BBC stakes all on Gilligan in face of Downing Street onslaught
Blair silent but spin machine gears up for fight with corporation
Matt Wells, Kevin Maguire and Michael White
Tuesday July 22, 2003
The BBC is preparing to mount a high-stakes defence of its correspondent Andrew Gilligan against an onslaught directed by Downing Street and fronted by - among others - Peter Mandelson.
The corporation is determined to prove that it accurately reported the comments of the respected weapons expert David Kelly, who killed himself last Thursday.
But the BBC recognises that it must persuade Lord Hutton's judicial inquiry to believe Gilligan over Dr Kelly, who told the foreign affairs select committee that he did not think he could have been the correspondent's main source for the story that claimed Downing Street exaggerated the case for war.
One problem faced by the BBC is the government's effort to undermine its case before the Hutton inquiry. While Tony Blair has been keeping a dignified silence on his tour of the Far East, others at home have been doing his dirty work.
As part of the concerted attempt to exploit what Downing Street believes to be growing nervousness within the BBC over its handling of the Iraq dossier crisis, Mr Mandelson appeared on the Today programme yesterday and accused the BBC's governors of making a "crass error" by backing the corporation's managers.
Mr Mandelson, who spoke by telephone to Tony Blair in Tokyo over the weekend, branded Gilligan "rather shifty" and a "loose cannon" on Today, the programme which carried the initial allegations.
The irony of Mr Mandelson's intervention in support of Downing Street's director of communications, Alastair Campbell - whom he still blames for his own second departure from the cabinet - was not lost on Clare Short. The former international development secretary said on the same programme: "Dr Kelly, and we don't know what the pressures that were mounted on him, has recently died and then we're getting someone like Peter Mandelson, who can only be briefed by No 10... widening the assault on the BBC."
Mr Mandelson's onslaught followed his studio circuit on Sunday when he and two other semi-retired Labour spinners, Tim Allan and Lance Price, fought the government's corner. Well-placed government figures said the intention was to isolate Gilligan and "divide and rule" the BBC by driving a wedge between director-general Greg Dyke and the full-time staff on the one hand and chairman Gavyn Davies and the governors on the other.
The BBC, however, scoffed at the strategy, with sources saying the governors were "rock solid" behind Mr Dyke and his management team. The BBC is confident that it will be able to make its story stick: contemporaneous notes taken by Gilligan and Susan Watts, the Newsnight science editor who ran a similar report based on a separate interview with Dr Kelly, are said to back the BBC's version of events.
Both Gilligan and Watts ran tapes of Dr Kelly's quotes, voiced by an actor, in their reports. Gilligan's actor said of the dossier: "It was transformed in the week before it was published, to make it sexier."
Watts' actor said of the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes: "It was a statement that was made and it just got out of all proportion. That's why there is the argument between the intelligence services and the Cabinet Office/Number10."
Insiders believe the corporation must be sure these were Dr Kelly's exact words, to justify its robust defence. One source close to the director general Greg Dyke said: "There is total unity among the top people that we are doing the right thing."
A team of in-house lawyers, news executives and public relations staff is to coordinate the BBC's submissions to the Hutton inquiry. The stakes are high: it could lose public support by maligning Dr Kelly, and if it is censured by the inquiry, senior staff could be forced to quit.
There is particular concern among staff for the position of Richard Sambrook, the highly respected director of news, who has been the public face for the BBC's defence. "He's one of the good guys, it would be a disaster if he had to resign," one senior correspondent said.
Amid signs that rank-and-file staff were uneasy about the revelation that Dr Kelly was Gilligan's source, Mr Dyke attempted to reassure them. He said in an email: "It is one of the fundamental principles of journalism never to name your source unless the source is willing to be named. In recent weeks we did everything possible to protect Dr Kelly's anonymity, and we believe that we were in no way responsible for his name coming into the public arena. Clearly, once it was public Dr Kelly came under enormous pressure.
"Following confirmation of Dr Kelly's death on Saturday, Richard Sambrook and I took the decision that it was now right and proper for us to acknowledge that Dr Kelly was our principal source."
The BBC will have been relieved to see some newspapers speculating that Dr Kelly's troubles might not have been caused by any pressure he was put under, but the realisation that he had not been entirely forthcoming to the committee about his briefing to Gilligan. "The dust appears to be settling," one source said.
The committee yesterday postponed the promised publication of Gilligan's second testimony for what the committee chairman, Donald Anderson, called "delicate" reasons. The transcript of what Mr Anderson last week called "an unsatisfactory session with an unsatisfactory witness" - disputed by the BBC - is now likely to be sent to Lord Hutton as evidence.
Mr Anderson is consulting colleagues on the committee, with a view to announcing a decision on Thursday. Last night he confirmed only that the plan had been to publish the transcript yesterday.
BBC sources insisted that its wish to see the Gilligan transcript go to Lord Hutton rather than add to a "grotesque media feeding frenzy" was taken at a higher level than Gilligan - part of a desire to calm the controversy, not least in deference to the bereaved Kelly family's wishes.
The BBC had wished to confine Sunday's comments to the statement by Mr Sambrook that Dr Kelly had been its prime source. The speed and scale of the counter-attack forced it to say more - leading to the charge in the Sun yesterday that the BBC was calling Dr Kelly a liar.
In Downing Street, the BBC battle was discussed briefly yesterday at the regular 8.30am media strategy meeting with departmental press officers. The Downing Street strategy, however, is decided by an ad-hoc group of loyalists, including Mr Campbell. But his most unlikely ally is not a Labour figure but Wantage Tory Robert Jackson, Dr Kelly's constituency MP, who is pinning the blame on the BBC rather than Downing Street.
A government supporter said Downing Street had to go on the offensive because its opponents, including critics within the Labour ranks such as Ms Short, Robin Cook and Glenda Jackson, were showing no sign of letting up. Mr Mandelson believes Mr Blair was in the right place, flying the flag for Britain in China yesterday on the other side of the world as the death of Dr Kelly reverberated at home.