My friend David, a man betrayed

Alastair Campbell's appearance gripped the Hutton Inquiry yesterday but the victim at the heart of the investigation was failed by the system, insists a Leeds scientist. John Woodcock talks to Professor Alastair Hay, friend and colleague of Dr David Kelly.

It was in Bettys Tea Rooms in Ilkley that Professor Alastair Hay sensed he was about to become involved in another personal tragedy, one which this time had implications far beyond his own feelings.

The gentility of his surroundings was a kind of therapy for a task he'd finally felt able to perform that day. After 10 months of despair that had followed his wife's suicide, Prof Hay had been dealing with the legal implications of her estate and refreshments at Bettys reflected a return to a degree of normality.

Then a message appeared on his mobile phone. It was from a journalist, informing him that his friend, Dr David Kelly, was missing. "I hoped for the best, but feared the worst," is how Professor Hay puts it now.

At 11.17 the previous morning, July 17, he had received what was possibly Kelly's last message to a colleague before he'd left home and, with a precision that had typified an outstanding career, removed his watch and spectacles, and bled to death from wounds to his left wrist. Kelly's e-mail is still on Hay's computer screen at Leeds University, where he is Professor of Environmental Toxicology. It thanks him for a message of support before his interrogation by MPs and others as the alleged source for the BBC's claims that government dossiers over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been "sexed-up" to justify going to war.

Kelly's message concluded: "Hopefully it will soon pass and I get to Baghdad and get on with the real job."

The two men had known each other for eight years through their work. Although he is a specialist in occupational health at Leeds, for which he received an OBE, Hay has long been interested in the politics of science, arms control in particular. He is a world authority on the subject, while Kelly had unique experience through his role as a weapons inspector in the UN team seeking out Iraq's biological and chemical arsenal in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. They disagreed, however, on what to do about Saddam Hussein this time. Hay was one of several academics who viewed a war without clear United Nations support as illegal. Kelly, if not exactly the hawk he has been described as since his death, stated that he was personally sympathetic to military action, though his main concern was Iraq's future rather than present capability.

What, then, drove the scientist to end his own life when only hours earlier he had been anticipating another opportunity to uncover secrets of the Saddam regime?

Professor Hay has greater reason than most to try to understand the torment which drives an individual to self-destruction. Thoughts of suicide – in his darkest moments, even the possibility of his own – have dominated most of his life since the day last September when he found Wendy, his wife of 31 years, hanging in the garage of their home near Otley. She had used a belt and his favourite tie.

A letter containing messages for himself and their 23-year-old son, Tom, who she worshipped, ended "please forgive me". She had been suffering from clinical depression for four years, and had tried to kill herself previously. Yet the librarian had also been making plans. She was to do a PhD, based in the department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, analysing the effects of sanctions on civilian populations. Ironically, Baghdad was a possible destination during her research.

Her death coincided with the Government's publication of its dossier on the case for war. In normal circumstances it would have been a riveting read for the professor. "Because I was involved in a personal tragedy I couldn't have cared less about it," he says. "My world had collapsed. I was numb. Part of you has died with that person you adored. About my last words to Wendy was to tell her how lovely she looked."

In its way, the war, and its tragic implications for Dr. Kelly and his family, has given Hay a diversion from grief. It has restored something of his energy, renewed his focus on issues he believes in passionately.

He and colleagues have regularly briefed the media that it was unlikely Saddam had any Weapons of Mass Destruction.

He admits to being one of those who encouraged Radio 4's Today to challenge the Government's claims. It was Andrew Gilligan's report for the programme, and his allegation that Downing Street's master of spin, Alastair Campbell, had deliberately exaggerated Saddam's threat to the US and Britain – that he had the capacity to deploy such weapons in 45 minutes – which is now central to the Hutton Inquiry into Dr Kelly's death.

Professor Hay could not have foreseen that contacts with Today and other journalists could have led where it did and possibly contributed to his colleague's death.

He has no regrets that he encouraged media scepticism. "It was an important issue because the country had gone to war. There were those of us who felt it was legitimate to explain the background. I never spoke to David Kelly about his concerns, but from what is coming out now he seemed to be more convinced about Iraq's future capability, rather than the situation at that time. He was for the war, but apparently concerned about the 'evidence' the Government had used to make the case for it. It's only speculation on my part, but maybe he'd reached the point where something jarred with his very essence.

"He was driven by a profound respect for the truth. I know from my wife's despair that there are times when an individual gets into a situation they know is going to get worse and worse. Perhaps David felt he was increasingly caught up in something and no longer had any control of the process. I can imagine that he was trying to protect himself, and work out a solution, but was he becoming increasingly entangled in some web of deception?

"Whatever, you can't help feeling that within the system there should have been someone there for David Kelly – a mentor, defender, counsellor – but there was no-one when he needed them."

Hay believes his colleague was being made a scapegoat, and traumatised by the process. As he has put it elsewhere: "...my deep respect for Dr Kelly makes me so angry at the campaign of character assassination being waged by Downing Street. It is bitterly ironic that a Government that saw fit to employ Dr Kelly at the highest level, which trumpeted his expertise and praised his work for the United Nations, should now turn on him so monstrously".

Through insights into his wife's suffering, Hay recognised similar turmoil in Dr Kelly. "When we saw him on TV appearing before the Commons foreign affairs committee his demeanour belied what he was saying. He was giving his usual thoughtful answers but looked extremely uncomfortable, as if he was struggling with some devastating internal conflict.

"David was someone whose instinct was to always tell the truth. The problem is that in the environment he found himself there are all kinds of interpretations. There are those who always want the situation to be black and white. In the end, it comes down to human relations in all their complexities."

Hay feels the system has to provide a better way dealing with such crises, something that includes compassion. What does it say about our way of doing things, he asks, when a brilliant scientist – "a man who knew his bugs and viruses" – survived Iraq's attempts to get rid of him from the UN's weapons inspectorate, but could be destroyed by pressures inflicted by his own side?

john.woodcock@ypn.co.uk