Why Will This Man Not Stop?


IT WAS Jorge Luis Borges who said that watching the Falklands War was like watching two bald men fighting over a comb. Had he lived, and had he cared, the poet might have added that watching journalists and politicians trade blows over the truth is a bit like watching two bankrupts argue over the cost of living. Bystanders can be forgiven for nodding off.

There is, for all that, something out of the ordinary about the trench warfare that has broken out between Downing Street and the BBC. On the face of it we have a parochial argument over who said what to whom in the run-up to war with Iraq, an argument that looks desperately petty set beside the fighting and its aftermath. Did the government test honesty to the limit in its efforts to persuade the public? Did Andrew Gilligan, a Today reporter, expose official deceit  or did he bend a few facts in his eagerness for a story? None of this should matter much. Yet matter it does.

It matters most because of a charge that no-one will put explicitly into words: that the government simply lied, not once but time and again, over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. It matters too because the journalism contradicting the official version  or at least the journalism that angered the government most  emanated from the BBC, the worlds most respected broadcaster. And it matters because, realistically, there can only be one winner: someone will pay a heavy price when this argument is settled.

Dr David Kelly has already paid that price, of course. Swept up in the governments determination to unearth Gilligans source, the scientist, an expert on Saddams weapons who had made 37 trips to Iraq, appears to have committed suicide because some part of his recent experience had become intolerable. Either he said too much to the reporter about the involvement, or otherwise, of Alastair Campbell in the September dossier and its claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, or he said too little to the Com mons foreign affairs committee. In either event he was under insupportable pressure.

Let us, nevertheless, attempt to pick our way through this tale. First, why was Campbell, as the Prime Ministers right-hand man and media controller, so obsessed with Gilligans claim that intelligence had been sexed up? Dr Kelly spoke to any number of journalists. Susan Watts of Newsnight, Tom Mangold, Gavin Hewitt, Nicholas Rufford of The Sunday Times and Judith Miller of The New York Times were each given, in effect, the same story: the security services were unhappy with government attempts to make propaganda from assessments of Saddams WMD capabilities. Watts, it now transpires, has a tape of her conver sation. She and Gilligan are also said to have checked their quotes with Kelly. So why is the Today man in the dock?

A second question: if the intelligence services were not uneasy, why not? They had already come down hard on claims that Saddam had links with Osama bin Laden. They must have suspected what we now know  that the WMD threat had, at the very least, receded. And some among them must have balked at an uncorroborated claim from a single source that the threat could be revived within 45 minutes. In the prelude to the opening of hostilities the official grounds for war shifted wildly by the week: who, even among the spooks, would not have felt troubled?

Hence, in contrast, a third question: what did the BBC actually do? Unless you subscribe to the Murdoch press and believe every employee of the Corporation to be an anti-war liberal, a summation of the actions of the BBC and Gilligan goes like this: they reported the view of a previously reliable expert source in close proximity to the controversy, a source whose opinion was, almost by definition, news. What else were they supposed to do?

So to question four: when did Alastair Campbell become the BBCs news editor? On one level, at least, this goes to the heart of the matter. One side sees Downing Street attempting to exert political control over an independent broadcaster. The other side, the governments, sees Campbell determined to nail a lie damaging to his reputation. But even if we believe that the former Robert Maxwell employee knows all there is to know about balanced reporting, that leaves two further problems.

Did the BBCs reporting of the 45-minute claim make the case for war more or less honest? Or is the row really a distraction from the shabby truth: that the government had no case? Equally, in taking the battle to the Corporation, what is the governments ultimate intention? To prevent the BBC from ever again broadcasting any story denied by a minister? To render it paralysed in the face of government? To crush it as an independent institution?

So it would seem. All the talk now is of Labours coming revenge. Even as Tony Blair was calling for restraint and respect in the aftermath of Kellys death, Peter Mandelson, another expert on media standards, was on the line to Tokyo for a chat with his leader. The next thing we knew broadcasting studios were being blitzed by the twice-fallen dark angel of New Labour. He attacked the BBCs governors for the crass error of supporting their journalists; he lamented falling standards; and he even conferred a singular honour on Gilligan. Imagine being called shifty by Peter Mandelson.

Soon enough, nevertheless, ministers were on message. Leading the charge, the Home Office voiced serious concerns over the BBCs (admittedly dire) Asylum Day programmes. David Blunketts department accused the corporation of trivialising the issue by turning the asylum applications process into a game show. The fact that Blunkett has never managed to raise similar concerns with the Daily Mail or The Sun proved no impediment. It was, and is, open season on the BBC.

Murdochs papers have needed no prompting, of course. For anyone who believes you should judge people by the company they keep, the alliance between an embattled Downing Street and a conservative media proprietor who regards the BBC as a rival to be destroyed should confirm every prejudice. Suddenly the least reliable journalism in Britain has been put at the service (it says here) of truth, justice and Mr Blairs holy war.

The BBC, I have no doubt, can live with that. Can it live with an attack on the licence fee, with cuts in funding, with new forms of regulation? Will it survive if Greg Dyke, an erstwhile New Labour supporter who has refused to bow the knee, is somehow replaced as director-general? This may look like a fight for the publics trust. In reality, it is a battle over pluralism in public life.

Lord Huttons inquiry into Dr Kellys death is unlikely to provide a resolution. Some may see it, indeed, as just another convenient diversion for the government, like the original row over the 45-minute claim. That would have faded, as these controversies do, had not Campbell ke pt it alive. It might have come to nothing, equally, if the government had not helped various newspapers to identify Kelly as a Gilligan source. Tony Blair insists he did not authorise that particular leak, but his denial merely provokes another question: who did?

Questions breed questions. At the beginning of this affair I was content to believe that Blair, Campbell, Hoon and the rest were delighted to pick a fight with the BBC simply to take our minds off the bigger story. It seemed to me, and to many other people, that they were very much happier talking about standards in the media than about the way a war was engineered. I no longer think so.

There is more than a whiff of paranoia about the government. Its frenzy over the BBC has the smell of panic. It is as though ministers are trying to support a house of cards. I believe they are deeply worried, from Blair down, that the truth about the war will begin to seep out. I think they actually believe that if they can muzzle the BBC they can muzzle all dissent, all suspicion.

Consider: the government is in a hole and should, by normal practice, stop digging forthwith, yet for some reason it cant. Its standing has been badly damaged, as the polls prove, yet it has turned a fight with the BBC into a demented battle over public trust, a battle it will surely lose. Ask yourself: why?

27 July 2003