What is the view of the Andrew Gilligan affair at the Frog and Firkin? It is some time since I have been down to the Frog, but I feel I know its ways so well that I can be pretty sure what they are thinking. Most of its denizens are stuck somewhere between boredom and bewilderment. They feel as though they have been asked to take a paper in astrophysics with half an hour's preparation on the subject and the aid of a blunt pencil. Of course, there will be some who believe they understand the whole thing perfectly. The landlord, who happens to be a Labour councillor, is certain that the BBC and Mr Andrew Gilligan are gravely at fault, and looks forward to the day when Alastair Campbell is raised to the peerage. The man who props up the bar, on the other hand, is a lifelong Tory who for the first time finds himself siding with the BBC. The rest of the Frog's regulars look on in appalled incomprehension as the two of them slog it out, wishing that the conversation could be steered towards the prospects for Chelsea under its new Russian billionaire owner, or the rumour that a new lap-dancing club is opening around the corner.
No one's understanding will have been greatly assisted by Wednesday's newspapers, which reported Mr Gilligan's appearance before Lord Hutton the previous day. To read some of them, you would think that the BBC's case had been blown apart, and Mr Gilligan exposed as a shoddy reporter. (The Sun called him a LIAR on its front page.) To read others, you would come away with the impression that it was the reputation of Alastair Campbell, not Mr Gilligan, which had been trashed. 'Campbell sexed up the dossier', proclaimed the Independent's front-page headline. 'Double damning of Campbell', shouted the Daily Mail. I am talking here not about comment, but about the way in which news was presented. In the category of Gilligan-bashers were the Financial Times, the Times and the Sun. In the Campbell-bashing camp were the Daily Mirror, Independent, Daily Mail and, for the most part, the Daily Telegraph, which seems to have switched sides. The Daily Express and Daily Star tended towards the anti-Campbell faction. The Guardian alone occupied the middle ground. In its judgment everyone was a bit flaky.
How can this be? How can serious-minded newspapers report the same events in such dramatically different ways? I do not pretend to be neutral in this affair – few of us are – but I am going to attempt to summarise Tuesday's events as I understand them as fairly as I can.
Mr Gilligan did not emerge unscathed from Tuesday's proceedings. Under questioning from Lord Hutton, he was adamant that it was the weapons expert Dr David Kelly who first 'raised the subject of 45 minutes and he raised the subject of Campbell' when the two of them met at a London hotel. And yet in his evidence to the foreign affairs select committee on 17 July, which was released yesterday, he seemed to say at one stage that his source did not suggest that Mr Campbell inserted the 45-minute claim. (Note for beginners, and my friends at the Frog and Firkin: Mr Gilligan originally reported the claim that No. 10 'sexed up' last September's dossier about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and inserted at the last minute the idea that they could be deployed in 45 minutes. A few days later he named Alastair Campbell in the Mail on Sunday as the person who had done this.)
Also disquieting for Mr Gilligan's supporters was the revelation that his boss had doubts about aspects of his reporting. On 27 June Kevin Marsh, the editor of the Today programme, emailed Stephen Mitchell, the BBC's head of radio news: 'This story was a good piece of investigative journalism marred by flawed reporting – our biggest millstone has been his [Andrew Gilligan's] loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology.' This is not the sort of email any journalist would particularly like to have written by his editor. On the other hand, Mr Gilligan was able to produce an email sent to him by Mr Marsh which was unalloyed in its praise. But he did concede that he may have gone too far when at 6.07 a.m. on 29 May on the Today programme he suggested in response to a question that the government knew its 45-minute claim was bogus.
Where does that leave us? With the feeling that Mr Gilligan's conduct was not unblemished. But it is monstrous of some newspapers to suggest that these shortcomings completely invalidate his case. On the contrary, Tuesday's proceedings give us good reasons for believing that Mr Gilligan was in essence right in what he reported. Susan Watts, science editor of BBC2's Newsnight, said that she also had been told by Dr Kelly that Alastair Campbell was central to inserting the 45-minute claim, and produced her contemporaneous notes. She had not mentioned this when she made her report because she believed that Dr Kelly had been speaking 'in a glib way'. But that was only her judgment. She would have been entitled to have reported what such a senior civil servant had said to her – and some people may think that she should have. Andrew Gilligan evidently did.
I don't expect Mr Gilligan will ever get a fair ride from the papers which demonise him, particularly the Sun. So far as the Murdoch press is concerned, this has nothing to do with justice. It hates the BBC, enthusiastically supported the war against Iraq, and sucks up to New Labour. Mr Gilligan must be wrong because, if he is not, the hated BBC is vindicated, the reasons for going to war are suspect, and the Prime Minister and Mr Campbell are in a load of trouble.
If Lord Hutton finds against Mr Gilligan, the BBC will be wounded. That is why this inquiry is so important. I have often criticised the BBC, but how I have valued it and admired it in recent days as it has reported Mr Gilligan's cross-examination fairly and conscientiously, even allowing its many detractors ample scope. Can you imagine the Murdoch press acting in such a way? Or any newspaper, come to that? This is the case for this unique institution, the BBC – that it is even-handed in reporting its own affairs, and will not conceal facts that may be damaging to itself.
All the same, we must not get soppy. I do have one bone to pick with the BBC. The Corporation is over the moon at having won back the rights to show highlights of Premier League football matches. It wrested the rights from ITV by paying £105 million over three years, which it claims is a bargain. There is general jubilation at the BBC, whose director-general, Greg Dyke, is a football nut. But no one seems to be asking whether it is right to spend so much licence-payers' money when commercial television is already showing highlights. Everyone agrees that good drama barely exists at the BBC these days. Consider how many dozen hours could have been commissioned if the Corporation had been prepared to leave the Premier League highlights with commercial television. What is the point of the BBC? To be more like ITV than ITV?