‘Sexed up’ conflict not letting up

Blair, BBC still wrangling over Iraq dossier

LONDON — The bitter and protracted wrangle between Tony Blair’s government and the BBC over its report about a “sexed up” Iraq intelligence dossier shows no sign of subsiding.

On Monday Alastair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications, said the government was not “backing down one inch” in its determination to secure an apology for a story broadcast May 29 by BBC Radio 4’s flagship news program, “Today.”

“The BBC stating, ‘We stand by our story’ does not answer the question, Was the allegation true or false?” said Campbell.

“Today” defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan claimed that a source in Blighty’s secret service, MI5, had told him that Campbell had deliberately exaggerated intelligence material, publishing the “sexed up” information in the Iraq dossier to justify the U.K.’s involvement in the American-led invasion of Iraq.

This, insisted Campbell, was “a manifestly inadequate piece of journalism.”

But the BBC maintains the story was accurate, and there has been speculation that Gilligan will take legal action to defend himself.

However, BBC director general Greg Dyke is believed to be reluctant for the BBC and the government to become immersed in legal proceedings.

For the past five days, the Downing Street spin doctor and BBC director of news Richard Sambrook have been engaged in a public spat, worsening the often fraught relations between Downing Street and Beeb journos.

The dispute over allegations that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes should be seen in the context of the pubcaster’s determination to challenge Downing Street’s justification for going to war and the coalition’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

This confrontation comes at a sensitive time for the pubcaster, funded entirely by a license fee decided by government ministers.

A new media bill, being debated in Parliament, may give regulators unprecedented power over the BBC, curbing the influence of its own board of governors.

But more threatening to the pubcaster’s long-term future is the increasing clamor from politicians and commercial rivals that the license fee should be either done away with or modified so that other U.K. broadcasters could bid for some of the money.

Despite the tension between Campbell and the BBC, intellectually the Blair government has been a huge supporter of the BBC as a public service broadcaster of international repute, encouraging it to launch new channels and become more aggressive commercially.

Before being appointed director general, Greg Dyke, a lifetime supporter of the Labour Party, donated money to assist Blair’s leadership campaign.