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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Sunday | July 20, 2003

It only gets worse for Blair

By Steve Gilliard

The death of Minstry of Defence scientist Dr. David Kelly has morphed from sad to truly ugly.

Some people in the spotlight cannot take the idea of camera crews outside their homes and people digging into their work life. The reason someone chooses a life in a lab, instead of medicine or law, is as much based in personality as interest. Dr. Kelly was not a public person, and years at the MOD made him value his privacy even more.

One doesn't need to invent conspiracy theories to see how a man at the end of his career, suddenly thrust into the spotlight, one which he is completely uncomfortable with, could tragically end his life, thinking it would solve his problems. He was being used to deflect questions about the war and his reputation was being debated as if a lifetime of discretion no longer mattered.

The death of Kelly made a bad problem worse for Blair.

In Tokyo, a reporter asked him "if he had blood on his hands, would he resign?" As if he was Macbeth and Kelly was Banquo's ghost, accusing him of great crimes.

.....Blair pleaded for "restraint and respect" as an official inquiry into the suspected suicide got under way. Looking strained and with his voice cracking at times, he told journalists accompanying him on a tour of the Far East: "Let me express my deep sorrow for the tragedy that has come about.

"I don't think it is right for anyone, us or anyone else, to make a judgement until we have the facts."

Yet, one of Blair's closest friends, Peter Mandelson, lashed out at the BBC in today's Observer :

The BBC's pretext for not letting up led it to make its second mistake. The BBC insisted that a general, negative verdict could be imposed on Campbell's role, even if the particular observation may not be right. This general verdict was that as he had been heavily involved throughout in the preparation of the public dossier - doing what is, after all, his job - he must have had an unreasonable influence over it, leading to exaggeration, to say the least, of some of its contents. In other words, the general justifies the particular in respect of the charge against Campbell.


That is simply not good enough. It has led the director-general and the chairman of the governors to stake their reputations on a story that has turned out to be untrue, punted by a journalist who many inside the corporation regard as controversial, whatever they say about him in public.

The fact is that the journalist in question, Andrew Gilligan, persuaded his managers that his one source was a senior intelligence official and few now believe this to be true. Dr Kelly was a scientist, not a spook, and when he told MPs, in his gratuitously bruising encounter with them, that he was not the BBC's source he should have been properly understood to mean that he was not the source for what Gilligan said about Campbell. Gilligan should have been big enough to admit that he did not have another source for his central claim and that he had stretched what he had been told to suit his own prejudices. Some good must come out of this shocking and avoidable state of affairs. The lesson for the Government - especially an apparently omnipotent one like this - is to be seen to bend over backwards in treating the media with scrupulous truthfulness and the BBC in particular with respect.

This doesn't help matters, and given English libel law, is an extremely risky thing to say. Gilligan isn't just saying the man is not his source, he is giving his word to his bosses that isn't the case. For a journalist, their word means something beyond a pleasing story to keep their bosses happy. If a reporter, on such a serious matter gives his word, and denies someone is a source, unless the person is a pathological liar, then he is assumed to be telling the truth.

He would have never claimed he had another source if he didn't. The BBC, despite the carping it gets from both right and left, is rock solid on this kind of thing. If there was a question about the story, especially its sourcing, it would not have run the way it did. Nor would the Board of Governors, facing a new negotiation with the government, pick such a fight. And if Gilligan was even thought to be lying, he would have been eased out, if not fired outright.

He also said he was in contact with at least three other people connected with the intelligence community, but drew a distinction between "the specific source for this specific story, which is a single source, and the three other people who have spoken to me generally of their concern about Downing Street's use of intelligence material".

There is no doubt that one of these four people was David Kelly. And he fitted the description of a "civil servant from the non-secret part of the civil service" who met Mr Gilligan in a hotel in central London - the Thistle Hotel at Charing Cross. He also admitted that the suggestion of a 30 per cent likelihood that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction could have come from him.


The Government's September dossier contained the now-notorious claim that Iraq possessed weapons that could be deployed "within 45 minutes of an order to use them". Mr Gilligan alleged that British intelligence had only one source for that claim, and that it was not included in the original draft of the September dossier.

Both these allegations turned out to be true. But Dr Kelly claimed not to know anything about this before the September dossier was written, and for that reason, claimed that he could not be the "specific source" cited by Mr Gilligan

The fact is that the Blair case for war is collapsing and Mandelson's attack is shameful in the extreme. The issue is not the BBC. It is not the unfortunate death of Dr. Kelly.

It is this: Blair went to the Commons and made specific charges about Saddam's offensive threat to the Gulf region, including British bases on Cyprus, including that Saddam had a 45 minute strike capability in 2003. This has not been proven and there is sound reason to believe that evidence given was altered to make the worse case possible.

I wouldn't know Andrew Gilligan from a staggering drunk. But I do know that there have been no WMD found in Iraq and there is no way he could launch one in 45 minutes . On that fact alone, Mandelson is shameful, hiding behind a questionable report which is being disproven by the day.

This move may well blow up in Blair's face, because the issue isn't a BBC report but the fact no WMD have been found in Iraq. And all the angry articles in the world will not change it.


BBC says Kelly was weapons source

The BBC has disclosed that Dr David Kelly was the source for its controversial report claiming Downing Street "sexed up" an Iraq weapons dossier. BBC director of news Richard Sambrook made the disclosure after speaking to the family of the Iraq weapons expert who was found dead on Friday.

He said the corporation believed it correctly interpreted and reported the information obtained from Dr Kelly during interviews.

Mr Sambrook said the BBC had, until now, owed Dr Kelly a duty of confidentiality and was "profoundly sorry" that his involvement as the source for the reports had ended in tragedy.

The statement came shortly after Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would accept responsibility for all the actions of government ministers and officials, but ruled out recalling Parliament.


Earlier in the week, Dr Kelly had told MPs he had spoken to BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, but said he did not believe he was the main source for a story about claims that a dossier on Iraq had been "sexed up" to boost public support for military action.

The government will now hold an independent judicial inquiry, led by Lord Hutton, into the circumstances surrounding his death

First, the BBC is in a awkward position, in that Dr. Kelly is not the only source, so their defense is limited by other plegdes of confidentiality. Unless Dr. Kelly had given permission to reveal his name, they were honor bound not to do so. Which is why Mandelson's attack was shameful. He's been the source of hundreds of press stories without his name attached. He knows the rules of the game and his protestations are hollow at best.

Second, no matter what Blair and his backers charge, the BBC refusal to name their sources, even after death, is a common practice in journalism. Mandelson can argue that Gilligan twisted the specific claim, but given the vagaries of memory and note taking, that's never going to be proven. Kelly could have made a toss away comment Gilligan took seriously, or Kelly could have lied before Parliment to save his job and career.

Third, the issue is not a 'sexed up dossier". It is a specific claim by Blair before the Commons which was disproven by events on the ground. There was no 45 minute threat, and apparently, as Whitehall has been leaking for two weeks, no WMD.

You can argue about the BBC and Dr. Kelly all day long. But the central fact, that Iraq's WMD program is, at best, a history of yellowing papers in some Baghdad warehouse, much of which may have been overblown to keep Saddam happy, does not and has not changed.

Posted July 20, 2003 02:07 AM


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