Sunday, 17 April 2011

The death of David Kelly - the relevance of the "misinformation effect"

The use of a single word in a question can alter the mental picture that witnesses of an event build up in their mind.

The classical scenario which demonstrated the "misinformation effect" was the experiment conducted by Elizabeth Loftus using a simulated car crash. If the word "smashed" was used in the question about vehicle speed rather than the word "hit" it resulted in witnesses testifying that the speed they had (supposedly) observed was higher. Further, a week later the "smashed" witnesses more often reported having seen broken glass (there was none in the simulated accident). See Misinformation Effect, for a brief summary of the effect.

It seems to me that the "mininformation effect" needs carefully to be thought about in the context of the death of David Kelly.

The media was full of the word "suicide", including using the word at times when the identity of the body was unconfirmed and when the cause of death was unknown.

On the morning of 18th July someone (we currently don't know who) was spreading the story that David Kelly had committed suicide.

Possibly the earliest appearance of the suicide story on 18th July 2003 is a little after 10.00 on 18th July 2003, as here on pages 92 and 93 of the evidence of Sarah Pape on the morning of 1st September 2003:

23 Between operations I went back to my office and
24 checked to see whether there were messages on my mobile
25 phone and I picked up a message from Janice, my

1 sister-in-law, shortly before 10 o'clock and the message
2 that she left was to say that there was going to be
3 a press release and that I might hear something about my
4 brother having disappeared, but I knew that already so
5 I was not too concerned.
6 I returned to my office between the next two
7 operations, which would have been some time after
8 10 o'clock, and there was a message from my husband
9 asking me to ring home. I initially thought he was just
10 going to give me the same information, that the press
11 would by now know. In fact when I rang him he told me
12 that the police had found my brother's body and that it
13 looked as though he had committed suicide.

"It looked as though he had committed suicide."

At, let's say, 10.30 on 18th July 2003 nobody with any professional expertise knew how David Kelly had died.

Dr. Hunt, the pathologist, didn't arrive at Harrowdown Hill until shortly after 12 noon and didn't begin his examination of the body for another 2 hours or so.

It seems to me that on the morning of 18th July 2003 someone may have been deliberately spreading the misinformation that David Kelly had comitted suicide.

Who had the motive to do so?

At the risk of stating the obvious, the hypothetical murderer(s) had a huge incentive to spread the suicide story.

How much did the incessant (and seemingly unquestioned) story of "suicide" influence recollections of events, for example in evidence to the Hutton Inquiry?

The "misinformation effect" would lead us to expect that it would colour such recollections.

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