Many people distrust the BBC. They may like the idea of it, but often deplore the practice. They suspect that journalists who work for it are metropolitan lefties. But such people are apt to be equally wary of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin chief. They sense a bad 'un. They have read newspaper stories which plausibly claim he has a loose relationship with the truth. For such people, the clash between this well-known monster and the unreliable BBC is therefore very confusing. It is as though two playground bullies, who previously got on pretty well and collaborated cheerfully on many ventures, suddenly started raining blows on each other. Which of these rogues should one support?
The dilemma is especially piquant for those people who were enthusiastically in favour of the war against Iraq without ever shedding their reservations about Mr Campbell or New Labour. In normal circumstances they would be happy to throw rotten eggs at the Prime Minister's director of communications. They have done so many times. But in the row between the BBC and Mr Campbell they are not in a chucking mood. They fear that the case against him is the case against the war. Mr Campbell vehemently denies 'sexing up' last September's dossier with its oft repeated threat that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might be discharged within 45 minutes. These pro-war people must believe in the reality of these weapons as a justification of war, and consequently have the appalling experience of discovering themselves in the same bed as Mr Campbell. This is the position in which the Sun and the Daily Telegraph find themselves.
The BBC did not exactly cheer on the government during the war in Iraq. This was not a matter of policy. Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, did not summon his reporters and urge them to be adversarial. Many of them probably had qualms about the war; and, being journalists, were in any case prone to looking on the dark side. So it was that the early deaths of two soldiers were described by the BBC as 'the worst possible news for the armed forces'. When the allies seemed to be getting bogged down, the BBC was in the vanguard of the admittedly large group of people who feared a prolonged conflict. Its defence correspondent Paul Adams, an experienced hand who knows more about war than most of the faint-hearts in London, fired off an email to his bosses from Qatar which was leaked to the Sun. 'I was gob-smacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition is suffering "significant casualties". This is simply NOT TRUE'. On the other hand, some of the BBC's so-called embedded journalists gave British troops a write-up that would not have shamed the pen of Captain W.E. Johns. The Daily Telegraph went too far earlier this week when it wrote in a leader that 'the BBC was astonishingly one-sided in its coverage of the war'.
Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter who has been hammered by Mr Campbell and other assorted New Labour heavies, has described himself in these pages as being mildly pro-war. That may be pushing it. His reporting from Baghdad during the conflict gave the impression of someone who was either neutral or very slightly anti-war. There is no crime in that. On his return, he became interested in the reasons used to justify the war. There was no trace of any weapons of mass destruction. (The term is anyway misleading. The only true weapon of mass destruction is a nuclear bomb, and even Donald Rumsfeld has not suggested that Iraq possessed one of those.) Mr Gilligan met a highly placed intelligence source who claimed that the information about weapons of mass destruction was not in the original draft of the September dossier, which had been 'sexed up' by Alastair Campbell.
Critics of Mr Gilligan, including Mr Campbell, have attacked him for relying on one source. I wonder how many times during his career as a journalist Mr Campbell had more than a single source? In sensational stories one source is often all you are likely to get. Highly placed intelligence officers willing to talk to the press do not grow on trees. If Mr Gilligan's source was a good one, he was absolutely right to report what he had been told. Though I happen to think he was wrong later to disclose to Mr Sambrook the name of his source, the BBC's director of news agrees that it was an impressive one. Mr Campbell and others have gone on to suggest that Mr Gilligan undermines his credentials as a BBC reporter by writing opinionated articles. It is true that the price of being a pundit is that you may no longer be accepted as an absolutely objective conduit of news. Mr Gilligan is hardly a pundit, but a reporter who has turned his hand to a spot of punditry.
The persecution of Mr Gilligan by Mr Campbell has been odious. It is, of course, a device. By setting aside the falsely presented February dossier, and concentrating on this single aspect of the September one, Mr Campbell has drawn his critics to fight a battle on a territory of his own choosing. Mr Gilligan is depicted as being a misguided journalist pitting himself against the authority of government. Though the allegation of 'sexing up' chips away at what little remains of Mr Campbell's reputation for probity, it does not in the end matter very much whether he added information about weapons of mass destruction. It is becoming increasingly clear that Iraq did not possess a single weapon of mass destruction which could be deployed in 45 years, let alone 45 minutes. This is the real scandal which Mr Campbell and his allies are contriving to conceal.
As I have remarked before, this is the gol-den age of parliamentary sketchwriters. It is not because Parliament has grown in importance. Anti-Blairite Labour MPs may be rustling in the bushes, but the official opposition remains pretty comatose. No, we have such excellent sketchwriters because newspapers in their competitive way have ordained that it should be so.
When William Hague was Tory leader, sketchwriters praised his oratorical and debating skills, as did other observers. We were often told he had trounced Tony Blair, and sometimes that he had humiliated him. Mr Hague duly went on to electoral disaster. Since then, sketchwriters have lampooned and mocked the parliamentary skills of Iain Duncan Smith. With the possible exception of my colleague Frank Johnson, they depict him as one of the greatest nitwits ever to sit on an opposition front bench. And yet IDS and the Tories are rising in the polls despite the almost universal ridiculing of his parliamentary performance by sketchwriters. I feel there must be a moral here, though I am not quite sure what it is.