LONDON — The BBC confirmed Sunday that Ministry of Defense scientist David Kelly, who committed suicide Thursday, was its main source for a report accusing the government of “sexing up” weapons evidence to justify war in Iraq.
The government and the pubcaster have been embroiled in a bitter, drawn-out battle over the May 29 report by journalist Andrew Gilligan on Radio Four, with Blair aides demanding a retraction and an apology.
The report quoted a source as saying that despite intelligence experts’ doubts, officials had “sexed up” evidence to include the claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.
The Ministry of Defense identified Kelly as a possible source after the internationally respected microbiologist and former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq had told his bosses he’d spoken to Gilligan.
Kelly was questioned by a parliamentary committee a few days before his death — police found his body in the woods near his Oxfordshire home. They said he had bled to death from a slashed left wrist.
Throughout the dispute, the BBC had refused to say whether Kelly had been its source. “We clearly owed him a duty of confidentiality,” a BBC statement said. “Following his death, we now believe, in order to end the continuing speculation, it is important to release this information as swiftly as possible.”
The pubcaster waited until Sunday to make the announcement at the Kelly family’s request.
The battle has again thrown the pubcaster’s future in the spotlight. Gerald Kaufman, who chairs the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said the BBC’s charter, which is up for renewal in 2006, should be reviewed and it should be placed under super-regulator Ofcom.
“I believe the BBC has behaved deplorably and there are serious implications for its future,” Kaufman said.
The statement also confirmed that Kelly had been the source for a similar piece by reporter Susan Watts on its BBC2 “Newsnight” analysis program.
Politicians accused the BBC of inaccurately reporting Kelly’s comments, a charge Gilligan denied Sunday. He said he found it difficult to believe that a man who stood up to the Iraqis would kill himself over the dossier. Gilligan also added that he was not going to resign.
The news of Kelly’s death reached Prime Minister Tony Blair as he was flying to Tokyo from Washington, where he had delivered a triumphant address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
A visibly shaken Blair, who has been dogged by angry charges about the affair, said he would take full responsibility if a judicial inquiry finds the government contributed to Kelly’s death. The inquiry will report in September.
The pubcaster said it would co-operate fully with the inquiry into Kelly’s suicide, providing details of its reporters’ contacts with the scientist, including their notes.
“We continue to believe we were right to place Dr. Kelly’s views in the public domain,” the BBC said. “However, the BBC is profoundly sorry that his involvement as our source has ended so tragically.”
Sky admits it faked story
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch-backed Sky News admitted Friday that it carried a fake story about a Tomahawk missile launch from a Royal Navy submarine during the war in Iraq.
The report led viewers to believe that HMS Splendid was engaged in action although it was docked and merely demonstrating the preparations for launching a missile.
Reporter James Forlong has resigned following a probe by Sky execs, who found that some of the scenes were reconstructions or taken from library footage. Producer Lucy Chaytor was cleared of blame.
“There was never any conscious intent to deceive viewers, though I accept that was the outcome,” Forlong said. “I accept the damage this has done to my integrity, something that has never before been called into question during a decade of working as a correspondent for Sky News.”
Sky Networks deputy managing director Mark Sharman, who chaired the inquiry, added: “This is unacceptable to a news operation, which has built a proud reputation for accuracy and integrity. Maintaining that reputation is paramount.