First Published: 2003-07-21

 
BBC under fire for role in Kelly's death
 

Britain's press attacks BBC after death of weapons expert, helping Blair to contain worst political crisis of his career.

 

Middle East Online

By Daniel Rook - LONDON

Did Gilligan 'sex up' the information?

The BBC came under fire on Sunday for its part in the death of a British arms expert after confirming he was the source of its report that the government had "sexed up" evidence to justify war on Iraq.

Lawmakers of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party rounded on the national broadcaster for its conduct during a bitter dispute over its report that the government embellished its intelligence on Iraq's weapons programmes.

The BBC, which had previously refused to name its source, said it was "profoundly sorry" over the death of former UN weapons inspector and defence ministry consultant David Kelly, but stood by its decision to air the report.

"We continue to believe we were right to place Dr Kelly's views in the public domain," it said.

Kelly, 59, was found dead on Friday after apparently committing suicide following a grilling earlier in the week from a parliamentary committee examining the accusations - hotly denied by Blair's office - that a key dossier last September on Iraq had exaggerated the threat of Saddam Hussein's arsenal.

While he denied being the primary source for the May 29 BBC story, Kelly admitted briefing Andrew Gilligan, the BBC defence correspondent whose report triggered the furore.

Gilligan, who has come under fire from lawmakers, said Sunday he did not distort what Kelly had told him.

"I want to make it clear that I did not misquote or misrepresent Dr David Kelly," said a BBC statement issued on behalf of Gilligan.

"Entirely separately from my meeting with him, Dr Kelly expressed very similar concerns about Downing Street interpretation of intelligence in the dossier and the unreliability of the 45-minute point to Newsnight," the statement said.

But the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which has been probing the disupted dossiers, said there was a "fundamental conflict" between the evidence given to the committee by Kelly and Gilligan.

"I think the BBC has got to look at itself long and hard now after Andrew Gilligan's latest evidence to the foreign affairs committee last Thursday," Labour MP Donald Anderson told Sky News.

The BBC, which prides itself for its reputation for rigorous journalistic standards and an independent viewpoint, is no stranger to clashes with the government.

Margaret Thatcher's government criticised the broadcaster's coverage of the Falklands War in 1982, though the BBC stood its ground and retained the support of voters.

Nevertheless, the broadcaster's naming of its source turned some of the glare of the media spotlight away from Blair.

The prime minister, grappling with the biggest crisis of his political career, has been dogged by the burgeoning scandal on his trip to East Asia, even facing calls for his resignation from within his own party.

But Blair, who has previously accused the BBC of having committed "an attack on my integrity", adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying he was "pleased" the broadcaster had named Kelly as its source.

"I am pleased the BBC has made this announcement," he said in a statement following a summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun. "Whatever the differences, no one wanted this tragedy to happen. I know everybody including the BBC, has been shocked by it."

"The independent Hutton inquiry has been set up. It will establish the facts. In the meantime, our attitude should be one of respect and restraint, no recriminations, with the Kelly family uppermost in our minds."

Even before the BBC's statement on Kelly, however, allies of Blair had relaunched the war of words with the broadcaster.

Writing in The Observer, Peter Mandelson, a former British minister close to Blair, hit out at the BBC's "obsession" with attacking the prime minister's communications chief Alastair Campbell.

Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP who chairs the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee, meanwhile said the BBC should be brought under the new Ofcom communications watchdog.

"The BBC has behaved deplorably and there are serious implications for its future," he said.

British newspapers

London's newspapers rounded on the BBC Monday after it owned up that Kelly was the sole source of its report that the government had "sexed up" evidence to justify war on Iraq.

The BBC turned down an offer, before Kelly was named in the affair, to end its row with the government, according to the left-of-centre Guardian daily.

The BBC blocked the compromise because it was determined to give no ground in its battle with Alastair Campbell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications and one of his closest aides, The Guardian said.

Campbell came out worst in a poll conducted for the right-wing Daily Telegraph, which showed that 65 percent of those asked felt he had gone down in their opinion since the affair.

Blair fell in the estimation of 59 percent, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon 50 percent and the members of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee who grilled Kelly before his apparent suicide 56 percent, according to the YouGov survey.

The BBC's defence of Gilligan's story and insistence that Kelly was its sole source means the corporation is effectively accusing the dead weapons expert of lying, The Daily Mirror said.

"Either Dr Kelly lied to MPs when he said he was not the main source or Mr Gilligan exaggerated his own report," the tabloid said.

The Sun, Britain's biggest-selling tabloid, also blasted Gilligan, labelling him a rat above the headline "BBC man sinks to new low by calling dead doc a liar."

The Financial Times said that the BBC's concession that the scientist had been its principal source will help Blair to contain the worst political crisis of his career.

"Some want Campbell's head and some want a BBC head, preferably Gilligan's. But without at least one head on a pole, to be jeered by the mob and made the subject of endless wise-after-the-event columns, there can be no closure," wrote Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley.

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from Blair's government over Iraq, called in The Independent newspaper for a judicial inquiry not only into Kelly's death but also into the justification for the war.

"Britain also deserves a more respectful political culture and a more mature standard of political reporting," Cook said.

 

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