To lose one loyal media friend may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Not long ago the government could depend on the instinctive support of the BBC. That has been forfeited as a result of the row over Andrew Gilligan, and the two sides are locked in battle. Now the Independent, which could once be counted on to see life from Tony Blair’s point of view, is also at odds with the government. It is true that the paper, with hard sales of only 160,000 a day, is probably one hundredth as powerful as the BBC. Nonetheless, when No. 10 finds itself slogging it out with a second natural ally, one has to ask what is happening.
The Independent was wholly justified in running its story on Monday about a ‘senior Whitehall source’ who described Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert who committed suicide, as ‘a Walter Mitty’. First Downing Street denied that the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, Tom Kelly, had said any such thing to the Independent’s Paul Waugh. Then it admitted that he had, but suggested that the conversation was a private one. This is complete bunkum. Official spokesmen do not have private chats with lobby journalists. Tom Kelly gave a background briefing which, in line with the conventions, Mr Waugh attributed to ‘a senior Whitehall source’. Downing Street’s pretence that Mr Kelly had not spoken to Mr Waugh was a lie, and its suggestion that the conversation was private a further lie.
I do not, however, deny that the Independent was happy to embarrass No. 10. For some months it has been skirmishing with the government. The cause, as with the BBC, was the war against Iraq. The paper opposed it from the beginning, and, like its Sunday sister, has been asking very pointed questions about the absence of weapons of mass destruction.