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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 August, 2003, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Taking leave of their senses?

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter

Tom Kelly
Tom Kelly made the Mitty comment

The government is already burdened by accusations that it is obsessed with the dark arts of spin.

Dr David Kelly's funeral is being held this week. And the inquiry into his death has opened. It will start taking evidence next week.

So it is not surprising then that the government's opponents have jumped on the reference by the prime minister's spokesman to Walter Mitty, James Thurber's daydreaming fantasist, while discussing Dr Kelly with journalists.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, says the comment suggested someone had "taken leave of their senses".

The implication is that this affair shows that New Labour has failed to learn the lessons from previous spin sagas.

After the comments were first reported by the Independent newspaper, the government seemed to be caught on the hop.


First Downing Street distanced itself from the Mitty report. Then it clarified its position by saying that any conversation had not been intended as an official briefing or to reflect the government's view.

It may be that Mr Kelly's 'background' briefing was never intended to receive a wider audience, but to the world outside Westminster, that will be utterly irrelevant

After being named as the source of the comments, Tom Kelly, the government spokesman concerned, eventually apologised to Dr Kelly's family.

Cabinet ministers acknowledge that they are facing their roughest ride in government since the 1997 election triumph.

And the row over Tom Kelly's briefing won't have come as good news to Tony Blair at his holiday retreat in the West Indies.

He's preparing to give evidence to the inquiry which starts next week where the BBC will also appear, continuing to insist their correspondent Andrew Gilligan accurately reported Dr Kelly saying that the government exaggerated the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

On or off the record

Of course, the way Westminster is reported has a part to play in the latest row.

Mr Kelly believed, it seems, that his conversation with journalists was off-the-record and for "background" and would therefore not be reported.

Such non-attributable conversations happen all the time at Westminster.

He appears to have been under the impression that the discussion was part of one setting out the government's view of how the Hutton inquiry into Dr Kelly's death would develop.

The government view is that the comments were not sanctioned by the prime minister and nor were they intended to smear Dr Kelly.

If that is the case, then it seems there has been a misunderstanding about the basis upon which the conversations took place - and as a result the "Walter Mitty" comment appeared in Monday's Independent newspaper.

The Mitty allusion was also made to other reporters from other papers apparently. But they did not report it.


It may be that Mr Kelly's "background" briefing was never intended to receive a wider audience, but to the world outside Westminster, that will be irrelevant.

The world of private briefings and juicy titbits from "senior sources" is part and parcel of political reporting, with the system suiting both politicians and journalists.

But no-one mulling over the Mitty story outside Westminster will be considering whether some arcane rule of political reporting is a factor in this saga.

What many may be thinking is that the government tried to slur a respected scientist less than a month after his death and shortly before his funeral.

Judging by his apology to Dr Kelly's family, Tom Kelly is clearly horrified that his comments are in the public domain.

But he may now be reflecting that with such a sensitive story and both the media and the government central to it, the normal rules of engagement just don't apply.

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