Spinning out of control

Jackie Ashley
Monday July 21, 2003
The Guardian

So much for a quiet period of reflection: while David Kelly's family call for a pause, a bit of silence, the hysterical headlines only get wilder. There's blood on Blair's hands, or the BBC's journalism killed him, or this is the New Labour Watergate. To call for calm now is like pressing the case for a vegan diet on the wolfpack.

It could be caricatured as the War of the Jacksons: in one corner, Robert Jackson, Dr Kelly's Tory MP, who calls down imprecations on the BBC; and in the other, Glenda Jackson, who, being a Labour MP, naturally wants the prime minister to go.

There have been flashes of penitence. I was a BBC employee for several years and my husband works there now - but I was pleased to see the corporation saying sorry for some of its part in this. And Tony Blair too, at first, looked genuinely stricken on his overseas visit, as he confirmed he would give evidence to the inquiry. Yet elsewhere the reaction was to carry on with the argument about the alleged "sexing up" of intelligence, as if Dr Kelly was merely a grammatical pause.

The government's enemies, now led by Associated Newspapers, have accused its spin-politics of having killed Dr Kelly. Some are calling for Blair to resign, some for Alastair Campbell, some for Geoff Hoon. Others, rather optimistically, want all three of them to walk the plank. MPs on the left are particularly vitriolic, having suffered themselves from what they see as a scurrilous trait in New Labour's character - spin.

The opposition parties are also part of this alliance, though they have been a little more cautious. They think they could get Campbell out, which would weaken Blair. Their agenda is - like that of many Labour leftists - to get Gordon Brown into No 10 because they think he would be hugely unpopular in middle Britain. All the grave expressions and statements of sadness about Dr Kelly mask rising political excitement at the prospect of dishing Blair, the Labour politician the Tories most fear.

The position taken by the government's supporters is that rotten BBC journalism, supported by a corrupt and flabby corporate bureaucracy, killed Dr Kelly. Had yesterday's announcement that Dr Kelly was the source been made earlier, when the government first announced that he had come forward, then - so the argument goes - the pressure on him would have been less, the story would have ended, and he would still be alive.

Here too, we have a strange alliance of interests. The attacks on the BBC have been led by two groups - Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and New Labour spin-doctors - which have been closely intertwined in recent years. The covert Murdoch message is clear enough: Tony, we are your real, reliable supporters, not the dodgy lefties of the BBC. Even after changes to the communications bill, Murdoch's hopes of getting a terrestrial British TV channel and nudging aside ITV, remain alive. The more the government clips the wings of the corporation, the better for Murdoch. His papers are in attack mode.

New Labour's war against the BBC is at least free of commercial taint. It goes back to its general irritation about the tone of coverage of the Iraq war. What was a specific issue about a few stories was widened into a relentless and highly personal campaign by Campbell. He drove the campaign against the BBC and revived it every time it seemed to be flagging, with a humourless obsessiveness that ensured Dr Kelly suffered publicly for briefing Andrew Gilligan.

Behind the Murdoch papers and the spin-doctors working for Campbell, some of the BBC's oldest enemies have piled in too - Gerald Kaufman and Peter Mandelson, who suggested yesterday that its "obsession" with Campbell led to the breakdown in relations "with the result we have seen". (It's more than a bit rich to see Mandelson or Campbell accusing others of "obsession".)

We have two teams of angry men shouting at one another: it's like a playground brawl that turned tragically ugly. Both sides have questions to answer. For the BBC: did Gilligan "sex up" what Dr Kelly had told him? And some will ask why they did not admit the source was Dr Kelly earlier - though I would still maintain that journalists have a duty to protect their sources, otherwise that's the end of journalism.

For the government: who leaked his name and on whose authority? Was No 10 leaning on the Ministry of Defence? Was Dr Kelly threatened with the loss of his pension and with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if he didn't play their game? And if Dr Kelly and others thought the claim that Iraq could launch chemical attacks within 45 minutes laughable, why was the language in the dossier so starkly threatening?

That is for the inquiry, under a government-appointed judge, working to government-set questions. But that will not resolve the wider issues. Political journalism is not in good condition. It has become self-righteous, intolerant and arrogant. The tone of the Daily Mail has spread more widely. It speaks volumes that Andrew Gilligan chose the Mail on Sunday for his famous article, pushing the original Today report further by claiming that his "source" had blamed Campbell for hyping intelligence information. In general, "politicians are all rogues" fulminations of the Mail have been picked up too easily by other papers and by broadcasters.

On the other side, who can now doubt that the macho spin-machine created by Campbell and Mandelson has been horrifically damaging for Labour and for the reputation of politics generally? Dr Kelly was gleefully seized upon by those in New Labour who did not want, as they claim, to have an error corrected, but rather to crush their media enemies, to win some kind of historic victory. Perhaps this was done to help Campbell emerge from No 10 in his own time, with his reputation restored: if so, it has had the opposite effect, as spin tends to.

But both sides will now move on to the next stage of the game, as if none of the above mattered. They will call for resignations. It's all they know. It's what they do. Some want Campbell's head and some want a BBC head, preferably Gilligan's. But without at least one head on a pole, to be jeered by the mob and made the subject of endless wise-after-the-event columns, there can apparently be no "closure".

That's as maybe. There is nothing wrong with resignations, in general. But there is when they avoid the need for harder questions being confronted, as should happen now. Who is this aggressive, attack-dog media and political culture supposed to be helping? Not the politicians, who can no longer rely on reasonable electoral turnouts; not the BBC, which should now be worried about government vengeance; not the press, judging by newspaper sales. Normal people hate what has happened to the nasty, nutty Westminster world. And here's something else to reflect on: while Dr Kelly's death is tragic, several thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed by the war on Iraq which, we were told, was to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. Those weapons, and the "imminent threat" they were said to pose, remain as elusive as ever.


In defence of the BBC

The corporation was right not to name its source. If only it had been able to hold the line

Rod Liddle
Monday July 21, 2003
The Guardian

So now we know what we had already strongly suspected - that Dr David Kelly was the main source for Andrew Gilligan's report, and presumably the almost identical reports which followed quite independently on Newsnight and in the press. I am not sure what this changes, if anything. According to some commentators, it means that "the heat has now been turned upon the BBC". Why has it?

The BBC made its admission because it felt it had no other option. I think it was the wrong decision, but it is not difficult to understand. Pummelled and buffeted by New Labour pundits, compliant backbenchers and select committee chairmen, the director-general will have felt it a concession which could now be granted without further damage being done to poor David Kelly. But that may not be correct.

For a start, it leaves Andrew Gilligan in public disagreement with a man who is now dead and cannot, therefore, defend himself. And paradoxically, for that very reason, it is an argument which Gilligan and the BBC will find difficult to win. But in every other respect, the corporation has got it right throughout this appalling imbroglio. It stood by its journalism and its journalists - not out of arrogance, as some have alleged, but because it knew that what they had reported was accurate and important.

Andrew Gilligan - and other Today programme reporters - used to claw the walls in frustration as their reports were pulled apart, line by line, by me as editor, usually in conjunction with a deputy editor henchman, whenever the story they were delivering carried even the slightest whiff of controversy. And then I would disappear down some dank, grey corridor at Television Centre to have my bosses pull the story apart, line by line and word by word, with me stamping and pouting around like a sullen adolescent. Believe me, the BBC takes its public service requirement very seriously indeed. It knows it inhabits a different universe to its broadcasting and newspaper competitors.

And the same painstaking process will have been undertaken over Gilligan's report. And then, later, with the almost identical report on Newsnight by Susan Watts. In a later Mail on Sunday article Gilligan used the word "Campbell", while his Today report merely mentioned Downing Street. How odd, then, that it is the Campbell word alone which triggered such furious indignation from the government. Are we expected to believe that the security services and the intelligence experts were delighted by Alastair Campbell's apparent misuse of their evidence? Are we expected to believe that the word "Campbell" was never uttered?

Or are we still expected to believe John Reid's ludicrous assertion that "rogue" members of the security service wished to undermine and discredit the New Labour government? Do you remember that little piece of spin? Is that allegation still au courant, Dr Reid - or should we forget all about it because it's the BBC in the dock now, rather than MI6?

When the Ministry of Defence undertook its frantic witchhunt and eventually succeeded - we don't know how, really, do we? - in identifying the mole, it jubilantly announced that the culprit was lowly, of little importance and had scant involvement. That's not how he has been described by the MoD and the government latterly, is it? Quite clearly, Dr Kelly was eminent and credible and every bit as involved in the intelligence process as Andrew Gilligan and Susan Watts asserted.

The BBC withstood tremendous pressure to reveal the name of its source. It is being argued now that it should have named Dr Kelly immediately before he was dragged before the snapping, barking and jeering foreign affairs select committee. Why? It would surely have increased the pressure upon Dr Kelly, rather than lessened it.

You never reveal your source. In my opinion, you don't do so even when the source is dead. You afford your source the confidentiality you promised and you don't backtrack when people start getting a bit irate with you and snarling about your "constitutional" responsibility to impartiality and mentioning the licence fee. The name of journalism - which is never held in the highest public esteem - was not improved by the betrayals of those previous moles or whistleblowers - call them what you will - Mordechai Vanunu and Sarah Tisdall. The BBC was right not to have budged an inch.

And can you imagine what would have happened if the BBC had admitted that Dr Kelly was indeed the source and subsequently he had killed himself?

The BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, on the news last week, described Alastair Campbell as a "decent man". Perhaps Marr was extending himself in an attempt to accord with his corporation's constitutional responsibility for impartiality. Or, hell, who knows, perhaps he meant it? Whatever: if Campbell really is decent, he will presumably resign. This has been a war almost entirely about Campbell's hubris. It has now claimed a life: and that is unacceptable.

7 Rod Liddle is a former editor of Radio 4's Today programme.


Britain can build bridges - and avoid a drift to war

Blair will only be trusted in east Asia if he distances himself from the US

John Gittings
Monday July 21, 2003
The Guardian

If Tony Blair can wrench his mind away from disasters at home, he has some serious image-rebuilding to do when he addresses Chinese students tomorrow in Beijing. The prime minister's reputation as an independent leader has been badly dented by the Iraq war. "I just can't understand why Blair is so close to Bush," says a normally Anglophile young Chinese journalist. "Doesn't he have a mind of his own?" A western diplomat accredited to Beijing agrees: "It's generally perceived that Blair has lost the vision and energy which made himself so popular [in China]."

If Mr Blair really believes that Britain can play the international role which he claims for it, east Asia is a region on which to focus. The stakes could hardly be higher: labelled as part of the "axis of evil", North Korea is bent on acquiring a minimum nuclear deterrent to avoid the fate of Iraq, while the Bush administration insists it must disarm. Without concerted pressure from outside powers, the situation risks drifting towards another, more deadly war.

The stakes are high in Beijing too, where there is growing alarm at US domination of the world and the new leaders there will come under increasing pressure from military hardliners to increase China's own nuclear and conventional punch. As fellow permanent five security council members and nuclear states, China and Britain are on similar rungs of the international power ladder and could have much more in common. Those with long memories will recall the 1954 Geneva conference when the two countries' foreign ministers, Anthony Eden and Zhou Enlai, worked together to prevent John Foster Dulles from frustrating the agreement which ended the first Vietnam war. Since the second Vietnam war, though, Britain has deferred to Washington's dominant role in the region.

I returned from visiting Pyongyang for the Guardian in 1988 with a message from North Korean officials inviting Britain to take a modest step towards beginning educational exchanges. A senior British diplomat dismissed the idea impatiently: everyone knows, he said, that the Korean peninsula is Washington's exclusive sphere.

A few dissenting voices in the Foreign Office have since been vindicated, and Britain now has diplomatic relations with the North as well as the South. It might seem an ideal opportunity to play a more constructive role, yet the message remains low-key. British officials say apologetically that their embassy in Seoul is little more than a commercial office. The new mission in Pyongyang is regarded as low-level, lacking access to the North's leaders.

Last week, China's foreign ministry spokesman made it unusually clear that Beijing would like to see an independent British input. The Korean nuclear issue, said Kong Quan, would be the "most important" topic on the agenda and Blair's visit was of "vital significance".

It is unfortunate that Blair, in his speech to the US Congress last Friday, pandered to neo-con prejudice when he denounced North Korea for "let[ting] its people starve whilst spending billions of dollars on developing nuclear weapons". Such language puts Pyongyang clearly in the frame as target number two in the axis of evil. It was the Bush administration's hard line which encouraged Pyongyang to end cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and push ahead with its nuclear weapons programme. The North's leader, Kim Jong-il, has judged that it is more likely to avoid the fate of Iraq if there is at least a suspicion that it already has the bomb.

As for relations with China, if Britain really wants to build a new "bridge" (the goal which Blair proclaimed on his last visit to the mainland in 1998), this is a favourable moment to choose. Jack Straw held out the prospect a year ago when he visited Beijing and called for a new era of cooperation - but that was before the war. British diplomats in Beijing now describe the purpose of the visit as "to build up a greater rapport with the new leadership" (of President Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao). To be meaningful, this requires the prime minister to sing his own song. He needs to convince Hu and Wen that it is not just part of the tune from Washington which they can already hear on the direct line anyway.

It makes sense for Blair to distinguish between Hu and Wen, who have had a relatively clean slate since their inauguration last November, and the preceding Jiang Zemin regime. Today Blair has a meeting with Jiang who, although semi-retired, still fancies himself as a powerful influence behind the imperial screen. He would be well advised to play it down as a courtesy call. It was Jiang who magnified the harmless Falun Gong sect into a national threat, and who insisted on the re-appointment of Hong Kong's hapless (and hopeless) chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

Under Hu, the resumed dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing has aroused modest hopes among the exiles. And there is some willingness to admit that Tung has badly mishandled Hong Kong's fears over the unpopular new security law. Better relations should not mean muffling Britain's views on human rights and the rule of law. There is a huge gap between intentions and performance, and local bosses and security officials in Tibet and many Chinese provinces still ignore Beijing's commitments to reform.

When Mr Blair arrives tomorrow evening in Hong Kong, at least half a million people (those who marched against the security law on July 1, and many more) will expect clarity from him on their future. As co-signatory to the 1984 joint declaration with China, Britain has had a continuing special responsibility since the handover six years ago. Mr Blair should re-affirm the commitment to see Hong Kong move towards full democracy - implied in 1984 and spelled out in China's own "basic law". If Tung is to stay in power - and he has just been re-endorsed by Beijing - Blair should urge him to start the "democracy debate" now, well ahead of the 2007 elections, when change is due.

Of course, a lot of Blair's visit is about boosting trade and cultural relations. In Shanghai, now Asia's fastest growing economic hub, Blair will say some encouraging words to an entrepreneurs' summit. He was scheduled to inaugurate a "literary train" which would carry British and Chinese writers from Shanghai to Hong Kong, swapping ideas and poems on the way. Postponed because of Sars and the war, it is now due in November, part of an imaginative and successful programme run by the British Council in China.

Yet much more is needed if Blair wishes to justify not flying straight back to the crisis at home. Unless he can make his mark, Blair will swiftly be upstaged by the next eminent Briton to appear in the People's Republic - David Beckham, who arrives at the weekend with Real Madrid and 500 western journalists in tow.