3 February 2004

Never forget that they lie

Lord Hutton seems unable to grasp a simple truth: all journalism is conducted against a background of official obfuscation and deceit, which does much to explain our blunders and omissions. It seems remarkable not how much journalists get wrong - a great deal - but that we are able to retrieve from the Whitehall swamp fragments of truth, and to present the waterlogged and bedraggled exhibits to readers and listeners.

I say this with regret. I am more instinctively supportive of institutions, less iconoclastic, than most of the people who write for the Guardian, never mind read it. I am a small 'c' conservative, who started out as a newspaper editor 18 years ago much influenced by a remark Robin Day once made to me: 'Even when I am giving politicians a hard time on camera,' he said, 'I try to remember that they are trying to do something very difficult - govern the country.'

The Hutton report is strange. It's been claimed by Blair and (incredibly) the Man of Steel as vindication for their general WMD claims even though Hutton specifically disavows (Paragraph 9) addressing the general WMD claim. Hutton then sets up a legal standard (Paragraph 280) for the media that is higher than the standard he demands of government. The leading case he cites, Reynolds v Irish Newspapers does not, at first reading, appear to support his conclusions.

All of this looks more than faintly silly now that the White House is about to name a commission and the Man of Steel has suddenly gone into fast reverse and started speaking about Australia's war decision as based on the US and UK pre-war intelligence .

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