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