Many years ago, Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten, the two RAF Reviewing Officers who found the deceased pilots of the Mull of Kintyre crash guilty of gross negligence, appeared before a House of Lords committee that was inquiring into the affair. Barely had the chairman managed to finish uttering his first question before Day and Wratten's astonishing arrogance was on full display. The question was irrelevant, they insisted, because it was about safety issues relating to the Chinook fleet, which had nothing to do with their rationale for finding the pilots guilty. All that mattered was that the pilots had been flying dangerously low in their approach to the Mull of Kintyre - no-one need trouble themselves with any details beyond that. And if anyone took issue with that proposition, it was because they lacked the Reviewing Officers' immense expertise.
The irony, of course, as yesterday's report makes abundantly clear, is that there was a key factor that the Reviewing Officers themselves should never have looked beyond, that should have utterly precluded them from finding the pilots guilty, and that was only set aside because of their own lack of expertise in the relevant area. That factor was the incredibly high standard of proof required to find deceased pilots guilty of gross negligence, ie. "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". You only need to look at the difference between that and the standard criminal test of "beyond reasonable doubt" to understand the implications - even an "unreasonable doubt" may be sufficient reason to acquit. OK, perhaps not the possibility that the aircraft was hijacked by pixies, but just about any other conceivable doubt you might care to raise. As it happens, the report lists so many potential grounds for doubt that the Reviewing Officers chose to ignore that it's hard to see how even the "beyond reasonable doubt" test could be said to have been satisfied.
The real disgrace, though, is not the original verdict, but the way that the MoD have pig-headedly attempted to defend it to the death over the last decade-and-a-half, in spite of the obvious flaws in the Reviewing Officers' reasoning. It's also been incredibly telling that every single Defence Secretary (and indeed every junior Defence minister) over that period has "gone native" and obediently defended the verdict, rather than engaging their own brain cells and examining the issues objectively. The worst offender (unsurprisingly) was John Reid, that obsequious loyalist to "the British way" and venerable British institutions like the MoD, who we learned on Channel 4 News acted like a petulant "two-year-old" when two aviation experts had the audacity to raise concerns with him - he apparently sat in his chair with his finger to his mouth, refusing to acknowledge or engage with anything that was being said.
Given her known views about Mr Reid, it's a rather delicious irony that Helen Liddell, of all people, sat on the panel that finally cleared the pilots, and savaged the MoD's conduct over the years.