LONDON — Battles between British governments and the British Broadcasting Corp. are commonplace, but no one has ever died before as a result.
The July 17 suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a Ministry of Defense biological weapons expert subsequently acknowledged by the BBC as the source in the “sexed up” Iraqi dossier row, turned a political farce into a tragedy.
As soon as Kelly’s death was confirmed, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a judicial inquiry to examine the circumstances leading up to Kelly’s death and to get to the bottom of the blame game.
Headed by British judge Lord Hutton, the investigation, that may break with precedent and be carried live on TV, will seek to provide answers to the key questions in this extraordinary and protracted tussle that has dominated Blighty’s news agenda for six weeks.
The complexities of the Byzantine battle between Downing Street and Broadcasting House, triggered by defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan’s May 29 report on Radio 4’s “Today” program claiming the government exaggerated the case for war with Iraq, are pure John Le Carre.
Ultimately, what Hutton needs to uncover is whether the BBC acted honorably in reporting the story as it did — or were its journalists behaving contrary to the traditions of accuracy and journalistic responsibility that have made the BBC arguably the world’s most respected news gatherer.
“Gilligan may have taken a flyer,” says a BBC journalist. “But after a difficult couple of days following Kelly’s death when it seemed possible that heads would roll, the BBC is in bullish mode and is confident it can corroborate Gilligan’s story.”
If the BBC did put too much spin on Kelly’s information, the implication is that these actions may have led the civil servant, a long-established source for journalists seeking information about weapons of mass destruction, to take his own life.
Throughout the battle, the BBC hierarchy, including internal regulators, the board of governors, a group of part-time officials appointed to represent the public interest, have supported Gilligan.
Reports in some British newspapers, including the Times, that one or two of the governors had lost confidence in the BBC’s reporting, appear unfounded.
The BBC’s case is strengthened by tape-recorded evidence that will be presented to Hutton.
This shows that another BBC journalist, “Newsnight” reporter Susan Watts, interviewed Kelly. He apparently told her that Downing Street was “desperate” for information and has exaggerated “out of all proportion” the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
Kelly, who had been outed by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) after the BBC refused to name him, told MPs three days before his death that he did not recognize himself as the main source of the story.
Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director-general, said in a statement released following Kelly’s suicide: “It is one of the fundamental principles of journalism never to name your source unless the source is willing to be named.
“In recent weeks we did everything possible to protect Dr Kelly’s anonymity and we were in no way responsible for his name coming into the public arena.”
Of course, no one can ask Kelly if he was telling the entire truth. It is possible that he had been pressurized by the MOD to come forward in an attempt by Government officials to win the argument that had turned increasingly acrimonious with the pubcaster.
If Hutton concludes that this was what happened, the likely outcome is that Defense Minister Geoff Hoon and perhaps Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, who spearheaded the attack on the BBC, will have to resign.
“It’s tricky because no one wants to be seen bad-mouthing a dead man,” said a BBC journalist, “but everyone here feels that the BBC has a good case.”
What, if any, are the implications for BBC journalism?
Will having to defend itself before a public hearing persuade the corporation to stick more rigidly in future to its time-honored traditions of impartiality?
“There is no doubt that Gilligan when he joined Today was deliberately appointed to stir things up. His job was to go out and get exclusives,” opines a newsroom insider.
“This mess won’t make most BBC journalists any more willing than they are now to find scoops. But ‘Today’ and ‘Newsnight’ have an agenda and I can’t see that changing — although it might if Hutton gives them a wrap on the knuckles.”