Within the next few weeks Lord Hutton will publish his inquiry. None of us can know where, if anywhere, his axe will fall. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, may be feeling his neck a little anxiously. So too will Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter whose story about Downing Street ‘sexing up’ the September 2002 dossier lies at the very centre of this drama.
It is certain that the Hutton report will be at least mildly critical of Mr Gilligan. He has himself admitted, or almost admitted, to having made some errors. He was unwise to suggest on the Today programme on 29 May — since he had no proof — that the government inserted into the September dossier its claim about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction being deployable in 45 minutes while knowing it to be false. He should not have sent an email to some members of the Commons foreign affairs committee suggesting that the source of his BBC colleague, Susan Watts, was Dr David Kelly. It would have been better if he had named Alastair Campbell as the ‘sexer-up’ of the dossier on the Today programme rather than in the pages of the Mail on Sunday.
But these, as I and others have argued in these pages, are relatively minor offences if you accept Mr Gilligan’s central thesis. This is that the government considerably exaggerated in its September dossier the threat posed by Iraq. During the inquiry, support for the Gilligan view was expressed by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, and more particularly by Dr Brian Jones, a recently retired senior analyst in the defence intelligence department. Dr Jones told the inquiry that the government had ‘over-egged’ the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and prevented experts on chemical and biological weapons from expressing widespread disquiet about the language and assumptions of the September dossier.
My hope is that Lord Hutton will accept that Mr Gilligan was broadly correct. But even if he does, there will undoubtedly be calls for the BBC to sack him. The pro-war newspapers, and the Sun in particular, will seize on the report’s every criticism of Mr Gilligan. For them he is no more than a political football to be kicked around. If you were in favour of the war, you must be against Mr Gilligan. This is false antithesis. It is possible to believe that the war against Iraq was justifiable, and yet to conclude that No. 10 did greatly exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
If you doubt that Tony Blair is himself capable of bending the truth about weapons of mass destruction, look at what he said in his pre-Christmas message to British servicemen. According to Mr Blair, the Iraq Survey Group, which has been searching for these weapons, has unearthed ‘massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists and plans to develop long-range ballistic missiles’. This statement was repudiated by Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, in a recent interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, who did not initially tell him that it was Mr Blair who had made it. Mr Bremer said: ‘I don’t know where those words come from, but that is not what David Kay [chief weapons inspector in the Iraq Survey Group] has said. I have read his reports so I don’t know who said that. It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me’. Only then did Mr Dimbleby tell Mr Bremer that it was Mr Blair who had made the statement he had debunked. Mr Bremer beat a hasty and embarrassed partial retreat which could not conceal the fact that Mr Blair is still in the business of ‘sexing up’ the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
The key question is how the BBC will react to the report’s criticisms of Mr Gilligan, which will be amplified by the pro-war press. In a recent interview with the Times, Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director-general, was studiously insouciant, even declaring that no senior executives would have to resign as a result of the report. But the BBC is, of course, terrified that the government will use Hutton to undermine its case for the renewal of its charter. With this in mind, the Corporation has banned its journalists from writing opinionated articles in the press (something Mr Gilligan did) and appointed Mark Byford as deputy director-general to take charge of all complaints and issues of compliance with the BBC’s guidelines.
Will it also offer Mr Gilligan’s head on a platter? Many senior BBC executives have been supportive of him, though Kevin Marsh, the editor of the Today programme, who has made some disobliging remarks about Mr Gilligan’s reporting style, may be less friendly. On the evidence that was laid before the Hutton inquiry, there is absolutely no case for getting rid of Mr Gilligan. On the contrary, he should be celebrated for having initiated a debate that otherwise might not have taken place. His essential point is that the government lied about weapons of mass destruction. Who can now seriously doubt that? This single journalist stood up to the vast government machine, and for his pains was nearly destroyed by Alastair Campbell. The BBC must realise that in the end this complicated story boils down to the simple issue of press freedom, though the numskulls and toadies at the Sun are unable to see it.
How should a newspaper report, and comment upon, the tribulations of its parent company? This has been the dilemma of the Telegraph Group titles since 17 November, when Conrad Black gave up day-to-day control of Hollinger International, which owns the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator.
On the whole, the Daily Telegraph has not done too badly. During this period it has carried 13 references to Hollinger International, and reported many of the major developments in the unfolding saga. By comparison, since 17 November until the moment of writing there have been 65 references to Hollinger International in the Times, 21 in the Independent and 69 in the Financial Times. Rival newspapers are understandably milking this story for all it is worth.
The Sunday Telegraph, however, has only mentioned Hollinger International twice since 17 November, and then in a glancing way in relation to possible bids by third parties. The company’s difficulties have nowhere been addressed. As a loyal reader of the newspaper, I would have valued some reporting and comment.
From the television listings of the Daily Mail: ‘9.00. The Mayor of Casterbridge. Julie Waters stars in this one-off drama about a woman who receives a conditional discharge from prison after serving 10 years for killing her husband in a drunken rage — an event she cannot even remember. But rebuilding her life proves easier said than done, especially when she discovers that if she tries to contact her teenage son or touches alcohol again, she’ll be given a one-way ticket back to jail.’
Crikey! I know that television takes liberties with novels, but this version of Thomas Hardy’s great novel, as summarised by the Mail, seems to be taking things a bit too far.