Conspiracy Theories and the Strange Case of David Kelly

While the Daily Mail is busy trying to persuade us that there was all kinds of skulduggery behind the death of David Kelly, David Aaronovitch (@DAaronovitch) and others are busy trying to persuade us that this is the latest example of a loopy conspiracy theory (I can’t provide a link because David now writes behind the Murdoch paywall - see below – but you can buy his book which devotes a chapter to this issue here.

While David A talks a great deal of sense on conspiracy theories, he does, at times, come dangerously close to using the inductive fallacy and presenting an argument something along the lines of: “all conspiracy theories so far advanced have turned out to be a complete load of bollocks therefore all conspiracy theories are bollocks.”

Of course his actual arguments are more subtle and presented more articulately than that that, but there is more than a whiff of the style of reasoning employed by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian when he argues that because BSE and various flu pandemics turned out to less catastrophic than many had feared, nothing scientists ever warn us about will ever really be dangerous (again I paraphrase slightly).

In fact, conspiracies are commonplace in the legal system – especially when it comes to terrorism. It was conspiracies to pervert the course of justice that resulted in the conviction of both the Angry Brigade and the Birmingham Six. Sadly, in the case of the Birmingham Six, those convicted had not actually committed the crimes for which they were “fitted up”.

It is, it might also be noted, not completely unknown for our security forces to engage in murder and torture – though it is more common for them to outsource such tasks to others; and more common still for them to distance themselves still further, while turning a blind eye to what they know or suspect is going on.

And finally, there are all sorts of strange unanswered questions about Dr Kelly’s death.

So is the Daily Mail right here and has David Aaronovitch got it wrong?

Well of course, there is no way to know for certain, but I think we can usefully apply a bit of rational speculation here:

Real conspiracies in the justice system typically involve a handful of police officers who become convinced that someone or other is guilty (or conversely that one of their own ought not to be found guilty) and set about manufacturing evidence or hiding evidence or lying in order to further their cause. These conspiracies may occasionally involve prosecution lawyers (a bit) but they do not typically involve judges or politicians. If they did, these conspiracies would unravel much more easily than they do. Of course (as in the case of the Birmingham Six) the judges and politicians may realize (or come to strongly suspect) that there has been a miscarriage of justice and attempt to keep a lid on the matter for as long as they can. But such misguided individual attempts to avoid embarrassment and avoid bringing the legal system into disrepute hardly constitute being part of a conspiracy.

Such considerations are, I submit, something to bear in mind when considering the Kelly case.

Kelly may not have died from haemorrhage alone (of course he may have died as the result of other actions he took to try and end his own life and/or from coincidental natural causes); it may have been a mistake to halt his inquest and hand the matter over to the Hutton inquiry; there may be a number of anomalies about his case that were not properly addressed at the Hutton inquiry; but to suggest that the security services and Blair’s government and the police and the coroner’s office and Hutton were all part of some baroque plot - to murder Kelly, make it look like suicide, and nobble subsequent inquiries in order to cover all this up - is simply bonkers.

I can’t establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the murder theory is wrong of course. Only more evidence and empirical investigation might be able to do that. But the murder theory is a bit like the alien space craft theory used to explain UFOs, it raises a hundred times as many difficult questions as it purports to answer.

I therefore make the following bold conjecture: When it come to the Kelly case. David Aaronovitch has got it right and the Daily Mail is talking twaddle. If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my tin-foil hat.

PS David Aaronovitch article now available here


  1. I think you mean Simon Jenkins.

  2. Indeed I did - now fixed. Thanks also to Anthony Cox (@coxar) for pointing this out.


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