Protecting sources

by Chris Bertram on July 20, 2003

The whole business of whether the “dodgy dossier” was “sexed up” by the British government and whether Andrew Gilligan’s report about it also went beyond what he was entitled to claim looks likely to damage all concerned in the wake of Dr David Kelly’s suicide. I’m trying to keep an open mind about the various possibilities, though things look much less good for the BBC today, in the light of their admission that Kelly was the source for Gilligan’s story. The BBC have also shown poor judgement in getting former Guardian editor Peter Preston to pontificate in their defence. Writing about journalists’ duty to protect their sources Preston observes:

if your source talked to you under conditions of anonymity, would you do everything in your power to protect him – including maintaining silence even after he’d identified himself to his bosses and talked, not entirely frankly, to the foreign affairs select committee?

Of course. No question of that either. Sources come in many shapes, forms and conditions of confidentiality. Once they place their faith in you, your faith and your room for manoeuvre belongs to them; and after their death, their family.

Can this be the same Peter Preston who, in the early 1980s, complied with a court order to reveal that civil servant Sarah Tisdall was the source of confidential documents leaked to the Guardian? Tisdall was subsequently sentenced to six months in prison.



Tom Runnacles 07.20.03 at 9:23 pm

Perhaps we should treat Peter Preston as being a repentant sinner on this point.

I happened to have a conversation with my mother this weekend about the Kelly case, and she mentioned an interview she’d heard somewhere (probably News 24) with ‘a chap called Peter who used to edit The Guardian’.

According to my Mum, whom I naturally treat as an unimpeachable (even if unconfirmed) source on this matter, Preston said that he felt that he’d got things badly wrong in the Tisdall case, and had regretted revealing her as a source ever since. That’s cold comfort to Ms Tisdall, but there it is.

Clearly, it’s bit dishonest of Mr Preston not to mention his previous in that BBC article you linked to, but my sense is that he’s rightly embarrassed by his past behaviour rather than being straightforwardly hypocritical in this case.


Gregg 07.20.03 at 10:55 pm

Given that the government has employed Peter Mandelson in their defence, any sins Peter Preston may once have committed fall pale.

Interestingly, from what all non-government sources have said over the past couple of days, the truth seems to be that Dr. Kelly was forced to lie in front of a Parliamentary committee in order to keep his job. But given the resources available to this government, the blame will no doubt be laid at the BBC’s feet (though not, oddly, the feet of the Daily Mail, which was the paper that published Gilligan’s original claims which the government contested – the stuff he said on the BBC’s ‘Today’ show has been accepted by the government as a true and accurate account).


Jack 07.21.03 at 4:49 am

I heard the same as Tom’s mum.
I don’t see what the BBC should have done differently to be honest. In any case the behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats is more important than the behaviour of journalists.


Chris Bertram 07.21.03 at 6:45 am

Like I said, this looks likely to damage all concerned. But let me take issue with Jack’s “the behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats is more important than the behaviour of journalists.” Of course, there’s some sense in which that’s clearly right. Nevertheless it seems an unhelpful abstraction in a war of information where each side is setting the context in which the other is operating. The DG of the BBC (more a bureaucrat than journalist) and the editors of national newspapers are more powerful figures in the British political system than many politicians (e.g. Glenda Jackson) and bureaucrats (e.g. the late David Kelly). Take another recent and related issue. George Galloway is the subject of accusations from the Daily Telegraph about his relationship to the former Iraqi regime. Suppose those accusations were vindicated. Would that be worse or less bad than the discovery that the editor of the Daily Telegraph was the agent of some foreign power? To be honest, I’m not sure. Of course it is more likely (on past experience) that senior journalists will turn out to be agents of MI5 than they will of foreign powers. When they are, is their behaviour worse as journalists or as bureaucrats? Probably the former.


SKapusniak 07.21.03 at 9:00 am

Firstly, yes this will damage everybody involved, because there is so much high emotion flowing in the circles of (media/political) power about this that everyone wants to beat up on the other players in the game as hard possible to distract from the fact that they’re feeling great dollops of guilt themselves. That’s when they’re not busy punching themselves in the face due the guilt.

So damage will be inflicted and occur.

Second the ‘The BBC should have revealed their source’ argument is I think a red herring, as I fail to see how doing that would have made anything any better.

The real argument being made and needing to be addressed is ‘The BBC should have retracted or not run this story’. I don’t personally like this argument on selfish utilitarian grounds, because a BBC that retracts stories because the government goes apeshit, or even more than currently decides not to run stories because the think the government might go apeshit, is a substantially less useful organisation to me as a member the public than the current BBC.

Third, obviously I am biased in favour of the BBC and against the government. I’m much more interested in the survival of the BBC in it’s current form than the Government in it’s current form. Contemplating a US like news organisational landscape for Britain makes me shudder. Take everything I say on the subject BBC/Government crises with that disclaimer :)

Fourth — personal confession time — why, oh why, oh why, do I never seem to feel the appropriate emotions at times of great public tragedy? I never feel these mass outpourings of public grief, shock and horror? It gets me into trouble.


dsquared 07.21.03 at 9:09 am

As Chris hints above, I’m not sure that the information that the editor of the Telegraph was being paid by MI5 would necessarily count as a “discovery”; I’d certainly never assumed anything else.

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think that the BBC comes out of this looking particularly bad at all.

One thing that bugs me is that everyone is immediately treating it as established fact that this was a suicide, in advance of any coroner’s report. Robert Anton Wilson noted a while ago that it was one of the more annoying pieces of Newspeak that although we have about a dozen words for “conspiracy nut”, “paranoid”, etc, there isn’t even one concise phrase for someone who rationally believes that the government has carried out criminal acts to further undemocratic ends. It’s particularly annoying when Rev. Blair starts putting on his teary-eyed Diana face and saying that we should all stop asking difficult questions out of respect for the family of Poor Dead Fred Who Was Sadly Misled. (PDFWWSM is a constant character in the Commedia dell’Arte of any big government scandal; he’s the guy who could for sure have exonerated everyone, perhaps by taking the blame himself, but sadly he’s dead so there’s no way that question can be answered, Senator. Poor Dead Fred has been played in past versions of the play by Vince Foster and Bill Casey).

I shudder to think what David Icke is making of this.


dsquared 07.21.03 at 9:18 am

One quick wander through the bizarre, mazelike structure of later reveals that he hasn’t really got onto the story yet.


Jonathan 07.21.03 at 11:14 am

Preston was on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday morning, and prefaced his discussion with a clear statement of his regrets about the Tisdall case.


John James 07.21.03 at 11:15 am

I am curious as to why the response to the tragic death of Dr Kelly must be on the lines of (a) the Government’s hands are dirty, (b) the BBC’s hands are dirty, or (c) they are both deep in it. Is it not plausible that Dr Kelly was the architect of his own downfall, and that there is no basis for laying the blame on third parties?

The facts we know are that – Dr Kelly was a senior government official with expertise in the WMD field; in the aftermath of the Iraq war he privately arranged a meeting with a BBC journalist to discuss the government’s WMD evidence for war with Iraq; the BBC subsequently ran a story that, on the basis of an insider’s testimony, alleged that the government ‘sexed up’ its case for war with Iraq; and Dr Kelly stated under oath before a Parliamentary committee that he was not the source of this allegation.

In deciding to speak to the BBC, Dr Kelly breached his employment contract and possibly committed a criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act. In retrospect he may be morally vindicated for this course of action, however, he cannot claim to have a monopoly on moral judgments in relation to such an important matter. If he was a responsible person, he should have recognised that by speaking to the BBC, he was running serious personal risks, aswell as the possibility that he would be required to account for what he did.

It appears now (seeing as Kelly has been acknowledged as the BBC’s only source) that either the BBC journalist or Dr Kelly have lied about the content of their conversation in the Charing Cross hotel. It is not possible at this stage to decide which one of them was telling the truth. One possible thesis is that Dr Kelly did indeed tell Gilligan that the government sexed up its dossier and that he subsequently lied before the Parliamentary enquiry. If this is the case, the BBC is wholly vindicated. The question of the Government’s guilt will then be down to whether or not it pressured Kelly to falsely deny his statement to the BBC. If it did, the Government does indeed have dirt on its hand. If however, Kelly changed his statement because he feared that he had erred in his original conversation with Gilligan, it seems to me that the blame lies squarely with the deceased.

If suicide is the cause of death it does also the beg the question of motive. Is taking one’s own life the type of action that we can expect from a man with the moral courage to reveal a Government deceit? Hardly, if he let matters run their course, there is every chance that he would have emerged vindicated from the debacle. Suicide is, however, more understandable from a man who made a mistake, and ended up witnessing the extraordinary course of events that resulted from it, and for which he was ultimately responsibe.


jack 07.21.03 at 1:23 pm

I believe that so far there is no prima facie evidence of any misbehaviour by the BBC. I believe that the statement broadcast by the BBC has already been vindicated, only further comments made by Mr. Gilligan in the Daily Mail are disputed. There is no suggestion that the BBC was acting against Dr. Kelly’s wishes nor that he ddn’t know what he was doing when he spoke to the BBC. There is also no suggestion that he would not have been sought out if the BBC had behaved differently (by revealing its source?).
Indeed I find the extra constitutional demands and hints of other pressure used by Alistair Campbell rather chilling.
There is on the one hand a potential exageration of a source’s testimony to be balanced against deceit on a matter of national importance. The fact that there is a dispute and that the BBC is hated by much of the media are giving these issues a spurious balance.

Also what is this restraint that Mr Blair is asking for?


Nabakov 07.21.03 at 4:57 pm

Not 100% up to speed on the issue so I’m happy to chime in.

Re DD’s points above, the media, pollies, beauracrats(?), spooks, corporate PR, etc are, in my experience, a big fuzzy incestuous bunch.

And so, just like Marlowe’s death, the West Country Marconi “sucides” and Deep Throat, we’ll never get to the bottom of it.

And David Ickes is looking distinctly reptilian himself these days… a disinformation agent?

Me, I only trust Craig Baldwin now.


Disc 07.22.03 at 3:15 am

Campbell was correct all along. The BBC did use Kelly as the primary source, Kelly didn’t claim the 45 minute claim had been inserted by Campbell and by all accounts it wasn’t. The BBC are left with blood on their hands and being a media corporation they won’t get away with smearing anyone else without it being noticed. They’ve been digging a deep hole for a couple of years now.


Dave F 07.22.03 at 12:29 pm

I would refer you to Tom Mangold’s piece on the Kelly affair. Unlike Peter Preston, he has immaculate — indeed, impressive — credentials as an investigative journalist, particularly in respect of biochem warfare, with the BBC as one of his main outlets. I think you will find he is not looking at the Beeb with the benevolent eye being cast here. Nor does he believe Gilligan. He knew Kelly extremely well and notes that he was looking forward to testifying before the select comnmittee, since he fondly imagined this would clear the air.
It didn’t, mainly because of the bloodyminded refusal of the corporation’s news bosses (Greg Dyke, god spare us) to let go.

And of course journalists nowadays have a greater effect on people’s lives than politicians. Elections are won and lost in the media, as ani fule no. And so are political careers. It is also obvious that the power of the press created Alastair Campbell. The reason they hate him so much is because it is like looking in a mirror.


Chavey 07.22.03 at 2:16 pm

The problem for the BBC is of course that to mount an effective defence it must speak ill of the dead.

Nontheless, which is more intuitively likely

(i) Gilligan’s misrepresentation of Kelly’s comments drove Kelly into a suicidal psychosis

(ii) Kelly was driven into a suicidal pychosis by the explosive impact of his revelations to Gilligan followed by being placed in the position of having to lie to the FAC, possibly under pressure.

You don’t have to be David Icke to see that the latter is more persuasive, coupled with the fact that Gilligan’s story is corroborated by two other BBC journalists.

As for Mangold, his comments in the press to the effect that Gilligan’s story amounted to a smear on Kelly have carried great weight, since Mangold used to work for the BBC. But, sadly, it is perfectly conceivable that Kelly lied to Mangold too. We have no idea of how ‘close’ they were.

Gilligan is a fool to write for the Mail on Sunday and the Spectator and all the rest of it, but to accept the Kelly account you have to believe that he completely took leave of his journalistic senses. And what has Gavin Hewitt got against Campbell for Pete’s sake?


Charlie B. 07.22.03 at 2:16 pm

I couldn’t agree more (a) that Dr Kelly was responsible for his own actions, generally and in ending his life, and nobody else; (b) that “the power of the press created Alastair Campbell”.

With respect to (a), if any external circumstances could have affected Dr Kelly’s mental stability I would suggest it was likely less to have been the substantive matters in dispute than the mass of journalists camped outside his home, which led to him being temporarily re-housed in a safe location by the MOD. If they were behaving true to form, the journalists would have used every underhand method (including petty bribery of neighbours) to gain access to Mr Kelly’s property, and to discover any scandal (verified or speculative) about him or his family.

As far as (b) is concerned, the best way to address the intolerable power of the press and the broadcast media is to allow political parties, politicians and pressure groups to buy as much unregulated time and space as they want and can afford. The need to court the monopoly news outlets would then be significantly reduced.

The motives of the BBC and its journalists hardly need to be rehearsed. There are many aspcts of its Iraq reporting (which ranged from bias to pure invention) that deserve to be thoroughly examined, but if the current furore helps hasten the abolition of the BBC, I am delighted. It is, of course, no surprise who believes the BBC’s propagandist practice represents independence.


a different chris 07.22.03 at 4:24 pm

the intolerable power of the press

Sieg Heil to you, too. Jesus.

Anyway, to return us from Planet Authoritarian, has anybody considered the old “None Of The Above” answer? Maybe Dr. Kelly was smart enough to realize that the intense (global!) interest in him was likely to- as it always does, sadly- wander away from the subject at hand and stumble into a dead girl/live boy type of unpleasantness.

And that’s why no suicide note- he just couldn’t bear to commit the real reason to paper.


Mick Fealty 07.22.03 at 4:56 pm

Interesting blog from David Steven at etcetera here, on Andrew Gilligan’s blogging performance in Iraq here.

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