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Triumph of a paranoid court over the media

Simon Jenkins

The Chairman and Director-General of the BBC have resigned. The corporation has made a grovelling apology to the Prime Minister and his team. The victory of a paranoid court over media criticism is complete. It was not merited by the facts. It was required by the calculus of power. Hutton was not a court of law but a high-risk gamble to conceal Tony Blair's embarrassment over his Iraq intelligence by implicating the BBC in a suicide. The gamble worked.
At this moment the American Senate is being told unpleasant truths about that intelligence by the weapons inspector, David Kay. “It turns out we were all wrong,” he said on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Britons are dancing on the far side of the Moon. Lord Hutton appears to have taken fright when confronted by the truth of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He gave himself terms of reference so narrow as to exclude consideration of their significance. He was like a man seeking the causes of the Great War in the driving ability of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's chauffeur.

Shortly after the 1982 Franks inquiry into the Argentine invasion of the Falklands I asked Lord Franks why he had so completely exonerated the Thatcher Government. Surely its failures of diplomacy and intelligence had led Buenos Aires to believe that it could attack with impunity. His lordship looked grave: “Remember the tenor of the times and read my terms of reference.” The terms lent themselves to exoneration. This was no moment to rock the boat. The Establishment rallied to its own.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, assured Mr Blair that Lord Hutton was equally “safe”. The talk yesterday was that he had proved too safe for comfort. Whereas critics could read between the lines of Franks, there is no such reading of Hutton. He declared “unfounded” the claim of the BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, that Downing Street “sexed up” the September intelligence dossier. “Unfounded” was his suggestion that it “probably knew” that the 45-minutes claim was untrue. As for the later suggestion that ministers and officials had an underhand conspiracy to “out” David Kelly's name, that was not true.

Lord Hutton seemed utterly unmoved by the overwhelming evidence presented to him that the essence of the Gilligan story was correct, that some in the intelligence community were indeed worried at the use of their material as propaganda. Despite a blizzard of e-mails, faxes and minutes aimed at strengthening the dossier, its approval by John Scarlett of the Joint Intelligence Committee evaporated all charges of “sexing up” intelligence.

After Mr Gilligan had withdrawn and apologised for his “slip of the tongue” nobody claimed that Mr Blair has lied about weapons of mass destruction. The dossier was rather a catalogue of what lawyers call suppressio veri, suggestio falsi. Conditionals were changed to statements of fact. The suggestion that Saddam might use his weapons only if attacked was censored. Mr Blair thumped home the implausible and since discredited 45-minute “threat” over and again.

Lord Hutton seems to have regarded Alastair Campbell as he might the scholarly compiler of the King James Bible. He was not. He was plainly frantic to transform a dossier which, as a colleague said, offers “nothing to demonstrate any threat, let alone an imminent threat”. As for Lord Hutton's suggestion that Mr Campbell's pressure on the JIC was merely “subconscious”, that is ludicrous. Mr Campbell's pressure is never subconscious.

The exoneration of the Government's handling of Dr Kelly is equally bizarre. Dr Kelly might have sacrificed his right to kid-glove treatment after his leaking. But to deny any “underhand” conspiracy to “out” him in the press defies the evidence. Perhaps Lord Hutton simply could not bring himself to believe that Her Majesty's servants could ever talk of “getting the source out” or going to “f***” Gilligan”. Likewise Queen Victoria refused to believe in lesbianism.

The BBC's scoop on May 29, 2003, was true in its essentials and merited revelation. Its error arose from the recent dumbing down of news presentation. Stories have acquired musical backing, slow-motion pictures or idiot graphics. Presenters struggle to “make news” with loaded questions. They fashion scoops from interviews with their own reporters. Stories drift loose from prior editorial and legal scrutiny.

The May 29 story contained a subordinate phrase that imputed mendacity to Downing Street. To accuse anyone of a “probably” deliberate untruth is risky, even if the anyone is a government. Prior scrutiny should have prevented that allegation from being broadcast. The absence of that scrutiny was a gift to Mr Campbell. The delay by Mr Gilligan and his bosses in offering a full apology was wrapping on the gift.

The BBC's formal response was complicated by Downing Street rejecting its story in total, rather than in part. Line editors were convinced that the essence of Dr Kelly's leak was true, and corroborated by other reporters. They felt initially justified in defending it, and in protecting Mr Gilligan and his source. Their mistake was not to predict the degree of Mr Campbell's rage and the power he could wield to bring about the BBC's humiliation.

I watched these events unfold at the time. At each stage those involved made small errors but, without benefit of hindsight, not big ones. Much about the BBC is arrogant and monopolistic, result of years of bloated self-aggrandisement. But the corporation's news function remains mostly robust, witness its reporting of its own story this week. The mistake over Mr Gilligan was the result of poor editorial handling, not a corporate conspiracy against the Government, whatever the BBC's gleeful enemies may say.

As a result I still do not see the Gilligan affair as a hanging offence, let alone one for which the BBC's two most senior officials should resign and the board offer a grovelling apology. Questioning the good faith of ministers is what news organisations do all the time. The BBC was trying, against a barrage of complaints from Mr Campbell, to report on not one but two intelligence dossiers which appear to have been complete hogwash. It was victim not of grand journalistic larceny but of the brilliance with which Mr Blair and Mr Campbell deflected attention from those dossiers.

The fall of Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke is a savage revenge. There was a strong case for both standing firm in defiance of a bullying Government. They had apologised for Mr Gilligan's story. They had reformed their editorial process. They were pilloried by Lord Hutton. That was surely enough.

Mr Davies's position was fatally weakened by the ambiguity of his post. He is both boss and “regulator” of the BBC, its defender and its supposed scourge. This split-personality post must be doomed. Come the new charter, the oversight and financing of the BBC must be vested in an external public service broadcasting board. The BBC itself should be a separate trust. But whatever changes are made, the integrity and vigour of its news services must be safeguarded. It is perhaps a paradox that a momentary lapse in the BBC's corporate judgment should now prove to the world how crucial - and how vulnerable - is its independence.

Accusations of deviousness and chicanery are the daily stuff of politics. If Mr Blair and Mr Campbell could bring themselves to admit that they “unknowingly” misled the public over Iraq's WMD, their outrage over Mr Gilligan's error might seem less synthetic. The British people still have no answers to the intelligence claims and counter-claims revealed at the Hutton inquiry. They are still lost on the WMD mountain up which Mr Blair led them last spring, and from which George Bush has already descended.

Nothing in the September dossier has been officially questioned or corrected. Its contents are being fiercely investigated this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, and being revealed as probably false. Neither Britain's Parliament nor a British judge dare to tread that road. Only the media, a necessary but insufficient proxy fordemocracy, are doing so.

The Hutton report reads like that of an elderly retainer summoned from his roses to perform a last deed for his lord and master, the Establishment. Everyone knows that Britain was induced to go to war last April on a dud prospectus. Only America has the guts to admit it.