Editorial: Narrow focus let Blair off the hook


There can be no better advertisement for Teflon than the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and there can be no better example of the supremacy of the British Establishment than the Hutton report. Mr Blair has shaken off a week that had been expected to bury him without trace and the report into the "sexed up" Iraq dossier has exonerated men whom every bookmaker in Britain would have regarded as odds-on favourites for the pillory.

The Prime Minister's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, his erstwhile spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, and hapless Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon were cleared of any wrongdoing while the BBC's Andrew Gilligan and his superiors were given what an East-ender would describe as a right hammering.

Given that the occupation of Iraq has revealed no weapons of mass destruction let alone the ability to deploy such weapons in 45 minutes, it seems extraordinary that the Hutton report does not question why the intelligence reports could have been so fundamentally wrong.

It would be expecting too much to suggest that the BBC be let off with a milder reprimand because the substance of Gilligan's report - that there were insufficient grounds to support an invasion of Iraq - was proved right even if the "sexed up" allegations were wrong. The BBC's crime was that it had challenged the Establishment and had been found wanting.

Sections of the British media have labelled the Hutton report an "Establishment whitewash" and there will remain, in spite of Mr Blair's claims that he and his Government have been vindicated, a nagging sense that Downing St scored too much of a clean sweep.

It did so because Lord Hutton assiduously avoided the broader question of whether the Blair Government exaggerated the case for war. Indeed, Lord Hutton's focus was so narrow, and his regard for official integrity so ingrained, it is difficult to see that he could have reached any other conclusion.

It led, perhaps inevitably, to charges of journalist-bashing. Former magazine editor Frank Johnson, writing after publication of the Hutton report, said the judge had taken the word of officialdom at face value but not that of journalists. "We journalists are used to that," he said, "irrespective of the evidence." However, the comment was a shade too aggrieved because evidence, unfortunately, was in short supply when Gilligan and the BBC were forced to back up the "sexed-up dossier" claims. In fact, they could not. That is clear from Lord Hutton's relentless scrutiny of what the BBC reporter broadcast and the grounds for saying it.

The BBC probably got it wrong because it became overexcited. It had a highly-placed source (Dr David Kelly) who raised doubts that could implicate a Blair aide who was no particular friend of the media (Alastair Campbell) on the hottest story of the day (the invasion of Iraq). Enthusiasm can overcome caution and checks and balances that should form part of a story's passage to air are forgotten. At the end of the day a story is only as good as a medium's ability to prove it and the proof needs to be available before publication.

This prerequisite does, of course, stack the odds in favour of officialdom. It is much easier for politicians and bureaucrats to hide facts than for journalists to uncover them. That, however, does not reduce the burden of proof. Irrespective of any nagging doubts over whether Downing St and the Ministry of Defence manipulated the case for war, Gilligan failed to uncover enough facts to substantiate his story.

His superiors' failure - for which the BBC chairman and the director-general have paid the penalty - was in not determining that he had the necessary hard evidence before they attacked the Establishment ramparts in defence of their reporter.

The result: Blair is another name for non-stick surfaces.