Column

WHEN THE MEDIA LIE

The BBC failed to come clean about David Kelly, who later committed suicide

BARBARA AMIEL August 11 2003
Column

WHEN THE MEDIA LIE

The BBC failed to come clean about David Kelly, who later committed suicide

BARBARA AMIEL August 11 2003

WHEN THE MEDIA LIE

Column

The BBC failed to come clean about David Kelly, who later committed suicide

BARBARA AMIEL

I HAVE OFTEN SEEN disagreements between the BBC and British governments, whether Labour or Conservative. But the battle going on now is quite different. It is a struggle for power between the two. Incredibly, it has all the hallmarks of an attempted coup d’état by the BBC.

The BBC and its allies wish to reverse government policy. They disapproved of the war in Iraq and what was gained in winning it is now to be undone in the peace. The current battle is between a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, and the Prime Minister’s right-hand man, Alistair Campbell. Gilligan claimed on BBC radio and in print that the government of Tony Blair used intelligence information that it knew was unreliable to justify going to war, and did so against the advice of its own intelligence community. Gilligan maintained that his source named Campbell as the person insisting this be done in order to make the dossier of reasons for going to war “sexier.”

The reaction to this claim by the government was incendiary. The government and Campbell denied it and demanded an apology—and the name of the source from the BBC. The BBC refused. In round two, a senior scientist, later identified as David Kelly, a biological and chemical warfare specialist, volunteered his name to the ministry of defence as the possible source for these stories. But he added later that if he were Gilligan’s source, his point of view was unrecognizable as rendered by Gilligan.

In round three, Gilligan and Kelly testified before a parliamentary committee. Three days later, Kelly’s body was found, an apparent suicide. Now, seeing what is going on is like fighting your way through swarms of midges infesting your eyes. Reporters fill pages of print and air time with irrelevant details and long-winded arguments over the life and times of Kelly. But the conclusion is almost always the same, namely, that the inquiry now underway will have to decide if it is Tony Blair who has David Kelly’s blood on his hands.

What no one focuses on is that the entire scandal is based on two players who both appear to be untruthful—the BBC and Kelly. It is perfectly defensible, even honourable, for the BBC to refuse to name a source. But there is a great difference between refusing to disclose your source and saying untruthfully that a person is not your principal source when he is. After Kelly had come forward to his superiors, the defence ministry issued a statement which described Kelly and his meeting with Gilligan—minus Kelly’s name. Kelly’s identity must have been unmistakable to both Gilligan and the BBC. But the BBC continued to stonewall.

The next day, July 9, the BBC press office issued a Byzantine statement in response. The BBC did not simply say “no comment, we refuse to name our source.” Gilligan’s

THERE IS a great difference between refusing to disclose your source and saying untruthfully that a person is not your source when he is

story, said the BBC, did not “correspond” with the account given by the “individual” described by the ministry of defence. Even if Gilligan’s source was the one outlined by the ministry, the fact that he was now saying the opposite of what he allegedly said to Gilligan did not worry the BBC. The source was being truthful with them, but not “frank” with the ministry.

The BBC went on to say that Gilligan’s source did not “work in the ministry of defence.” This was not true, because the ministry of defence had described the individual we now know was Kelly as “working in the ministry of defence.”

Kelly, who was identified publicly just after the BBC statement, played a delicate game himself. His testimony before a parliamentary committee was a masterful tap

dance. In respect to Gilligan’s report, he said, “From the conversation I had with him, I do not see how he could make the authoritative statement he was making from the comments that I made.”

After Kelly died, the BBC acknowledged that he was, in fact, Gilligan’s principal source. It also acknowledged that Kelly was the principal source for similar subsequent critical stories by science editor Susan Watts.

Kelly, who has been lionized as the sensitive scientist driven to his own destruction by a parliamentary committee and voracious press, strikes me as rather like a number of intelligence people I’ve encountered who tell tales out of school. They tend to say what they think a journalist wants to hear. They are often the ones who “sex” things up, and good luck to the journalist trying to sort it all out.

Nevertheless, the last (and only) thing we have on record from Kelly is his denial that: a) he was the one who told Gilligan the claim by Blair that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could be deployed in 45 minutes was unreliable and the government knew this, and, b) that this assertion was included in Blair’s reasons for going to war at the behest of Campbell.

It has been widely reported that the BBC has a tape of Kelly backing up its version. If so, we will see if Kelly lied to Parliament or the BBC lied to us about what he supposedly said. We already know the BBC lied to us about Kelly being the source.

Of course, the claim that these weapons could be deployed in 45 minutes was not the argument for going to war. Far from being the cake, it was not even its icing, only a chip of decoration. Though WMDs have not been found in Iraq so far, the absence of evidence is no evidence of their absence. They were there in the mid-nineties and subsequently Iraq kicked out the UN inspectors. Iraq had something to hide. To deny their existence because they cannot be produced would be as silly as the BBC claiming that Saddam did not exist because no one has yet found him.

The serious story here is the spectacle of the BBC brass, lined up like a row of colonels in a banana republic, trying desperately to unseat a government which pursued a policy of which they disapprove. It is, to say the least, an unedifying spectacle. li1]

Barbara Amiel’s column appears monthly. bamiel@macleans.ca