Issues to do with Testimony
In the first half of the book, Butler argues that we should accept that the Boeing seaplanes, Mallard and Bluebill, made it to Devonport because George Bolt and Leonard Isitt said they did. Both Bolt and Isitt, if we take them at their word, though, were indirect witnesses, rather than eye witnesses to the moving of the seaplanes from Mission Bay to Devonport. Their testimony is that they were told by others that the planes were moved rather than claiming to see the move itself. Isitt’s testimony in particular–as Butler reports it–vacillates with respect to what he thought happened, and so he comes across as an increasingly unreliable witness as time passes. Bolt is much more forthright about the claim the planes were shipped to Devonport, but, once again, he was not an eye witness to the alleged move.
Butler defends the testimony of both Isitt and Bolt by saying “Look, these are respectable figures, honest and sincere” but, in the end, that is only part of the story we need to tell with respect to how we evaluate testimony: given they are not eye-witnesses we have to ask “How well were they able to appraise the quality of their sources?” Even people with impeccable personal honesty or integrity can make lousy judges of character.
This issue is compounded in the second half of the book, when Butler analyses the testimony of those who claim to know about the existence of a hidden tunnel complex deep within North Head. For example, he makes a lot out of a claim by former Minister of Defence, Bob Tizard, who said “There is ammunition in those them missing tunnels”1 (not a direct quote, I’m afraid) which Butler takes to be proof positive Tizard knew about the tunnels and the ammunition inside of them. Now, maybe he did, but it’s also possible it was something he was told by someone under him, which leads to the question just how well informed everyone in that particular Ministry is, or was.
Some of Butler’s assumptions about how government works, particularly the relationship between Ministers and Ministries is startling and naive.2 He seems to think that Ministers are particularly well-informed about their portfolios, as if they have direct oversight into the workings of their particular ministries, as opposed to people who take advice.
An apt analogy for this was the respective American and British governments’ claims about those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the ones which justified the invason. Now, it turns out that no CIA or MI5 field operatives in Iraq actually believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but some of the managers/directors of those agencies, back home in Washington and London did. So when Bush and Blair said “We have received advice that…” they were acting on the advice of the executive members of the CIA and MI5, members who had failed to actually report accurately what the field operatives said, rather than reporting something they directly knew.3.
Testimony is only as good as the chain of testifiers, so if we can’t identify who said what to who, then it’s hard to know whether the Minister, in this case, Bob Tizard, was well or ill-informed on the matter of tunnels and discarded ammunition.
Butler uses Tizard’s testimony and the fact that subsequent Ministers of Defense have said otherwise to both claim “Conspiracy!” and to suggest there has been some loss of institutional memory about what is, or is not, inside of North Head. Of course, there is another possibility, which is that Tizard took or received advice from one person and other Ministers took it from another; the different sets of advisors might well have known or believed different things, given the evidence, or lack thereof, they had at the time.
Still, the evidence Butler finds to be the most persuasive, and is the basis for his claim that something very fishy is going on, is the collection of eye-witness accounts John Earnshaw collected in his search for the two Boeing Seaplanes. Butler presents a small selection of Earnshaw’s collection, which is certainly very interesting, but this testimony has been subject to a lot of analysis by the Courts. The judgement, of Justice Sian Elias, was that the testimony was suspect; not because it was false but because the testimony was the result of both unwitting coercion by Earnshaw and contaminated. Butler’s only response to Justice Elias’s claim he doesn’t believe it.4 Well, he goes one further and tries to make out that Justice Elias suggested that the witnesses were either lying or Earnshaw deliberately set out to train them. However, charitably, what Justice Elias was concerned about was that:
a) Some of the eye-witness testimony lacks what we call “independence”, in that many of the witnesses knew one another and had corresponded with one another well before the trial. As such, you would expect there to be a certain amount of corroboration in their stories. Sometimes this is good but if most or all of the testimony lacks indepedence, then it’s not as good as a selection of evidence where the witnesses had little to no contact with one another.
b) We can’t get around the fact that Earnshaw, when interviewing witnesses, in many cases coaxed the kind of answers he was looking for out of his subjects (this is not particularly contentious: the recordings the court had access to show this behaviour). Whilst, I don’t think Earnshaw deliberately engaged in this behaviour, I do think his drive to find both the planes and the tunnels meant that he pushed interview subjects for answers. If the answers they gave weren’t the ones he was looking for, he would push them again and again, until such time the testimony matched the kind of answers he was looking for.5
These are all issues that Justice Elias was aware of when she decided that the expert testimony should be taken to be more reliable than the collection of eye-witness testimony; Butler doesn’t don’t grapple with these issues other than be incredulous that someone wouldn’t take witnesses at their word.
In the next part, the rationale for the conspiracy is revealed.
- I’ll come back to the ammunition thing in the next section.↩
- Has he not seen “Yes, Minister”? It might be a comedy but political scientists agree it’s also pretty accurate as a description of how things work.↩
- Well, the story is a little more complex: Blair, it’s plausible to claim, actually lied. Bush… Bush might well have thought he was acting on good advice.↩
- He suggests that Justice Elias might well be a dupe of the conspiracy but, by-and-large, he’s just incredulous that the Justice did not take the witnesses at their word.↩
- There is quite a lot of psychological literature on this subject which shows that witnesses like to give the kinds of answers their interlocuters are looking for (which is why modern interview practice is quite a studied affair, mostly to control for this particular effect).↩