Kelly and dark media games

If you consider only the bare facts of the Kelly case and disregard the wild presumptions of the media, it is pretty clear in which direction they point.

Dr Kelly’s email to a journalist only hours before his death, with its chilling warning of ‘dark actors playing dark games’, is clearly indicative not of suicide but of murder, and reveals that Kelly was well aware of the danger he was in.

Yet the media interpreted ‘dark actors playing dark games’ as alluding to the threat of depriving the man of his pension or some other punitive measure. This ought to strike us as odd, since ‘dark’ is quite inappropriate as a term to describe disciplinary action, no matter how harsh; it is a term used to denote something that is evil and covert, and it is barely conceivable that the articulate Dr Kelly, whose use of language was so semantically precise, would have used these words in so careless a manner.

Equally strange is the stark fact that, despite the paucity of evidence to support the hypothesis that Kelly had taken his own life, no one suggested it might be anything other than suicide. Right from the start and without exception all of the press and broadcast media implied – even when it did not explicitly state – that Kelly had been so stressed by recent events that he had killed himself. No one pointed out the blindingly obvious: that if you are in fear of your life, you are quite naturally going to be er well, stressed.

And no one ventured to suggest that Kelly might just possibly – have been murdered. That in itself is curious considering the media’s usual appetite for sensationalism. Make no mistake about it, murder and intrigue make good copy! But most extraordinary of all is that even before details of how he had died had been released by the police, the media was doing its best to plant in the public’s mind the idea that Kelly had committed suicide!

Here’s the BBC, for instance. At 19.54 hrs on 18 July after a body matching the description of Dr David Kelly had been found but before police had released details of the manner in which he had died, the BBC News website updated a report which ended with the following quotation from an MP:

He is not used to the media glare, he is not used to the spotlight he has been put under.

It’s a standard technique in manipulative or ‘persuasive’ journalism: the quotation from a figure of authority strategically placed at the end of a piece, ensuring that the reader is left with the intended impression – in this case that Kelly couldn’t handle the stress of being in the public eye and therefore had probably killed himself.

This is what SKY News had to say after Kelly went missing:

’The disappearance of Kelly has raised concern over the way he was treated by MPs…We ask you… [the public]… to say if you think Dr Kelly was put under too much pressure.’

Note how even at this early stage, viewers are being invited to focus their mind on suicide. They are not being asked to say whether they think Dr Kelly knew too much for his own good, or whether there were people who might want to get rid of Kelly. Here’s SKY quoting the Prime Minister, again before the police had released details of slashed wrists:

’Dr Kelly’s death is an absolutely terrible tragedy’

Note the use of the word ‘tragedy’: it is a perfectly apt term to describe a suicide, but quite inappropriate to use in the context of a possible murder.

Here’s what the Edinburgh Evening News had to say on 18 July. This issue went to press after the body had been found but before there was any information released on how Kelly had died.

’Whitehall insiders said the possible suicide of Kelly would make Campbell’s future.’

Of course, it’s only possible ‘suicide’ but why not possible murder?

And this is the Guardian (18 July), even before Kelly’s body had been found, doing its best to imply that Kelly had committed suicide :

“[Recent events] would put personal pressure on him…the man has been treated in a way that is absolutely inexcusable”. ..[and in another report in the same issue]… “Andrew Gilligan will be feeling worried, frightened and pretty sickened by the news that…Dr Kelly may have taken his own life”.

When in due course a post-mortem report declared the cause of death to be ‘haemorrhaging from a wound to the left wrist’, nobody acknowledged that evidence for suicide and evidence for murder made to look like suicide is identical. Nobody pointed out, either, how odd it was that Kelly, a microbiologist who must have been familiar with any number of methods of killing oneself that were both rapid and painless, should have chosen one that guaranteed unnecessary physical suffering and a lingering death. From that point onward, presumption became fact and all media debate centred around why Kelly had committed suicide and who was to blame.

It is a measure of the persuasive power of the media that everyone – with the exception of the few impervious to its influence – now believes that Kelly committed suicide, and they do so despite all evidence to the contrary. What is particularly disturbing is the apparent ease with which a whole nation can be made to believe something so implausible. None of the evidence was hidden; it was all out in the open.

We knew that Kelly’s mood was upbeat and ‘combative’ hours before he died, that he was looking forward to returning to Iraq, that he was waiting ‘until the end of the week’ even before forming an opinion on how his committee appearance had gone, that he was seen smiling as he left for his customary walk (and how in heaven’s name can a man smile just before he kills himself), that he actually chatted for five minutes with a neighbour during his walk, that he had been described by a colleague as mentally tough and a man of principle who had endured years of confrontation and harassment in Iraq, that he was devoted to his wife and family yet left no suicide note …

We knew all this and more, and still thought Kelly killed himself because he couldn’t handle the stress. We believed it against all reason purely and simply because the media persuaded us that he did, all of us except those who could see through their dark linguistic games – those so easily dismissed ad hominem (but not by argument) as ‘conspiracy theorists’.

I do not profess to know the exact nature of the relationship of the British media with the government and Whitehall, though I do understand and can identify the linguistic techniques of persuasion used to ensure that the people of this ‘democratic’ nation of ours do not think thoughts that could be a threat to the dominant order. The press and the broadcast media are free only within certain constraints. The D-notice system ensures that the media do not publish ‘sensitive’ government information and refrain from airing views that might incite civil disobedience or challenge the power of the state; and while it is not legally binding, failure to comply can be costly.

Above and beyond the D-Notice, however, is the absolute authority of the Home Office to circumscribe what material can and cannot be publicised and this extends not only to newspaper and broadcast media but to publishing firms as well. The power of the government over the media and the media over the minds of the people is the most effective way of – in Chomsky’s phrasing – ‘deterring democracy’. That is why, if Kelly was murdered, it will never become public knowledge