Gilligan’s own goal

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2003

I missed the beginning of the Hutton Inquiry and I’m only just beginning to catch up. The details of yesterday’s evidence have been pushed down the headlines by the bigger news from Iraq and Israel, but it seems to me at least that yesterday’s evidence marks a major shift in favour of the government and against the BBC. Campbell performed well, but the really important revelation was Andrew Gilligan’s email to an aide of Liberal Democrat MP David Chidgey (Original email here). Gilligan – himself an “unsatisfactory witness” to the same select committee – is revealed both to have planted (if that’s not too strong a word) some of the questions that put David Kelly under so much pressure, and (despite having huffed and puffed about the need for journalists to protect sources) effectively “outed” Kelly as the source for his colleague Susan Watts. No wonder the BBC’s support for Gilligan seems to be fading, with their reaction limited to an anodyne “We are looking at this e-mail and will deal with it in the context of the Hutton inquiry.”

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that the government deliberately focused on the narrow issue of Campbell’s role in their row with the BBC in order to deflect attention from the big issue of whether the WMD case for war was deliberately exaggerated. But as far as the immediate political battle goes, the BBC looks to be on the ropes.



Bob 08.20.03 at 5:56 pm

On what has emerged in the Hutton Inquiry so far, it is hard to sustain a judgement that the BBC is on the ropes. Andrew Gilligan’s live interview at 6.07am of 29 May on the BBC Today programme can be faulted on some detail but the charge that the UK government’s dossier of last September was hardened or “sexed up” to justify war looks to be substantially correct.

What we know now is that the dossier went through successive drafts in the last fortnight before publication. Start with:,13747,1021534,00.html The redrafts and the dossier’s infamous 45-minutes claim show that the government constructed its case for war on the premise that Iraq posed a serious threat to Britain because of its WMD when it didn’t. “A senior intelligence officer who wanted to inform Parliament of his concerns about the Government’s Iraq dossier was told by his superior at the Ministry of Defence not to take the matter further, Hutton inquiry documents show. . . ” – from:

A banner header in The Independent of 12 August reads: “As probably the most senior and experienced intelligence official working on WMD, I was concerned about the manner in which intelligence assessments for which I had some responsibility were being presented in the dossier of 24 September 2002” – from letter sent to Intelligence Chief, disclosed at the Hutton Inquiry.

Other members of the UK intelligence community besides Dr David Kelly were evidently concerned about the published dossier having gone beyond what intelligence assessments could justify. Even “programme for” was struck from the dossier’s original title of “Iraq’s programme for WMD” least readers got the un-PC idea that Iraq had just a “programme”. Blair relied on the 45-minutes claim again in his speech to the Commons in March to gain authority for the war when British troops were already stationed on Iraq’s borders, poised for invasion before the summer heat began.

The 45-minute claim suggested that WMD were sufficiently widely and abundantly to Iraq military forces to pose a real and imminent threat to the security of the US and UK but no WMD have been discovered. The outcome here is that public trust in Blair has sunk – by this recent poll more believe the BBC than believe Blair:,13747,1021548,00.html


Chris 08.20.03 at 6:16 pm

Indeed, as I tried to indicate in para 2 of my post, the government did exaggerate the WMD-case for war (including via the dodgy dossier). But that general truth won’t be enough to sustain the BBC, since the government has successfully sought to shift the argument from that general truth to the more specific falsehoods told by Gilligan and can now, with some justice, portray Gilligan as (a) out to get the government (b) careless and/or ruthless about his means of doing so and (c) hypocritical and deceitful on the matter of revealing sources. Also, the worse Gilligan looks, the worse things get for the BBC managers who leant on Susan Watts to corroborate his story.


Damien Smith 08.20.03 at 7:02 pm

Roy Greenslade, in Monday’s Media Guardian:

“Daley made a telling argument by pointing out that, since Marsh had been critical of Gilligan’s report and Gilligan had later been self-critical about it, “Why has no one rowed back from the unequivocally bullish BBC line until now?”

That gets to the heart of the matter (and certainly asks a more pertinent question than the Telegraph leader writer did). After all, if the BBC had broadcast a clarification early on, then Campbell wouldn’t have gone ballistic in public, there wouldn’t have been a hunt for the source, Kelly wouldn’t have been forced to undergo questioning, he might still be alive and there wouldn’t be a Hutton inquiry with something like 20 senior lawyers earning a fortune from a dispute which, in the fullness of time, will be seen as a small matter.”


Bob 08.20.03 at 8:51 pm

I can understand why the government is anxious to keep the focus of discussion on Campbell and the integrity of government versus Gilligan and the BBC. That will indeed likely pale with history but hardly the larger issue of whether the government machine embellished the September dossier to strengthen the case for war and the claims made in Blair’s speech to the Commons in March.

There is also the matter of the later, February dossier which Straw, the Foreign Secretary, more recently admitted was “a complete Horlicks.” Taken together, it seems the government was scraping around to justify a war when it looked likely the UN Security Council would refuse to approve that course without more time for the UNSCOM inspectors to complete their work, apprehensions which turned out to be entirely correct.

By web estimates, as the result of the war there are now more than 6,000 Iraqis killed and 20,000 injured with a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq along with the problems of public utility supplies, crime and medical care. By news reports, diplomatic efforts are now underway to secure wider international support for additional peace keeping and security forces to serve in Iraq but understandably many governments outside the Coalition of the Willing are unwilling to do that without UN approval.

Seems Tony Blair had it right after all when he said to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999: “If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.” – from:

The irony is that many of the inner circle of apparatchiks who became entangled in producing the dossiers would very likely have checked out the text of Blair’s keynote speech in Chicago before it was delivered. I think we can detect the growing clucking sound of chickens coming home.


Jim Miller 08.23.03 at 12:26 am

The most interesting of the polls I have seen was the one in the Guardian that showed that half of the public trusted neither the government nor the BBC. Despite the fact that the BBC was trusted by far more people, roughly one third, than the government (8 per cent or so?), this strikes me as much worse , politically for the BBC than for the Blair government.

We can all think of politicians that have been effective and useful though they were not trusted, but for a news organization, losing trust is fatal. If we don’t believe them, what’s the point?

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