly, those who read the story which followed would have gained the impression that the sole reason given by pathologists for Dr Kelly’s death was the ‘finding that Dr Kelly died from loss of blood after cutting a small artery in his wrist’.

Again and again the physicians who, knowingly or unknowingly, have been led into the conspiracy lobby by Rowena Thursby and David Halpin, have focused attention on this aspect of the pathologists’ findings, and on the Hutton Inquiry’s view that the severing of the ulnar artery in Kelly’s left wrist was the primary cause of death. Again and again these physicians have argued that severing the ulnar artery (which, following Halpin, they have described as ‘matchstick-thin’) is unlikely to lead to the kind of blood loss which would occasion death. One of the reasons for this, they have argued, is that the artery is so small that it ‘would have retracted on being severed and within a short time blood loss would be expected to have ceased.’

This claim was made once again when a different group of six physicians, some of whom had also been in contact with Rowena Thursby, wrote to the Times on 13 August 2010. Their letter was was widely reported. What received much less attention was the reply from the specialist hand surgeon L. C. Bainbridge, which the Times published four days later. After noting that none of the signatories to the earlier letter appeared to have any recent experience in this specialist area, and that they had made a number of mistakes, Bainbridge wrote as follows:

The ulnar artery is not a minor artery, but the main artery supplying the hand and is substantially bigger than a matchstick. While it is true that most cleanly cut and transected arteries will retract, constrict and close themselves off to minimise blood loss, this is not always the case. Several situations can lead to continuing blood loss. There are two which are relevant here. The first is age, where even a small amount of hardening of the arteries can be sufficient to prevent enough constriction to stop the bleeding. Second, where there have been several attempts to cut the artery, leaving a completely cut but ragged end, again the artery will often fail to constrict and bleeding will continue.

Dr Nicholas Hunt, the pathologist who had conducted the post mortem, clearly indicated in his evidence to the Hutton Inquiry not only that Dr Kelly had made numerous cuts to his wrist but that he also suffered from ‘ a significant degree of coronary artery disease’ – in other words hardening of the arteries. In view of this the main argument advanced originally by David Halpin and subsequently repeated by others would appear to carry less weight than has generally been assumed.

What is even more important is that the manner in which the campaigning physicians have presented their case has obscured or eclipsed a crucial piece of evidence about which the recent Daily Mail front page story is itself completely silent. As well as concluding that Dr Kelly had slashed his wrist with a knife, Dr Hunt also found that Kelly had taken an overdose of co-proxamol and that this overdose contributed to his death.

Co-proxamol, which had been prescribed to relieve Dr Kelly’s wife’s arthritic pain, is a painkiller which has been used so frequently and so effectively to commit suicide that in 2007 it was withdrawn from use in the United Kingdom. Although the fact has, I think, never been noted before, it was only two months before Dr Kelly’s death that the British Medical Journal published a paper, Co-proxamol and suicide (in the issue dated 10 May 2003) about the dangers of the drug. It began by observing that ‘Fatal overdoses due to co-proxamol are the second most frequent means of suicide with prescribed drugs in England and Wales.’ The paper, whose leading author was the Oxford psychiatrist Keith Hawton, concluded that the odds of dying after a deliberate overdose of co-proxamol were 28 times greater than would be the case with paracetamol. It noted that ‘ Death can result from an overdose with relatively few tablets’ (a figure of 10 tablets as a possible lethal overdose appears elsewhere in the literature) and concluded that ‘Restricting availability of co-proxamol could have an important role in suicide prevention’.

In this connection we may note a point made by the epidemiologist Dr Andrew Rouse (the fourth of Rowena Thursby’s campaigining physicans). The original, unpublished version of his note ‘Hutton, Kelly and the missing epidemiology’, which eventually appeared in the BMJ, apparently contained the following passage:

We must also remember that Dr Kelly was a first rate researcher. As such, before making a suicide attempt, he would surely have done an internet or library search into the success of various suicide methods. He would have learnt that — since it invariably fails — wrist slashing is not a recommended suicide method. Therefore why would Dr Kelly slash his wrist in the first place and, against all odds, actually die?

In fact, had Dr Kelly performed such a search he would almost certainly have found Professor Hawton’s paper, from which he would have discovered that taking an overdose of co-proxamol was a very successful method of committing suicide. In practice he may not have needed to perform the search. For it seems entirely possible that, as an expert on biological warfare, Kelly had either read this article in the BMJ at the time it appeared, or noticed press reports which referred to it.

Whether or not this was the case, it is an undisputed fact that, after his body was discovered, three blister packs of co-proxamol, each designed to hold ten tablets, were found in the pocket of his jacket. Only one tablet remained in these packets, so the inference may reasonably be drawn that Dr Kelly had probably swallowed at least 20, and possibly 29 tablets. This would be twice or three times the lowest lethal dose which has been reported in cases of suicide by co-proxamol overdose.

A lapse of logic?

In view of this, one of the most surprising conclusions of the Hutton inquiry (and of Dr Nicholas Hunt, the pathologist who examined Dr Kelly’s body and conducted the post mortem examination) was that an overdose of co-proxamol, although acknowledged as a factor in Dr Kelly’s death, was seen only as a secondary cause. A relatively inefficient method of committing suicide – severing the ulnar artery – was thus subordinated to a relatively efficient method – taking an overdose of co-proxamol. The reason for this is to be found in the manner in which the toxicologial findings made in relation to samples of blood and stomach contents taken from Dr Kelly’s body were interpreted.

The forensic toxicogist who examined these samples was Alexander Allan. It was his view that the concentrations found in the samples ‘clearly represent an overdose. But they are somewhat lower than what I would normally expect to encounter in cases of death due to an overdose of co-proxamol.’ From Allan’s evidence to the Hutton Inquiry it would appear that he reached this conclusion by comparing the figure for the concentration of the drug found in Dr Kelly’s body with the average concentration found in a series of fatal overdose cases. This in itself seems a curious comparison since the case of Dr Kelly was individual and specific. The task in hand was not to establish whether he conformed to any average. A more logical step would have been to compare the concentration found in Dr Kelly’s blood with the lowest concentrations found in a series of lethal cases. This would have led to a quite different conclusion.

A similar point has been made by Alastair Hay, Professor of Toxicology at Leeds University, who was a friend of Dr Kelly:

I think it would have helped if he had said that if you look at deaths involving co-proxamol that there is a range of concentrations that you will find in people. Ranging from about a quarter of the value that was found in David to, in the case of the one drug, propoxyphene, almost forty times as much as in David. And so you’ve got that range and David would sit in that range, albeit at the lower end. But it would still give you a measure of reassurance that this sort of level is what you would find in people who have committed suicide.

Professor Robert Forrest, Britain’s foremost expert in forensic toxicology and a former President of the Forensic Science Society has taken this kind of analysis further. When he was interviewed by the BBC2 series ‘The Conspiracy Files’, he said this:

The concentrations in Dr Kelly’s blood are on the low side. We normally see higher concentrations than that in a person who has died of an overdose of co-proxamol. But if you’ve got heart disease – and if there is something else going on like blood loss, then all three of those are going to act together. The overdose of co-proxamol, the heart disease and the blood loss.

I’ve got no doubt that the cause of Dr Kelly’s death was a combination of blood loss, heart disease and overdose of co-proxamol. Not necessarily in that order. If I was going to put it in order I’d put the overdose of co-proxamol first. But it’s important that all of them had interacted to lead to the death.

This view has been supplemented or echoed by other specialists in the field. In an article published in the immediate aftermath of the Daily Mail’s front-page story on Monday 16 August 2010, the Guardian was able to find no fewer than four forensic pathologists who all supported the conclusion that Dr Kelly had committed suicide, and who rejected the opinions of the Mail’s campaigning doctors as ‘ based on partial knowledge or misconceptions’.

The more carefully the medical evidence and the opinions of specialist pathologists are studied, the more clear it becomes that, although there were indeed shortcomings in the way the Hutton Inquiry dealt with the medical evidence, these are almost the exact opposite of those suggested by the conspiracy theorists. The problem with the Hutton Inquiry was not that it concealed or ignored evidence which suggested Dr Kelly had been murdered. The problem was that it failed to present logically, effectively, or persuasively the overwhelming medical evidence which indicated that Dr Kelly had committed suicide.

The final phone calls

It is not only the medical evidence which points to this conclusion. Dr Kelly’s own conduct and the circumstances in which he found himself in the days leading up to his death support this view. As soon as he was named as the source for Andrew Gilligan’s BBC story that the government had ‘sexed up’ its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Kelly found himself under immense pressure. In the days which immediately followed his death he was described repeatedly as a man of honour and integrity. He himself, however, must have known that the reality of his actions in the last days of his life did not live up to this description. Two days before his death he had been questioned by MPs at a hearing of the Foreign Affairs select committee. During this hearing he was in effect cornered by those putting questions to him and gave a number of answers which are now known to be untrue.

The most serious question put to him concerned his contact with Susan Watts, a journalist reporting for BBC2’s Newsnight. He had, in fact, made to her a number of criticisms of the government which were similar to those reported by Gilligan. She had told her editor that Kelly was the source of these criticisms. Somehow it would appear that this news had reached Andrew Gilligan, whose reputation as an accurate reporter the government was seeking to destroy. Since the contents of Kelly’s interview with Watts might be seen to vindicate Gilligan, he succumbed to the temptation to do something he has subsequently said he regretted. As Nick Cohen has noted in the Observer, Gilligan sent an email (indirectly) to David Chidgey, a Liberal Democrat on the foreign affairs committee, telling him that Kelly was the source for Susan Watts’s report on Newsnight. (For letters to the Observer from Gilligan and Geoff Hoon about Cohen’s recent article, click here; see also readers’ comments here.)

When Chidgey read out a quotation from Watts’s report at the select committee hearing and asked Kelly if he was the source, he looked uncomfortable and said he did not recognise the words. Another member of the committee then read out the quotation again. After another evasive reply Kelly became more direct. In an evident attempt to salvage the career he loved, he denied that he was the source of the quotation. In short he lied.

After the hearing he was, as he said, ‘put through the wringer’ by the Ministry of Defence and subjected to questioning he described as ‘brutal’. He was clearly threatened with the loss of his job and may have been threatened with prosecution as well. The journalist Tom Mangold, who describes himself as a friend of Kelly, has noted that Kelly had already received a warning from his boss at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Richard Hatfield:

Kelly had reassured his Whitehall bosses that he had not spoken widely to journalists. After this assurance, Sir Richard gave Kelly a direct warning, twice, that disciplinary action would be taken if facts came to light that ‘appeared to call into question the account and assurances you gave me’.

Given what Kelly himself knew about his extensive contact with Susan Watts and the fact that he had lied about this to a parliamentary committee, he cannot but have feared that the truth would eventually emerge. This fear, added to the shame he would almost certainly have felt about his act of deception, could in itself have begun to undermine his self-esteem. When fear and shame of this kind are compounded by the unimaginable stress placed on any public servant who finds themselves under the kind of pressure Kelly was subjected to during the final days of his life, even the most level-headed person might be driven to contemplate the possibility of suicide.

In a further article which appeared in August 2010, Mangold notes that during the early part of the morning of Kelly’s last day, he seemed to be in reasonable spirits, or at least to be contemplating his future in positive terms. But in the course of the morning he received several telephone calls from Wing Commander John Clark who had become his MoD minder.

Some of the calls were routine, in connection with forthcoming parliamentary private questions about Kelly's journalistic contacts.

However, late in the morning, according to his wife, Kelly suddenly became withdrawn, silent, and thoughtful. With her keen sense of his unspoken moods, she felt so ill at the change that she went upstairs to throw up and then lie down. ‘I was physically sick because he looked so desperate ... I think he had a broken heart.’

Mangold goes on to advance a theory which he first set out in an interview with the Today programme in January 2004 on the publication of the Hutton Report. He speculates that Kelly’s change of mood came about

because he had learned that ‘the Susan Watts affair would shortly reveal him to have lied because the BBC had a tape recording of his conversation with Susan Watts.’ Mangold himself stresses that this is only a theory. Unless he is privy to facts he has not disclosed, it would seem to be one in which the ratio of conjecture to evidence is uncomfortably high. But what we know for sure is that the last time that Wing Commander Clark spoke to Kelly was at 2.53pm. As Mangold puts it:

Susan Watts’s name came up. It was a significant discussion, for a decision had just been taken by the MoD on how to define Kelly's relationship with Watts, for the purposes of the formal replies to the parliamentary questions about Kelly's contacts with reporters. Her name, he was informed, was to be transferred from his list of generic or occasional contacts to more specific and detailed contacts.

This news in itself could have been the decisive factor since Kelly had clearly told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he had met Susan Watts only once. Only under pressure did he admit that he had also spoken to her on the phone on several occasions.

Whatever the content of Clark’s final conversation with Kelly, we know that Clark attempted to contact him again. At around 3.20pm he phoned but found himself speaking to Dr Kelly’s wife, who said that her husband had left the house at 3pm to go for a walk. When Clark rang Dr Kelly’s mobile, he found that it had been switched off. He told the Hutton inquiry that he was very surprised by this since Kelly took pride in the fact that he was always contactable and took his mobile phone with him everywhere.

During the next two hours Clark, who perhaps knew better than anyone the kind of pressure Kelly was under, phoned him every 15 minutes, making seven or eight separate calls. On every occasion he found that Dr Kelly’s mobile phone was switched off. Although Clark had left a message with Janice Kelly, asking her to tell her husband to ring him as soon as he returned, he heard nothing further. It only became clear much later that when Dr Kelly had set off on what was to be his final walk, he had been carrying one of his favourite knives in his pocket and that he had also taken with him three packs of his wife’s co-proxamol.

A full inquest or a campaign of information?

Partly because of their knowledge of these circumstances, most well-informed commentators on the case of David Kelly have continued to accept Hutton’s conclusion that the government weapons inspector committed suicide. Andrew Gilligan, the journalist whose story for the BBC Today programme initiated the entire Kelly affair, recently re-iterated this view. In an article headlined ‘David Kelly was not murdered’ published after the Daily Mail’s latest burst of campaigning, Gilligan wrote that the finding of suicide ‘was one of the few things which Lord Hutton – probably – got right’.

But, precisely because of the effectiveness and evangelical zeal with which Rowena Thursby, David Halpin, Norman Baker MP and the Daily Mail have conducted their campaign, and because of the role played by misguided doctors who have lent their support, disquiet and confusion about the circumstances in which Dr Kelly met his death is now widespread.

A number of newspapers, including the Guardian, have already argued that a full inquest into Dr Kelly’s death should now be held — or rather, to quote the Guardian’s words precisely, that an inquest should be ‘sympathetically considered’ . If it were possible to conduct such an inquest briefly, over the span of a few days and in a manner which focused entirely on the medical evidence, this solution might be a good one. The Daily Telegraph, however, has already looked forward to the prospect of ‘Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and other senior Labour figures’ being questioned in public once again. The danger is that any inquest would become a long-running legal circus, providing an arena in which politicians, conspiracy theorists, and physicians who are not pathologists would be invited to perform at huge public expense.

A more imaginative and more economical solution, appropriate to these straitened times, would be for a campaign of disinformation to be met by a campaign of information. The climate in which it has become acceptable to advance implausible and sometimes bizarre theories about the death of Dr Kelly is one which has been created, very largely, by irresponsible journalism. That climate could very easily be reversed if a concerted effort was made by newspaper editors and broadcasters to replace one-sided campaigning with informed debate.

The BBC, to its credit, has already produced an excellent documentary on the subject as part of its series The Conspiracy Files. The programme on David Kelly, which was produced by Marc Sigsworth, and was originally shown in February 2007, was perhaps too anxious to achieve ‘balance’ but it did shed a great deal of light on the case. The coverage given to the story recently by the Independent has also been good. As well as publishing Tom Mangold’s piece, ‘Shame made David Kelly kill himself’, it also published an excellent piece on the medical evidence by Paul Vallely, The Kelly Affair: Anatomy of a conspiracy theory’.

It is perhaps time for other editors to follow this lead and to go even further in documenting the affair. Newspapers have long been in a position where they exercise great power, perhaps even more power, collectively, than the government. With great power comes responsibility. Rather than relying on governments to fund fallible inquiries at vast public expense, editors should exercise this responsibility. The David Kelly affair could then be treated with concerted intelligence in a manner which finally exiles baseless conspiracy theories to the fringes of the internet where they belong.


23 October: Thanks largely to Arts & Letters Daily, the original version of this article had received 20, 212 visits when it was updated on 23 October 2010.


RICHARD WEBSTER is the author of Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin Science and Psychoanalysis. His most recent book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize.


Richard Webster, 2010