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Source’s accuracy questioned

Hutton Inquiry probes Davies; Blair to resign if at fault

LONDON — In a startling admission, BBC chairman Gavyn Davies told the Hutton inquiry Thursday that it was not possible for the pubcaster’s governors to establish for certain whether defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan’s report that the government “sexed-up” a dossier on Iraq’s weapons capability was true.

While he admitted the governors had spent “a lot of time” establishing the nature of the source before releasing a statement supporting the BBC’s overall coverage of the Iraqi weapons affair, he said “it would not be possible” to judge the accuracy of the source’s claims.

“Going through all the governor’s deliberations, it would have been wonderful to be able to conduct an investigation, which showed with certainty whether or not this was true. But it never occurred to me that that could conceivably be done where we were sitting on the board of governors,” said Davies.

He continued: “It was my understanding that the source was credible and reliable. There was nothing at the meeting to suggest that the source was a senior intelligence source.”

Davies reiterated that BBC director general Greg Dyke and the pubcaster’s head of news Richard Sambrook were confident in Gilligan’s reporting abilities, adding that he had a “previous track record of breaking reports of importance and doing it accurately.”

Gilligan’s story broke on Radio 4’s “Today” program on May 29.

Despite supporting Gilligan’s journalistic abilities, the BBC chairman admitted that he was puzzled by an e-mail in which Gilligan appeared to name government weapons expert David Kelly as the source of BBC2’s “Newsnight” report on the government’s Iraq dossier, adding that it was “wrong” to divulge another’s source.

“I would say Mr Gilligan at this stage was under enormous pressure and perhaps felt the foreign affairs select committee was trying to discredit him as a journalist and perhaps felt he needed to take steps to counter that,” said Davies.

The BBC is understood to be planning to investigate Gilligan’s e-mails once the Hutton inquiry has concluded. Gilligan is preparing to submit another witness statement to the inquiry concerning his e-mails, which confirmed Kelly as the BBC’s source and suggested a line of questioning for Kelly during his appearance before the foreign affairs select committee.

Davies also accused the government’s communication director Alastair Campbell of “reigniting” the dispute between the government and the BBC and said that he had difficulty explaining to Campbell that the BBC reporting allegations made by a source was not the same as the BBC making the allegations itself.

“We had, right through this period, a problem persuading Mr Campbell that the BBC was reporting a story in which it was reporting the views of a senior, credible and reliable source, but was not itself making the allegations that that source was putting into the public domain via the BBC,” Davies explained.

Prime Minister Tony Blair also took to the stand Thursday to defend the government’s position over whether it had “sexed up” the dossier to back the case for war in Iraq.

Unlike Wednesday’s performance by defense secretary Geoff Hoon, who distanced himself from every decision and passed the buck to the Prime Minister’s office, Blair elected to take responsibility for everything.

Blair said that he would resign as Prime Minister if the government had falsified the dossier.

In an extraordinary attack on the BBC, Blair said that only a clear admission that they had got it wrong would put an end to the “raging storm” that had been created.

But the Prime Minister was put on the defensive, not least over the way the government had used normally secret intelligence to boost the case against Saddam Hussein.

“The whole business was unusual but it was in response to an unusual set of circumstances,” he said, maintaining that the intelligence behind the 45-minute claim had been solid.

“There was absolutely no reason for us to doubt that intelligence at all… it was essential that anything we said we could hand on heart say, “this is an assessment of the Joint Intelligence Committee,” he continued.

Blair also revealed that he had telephoned Davies on July 7 to tell him an official had come forward that could be the BBC’s source but whose account of events did not match that given by Gilligan.

The Prime Minister said he had asked Davies “isn’t the best way through for you to say, ‘We stand by our right to broadcast the story but we accept the story was wrong?’.”

He said that Davies had explained that he felt he could not do that. “He [Davies] could not retract the original story, that that would compromise the BBC’s independence.”