Leader: It's a smokescreen
No wars are pleasant, but civil wars are the worst. This may explain the bile flowing between the prime minister's director of communications and the BBC. He wants blood, sweat and an apology for a story the BBC ran months ago; the BBC won't give it. Governments traditionally dislike the BBC, largely because it is publicly funded but won't bend the knee sufficiently. This is especially true of this government, which regards the left-leaning corporation as its natural ally. It ensured the BBC's director general was a Labour donor and its chairman a long-time party adviser whose wife works for Gordon Brown. It should be the least likely quarry for Labour's spinner-in-chief, Alastair Campbell, yet we are in what the BBC calls an "unprecedented confrontation".
The country is probably bemused by all this fuss when there are more serious issues around, not least in Iraq. The families of the six military policemen murdered there only days ago must wonder about the priorities of a government more concerned with the veracity of a radio report than investigating a brutal killing. There is, however, a logical explanation for Mr Campbell's heavy-handed tactics. This government was propelled into office by spin, and for years it was just about tolerated. That is no longer the case. Spin cannot disguise the failure to deliver on public services. Labour is behind the Tories in the polls and could be seriously damaged were it found to have perpetrated the biggest lie of all: going to war under false pretences. Hence the demand for an apology that could be used to soften the blow.
Does that excuse Mr Campbell's tactics? No. Two dossiers were issued during the run-up to war. The first, last September, came before the passing of United Nations resolution 1441. That is the dossier over which the BBC and Downing Street are battling. It is unlikely, as the BBC's anonymous source alleged, that Mr Campbell inserted the now infamous claim that Saddam could activate his deadly weapons within 45 minutes. It is highly likely he exercised a degree of editorial control. Mr Blair certainly did when presenting the dossier to parliament. The prime minister left no room for doubt that Saddam's weapons programme was "active, detailed and growing." Anybody who disagreed was flying in the face of the evidence and the integrity of our security services.
There was a second dossier, January's "dodgy" dossier. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, described it last week as "a complete Horlicks". Mr Campbell says he wishes it had never been published. No matter that Mr Blair presented it to parliament as intelligence information and has yet to apologise, or that it was taken up by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, in his presentation to the UN security council.
A government that admits to one dodgy dossier draws attention to other information it produces. In the past year it has been caught out lying over whether a convicted fraudster was providing financial advice to the prime minister's wife. It climbed down, after much huffing and puffing by Mr Campbell, over reports that Downing Street had tried to secure an enhanced role for the prime minister at the Queen Mother's funeral. This latest episode is even more high risk. Whatever people think of the BBC, they don't like to see the government attacking it. They are also getting a glimpse of what really goes on. Mr Campbell is publicly doing what he has been doing in private for many years: bullying and blustering to get his way. No doubt he believes he is diverting attention away from the government's real problem on Iraq: the failure to find Saddam's weapons.
And that, of course, is the real issue. The public does not care whether a particular piece of evidence was inserted by No 10 or by the head of the joint intelligence committee. What people care about is whether the government went to war on false grounds. As long as the search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction remains fruitless, that fundamental question will persist. And Mr Campbell's battle with the BBC, which is damaging the government, will be seen for the smokescreen that it is.