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How Blair stitched up row with BBC

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
THE ROW which led to death of David Kelly and sparked the Hutton inquiry centres on a report by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan on Radio Four's Today programme at the end of May. In the weeks leading up to Kelly's death the government, and Blair's lieutenant Alastair Campbell in particular, furiously attacked Gilligan and the BBC. Curiously their anger seems to have been a delayed reaction.
Issue 1864

THE ROW which led to death of David Kelly and sparked the Hutton inquiry centres on a report by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan on Radio Four’s Today programme at the end of May. In the weeks leading up to Kelly’s death the government, and Blair’s lieutenant Alastair Campbell in particular, furiously attacked Gilligan and the BBC. Curiously their anger seems to have been a delayed reaction.

A week after Gilligan’s original report which claimed the war dossier had been ‘sexed up’, Blair and Campbell had a dinner. Their guests were BBC executives, including the editor of the Today programme. All sorts of things were discussed across the dinner table-but NOT the Gilligan report.

But a couple of weeks later the government was worried. No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. The idea that US and British forces would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators was giving way to the reality of a wave of anger and protests by Iraqis, and killings and beatings by the occupying troops.

At home Blair was increasingly coming under pressure over the war, and the lies used to launch it. Even parliamentary select committees were beginning to ask awkward questions. So Blair’s lieutenant Campbell hit on a strategy-whip up a row about a side issue with the BBC to divert attention away from the central issues. Suddenly there was sound and fury from the government over the source of the claims in Andrew Gilligan’s report.

But what Blair and Campbell did not guess was that their bullying would spin out of control and lead to the death of weapons expert David Kelly. Now their diversionary tactic is bouncing back, and revealing more and more of the lies they wove in their drive to war.

Web of contacts to push for war

THE PRIVATE dinner Blair and Campbell had with BBC chiefs is part of the web of contacts through which the government ensured that the bulk of the media pushed a pro-war line. Blair and Campbell, along with other ministers and government officials, had similar meetings with senior newspaper editors.

Most of the time the government got its way. The BBC, other TV companies and almost all the main newspapers faithfully pushed the pro-war line. But such was the scale of the anti-war movement, and the wider disquiet about war, that the media could not simply ignore it.

Whole sections of the establishment and senior figures within the ruling class were against war. They too had intimate connections with those at the top of the various media outlets.

More importantly the millions who marched against war, and the polls which showed a majority of the population opposed to the war, had an impact. If the BBC wants people to believe what it says it cannot simply ignore that feeling.

In fact the BBC remained the most pro-war of all the TV channels, and barely reflected the anti-war feeling. But even the occasional glimpses that the BBC gave of the anti-war feeling was too much for Blair’s bullies, who feared the opposition to war could sink them and their war plans.

Campbell-his master’s voice

THE PROCESS of putting together the dossier was centred on a committee chaired by Alastair Campell. On Tuesday BBC journalists Andrew Gilligan and Susan Watts both gave evidence to the inquiry.

They had both independently spoken to Dr Kelly. Both insisted Kelly had named Campbell as the key figure in changing the dossier to boost the case for war. Campbell is Blair’s key and most trusted lieutenant. The portrayal of the two on shows like Rory Bremner may be a caricature-but it captures an important element of truth.

No one on the dossier committee would doubt that Campbell was making clear what Blair wanted. The ’45 minute’ claim was not in the draft dossier available at a meeting in early September chaired by Campbell. It then appeared in the dossier at a final meeting shortly before its publication on 24 September.

The inquiry was told that the claim was the result of ‘new’ intelligence. We are supposed to believe that this just happened to appear in early September and was inserted into the dossier around the 10 or 11 September by officials without Blair or Campbell playing any role.

Lies Unravel

Government relied on Kelly

GOVERNMENT spokespeople have tried to claim that Dr David Kelly was a marginal figure. But Kelly was central to the government. He was a trusted spokesperson who had worked at the heart of Britain’s secret weapons establishment, who was a key weapons inspector in Iraq, and who the government had relied on for years to push its line.

People like Kelly were routinely dispatched on behalf of the government and ministries to meet journalists. Witnesses revealed at the inquiry on Monday that a key part of Kelly’s job description was to meet and brief the press-and everyone knew it. One official document read out at the inquiry described Kelly as ‘the expert of choice’ on Iraq issues for the media.

Another government document noted that Kelly ‘expressed himself clearly and put across HMG’s [Her Majesty’s Government’s] line with authority’. Kelly was so well regarded that the inquiry heard he had the highest level of security clearance on all issues relating to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

Heart of the establishment

THE BRITISH government in 1996 awarded David Kelly the distinguished Cross of St Michael and St George for his work on Iraqi weapons. Patrick Lamb is the deputy head of the grandly titled ‘counter-proliferation unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’-which played a key role in compiling last September’s dossier.

He told the inquiry on Monday that, when discussing Iraq and weapons, ‘If I had to make a choice between a textual source and Dr Kelly, I would often back Dr Kelly ahead of the textual source, such was his expertise and such was our confidence in him.’ Kelly even took part in the Operation Telic official preparations for the invasion of Iraq.

Kelly eventually found the lying and manipulation demanded by Blair to go to war was too much. That drove him to give journalists a glimpse of the growing disquiet of many at the heart of the establishment.

Doubts went right to the top

DAVID KELLY was not the only senior figure to be furious at Blair’s lies. Andrew Gilligan told the inquiry that he put his story to two ‘senior contacts in the government’. Neither denied it.

One even suggested, ‘I think you should keep digging.’ The inquiry also heard that two senior members of the Defence Intelligence Services (DIS) had formally protested to their superiors over the dossier.

The DIS is the key part of the state in charge of spying, or ‘intelligence’ gathering, around the world and was at the centre of drawing up Blair’s war dossier.

One of the two wrote a formal letter read out to the inquiry. ‘As possibly the most senior and experienced officer on the field of Iraqi WMD [weapons of mass destruction], I was so concerned about the manner in which intelligence assessment for which I had some responsibility was being presented in the dossier of 24 September 2002, that I was moved to write fomally to [my boss] Tony Cragg recording and expressing my reservations.’

Other documents by ‘senior intelligence officers’ were also read out to the inquiry. They expressed concern over the language around the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which could be used within 45 minutes.

Many of these concerns turn on nuances of language. But it is clear that these officials, and even figures within the government, didn’t believe Blair’s lies.


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