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The Blame Game

 


 
On his way from Shanghai to Hong Kong during one of the legs of his Far East tour last week, the Prime Minister took the first steps to distance himself from the process that led to Dr David Kelly being "outed" as the government scientist who had been the BBC's source.

His comment on what has now become an untamed sea of blame, was clear and unequivocal: "I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly." But if not Blair, then who?

That central question is proving difficult to answer. Not everyone has been telling the truth over what role they played, what orders they gave or what they wanted to happen before Kelly killed himself.

That Kelly's name was leaked is not open to question. It is up Lord Hutton's inquiry team to establish who knew what, who authorised (openly or otherwise) Kelly's name to be confirmed to media inquisitors and what other currently hidden facts contributed to his suicide.

Although there was an emphatic denial from Blair that he did not authorise the leak, he has chosen to hide behind the inquiry process, avoiding an explanation of why the government had gone through a tortuous and artificially coy procedure that eventually saw the MoD confirm Kelly's identity after clues had been dropped to lobby journalists. "That is a completely different matter once the name is out there. The inquiry can look at these things," said the PM.

Kelly's name appeared at roughly the same time in three British newspapers: The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian. The unmasking followed a July 9 letter from defence secretary Geoff Hoon to the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, in which Hoon named Kelly as the source of defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan's report that the government had "sexed-up" evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in a dossier published last September.

A crucial claim made in the dossier, said by Gilligan to have been inserted by Downing Street - he would later name Alastair Campbell in particular - was that Iraq's WMD could be deployed with 45 minutes.

Although the formal process of the "outing" might have taken place inside the offices of the MoD, that is not necessarily where the chain of command begins and ends. Hoon might have directed the process within his own department, but the question for Hutton to answer will be: who was driving Hoon?

One former government minister said: "Geoff Hoon is like a model creation of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell. It is unthinkable, given the location of his power, that he would even try to act with an independent thought that was out of the loop of control of Downing Street. Hoon is a servant of Downing Street. That is how it works and that is what Lord Hutton's inquiry will learn quickly enough."

With no WMD having so far been found in Iraq, and the legality of Blair's decision to take Britain into war with Saddam being questioned, Campbell might have believed he had no choice but to defend the Prime Minister (and himself) when the Gilligan report effectively accused Downing Street of deliberate deception and of overriding informed opinion offered by intelligence chiefs.

The Hutton inquiry will have no shortage of offers from central observers willing to describe Campbell as the commander-in-chief of a war he choose to declare; Gilligan and the BBC were deemed to be his main enemy.

Did Campbell decide that the leaking of a distinguished career scientist's name into the public domain was merely necessary collateral damage? And if the Prime Minister claims "emphatically" that he did not authorise the leak, is Blair already positioning himself in territory that will see an attempt to ensure that Hoon and Campbell take blame on the government side? What is clear is that, of the accounts offered so far, nobody in Whitehall appears to be telling the truth, the whole truth or anything like the truth.

One former Downing Street official said that, with his suicide, what Kelly said and did not say to the BBC now mattered less. He added: "Alastair Campbell protected the integrity of the Prime Minister. He recognised that the success and foundation of Tony Blair was always based on the way the electorate trusted him.

"But the fight to legitimise going to war, the fallout from the conflict and the questions still being asked over the failure to find weapons we were promised were there - the damage is evident."

Part of the damage has also been inflicted on Campbell himself. Regardless of the outcome of the Hutton inquiry, Campbell is said to have accepted that he has broken the golden rule: Campbell has become the story and therefore has to go.

Despite dismissing as "wishful thinking" reports that he will resign as communications chief only after Lord Hutton delivers his report, Campbell is nevertheless expected to leave in time to avoid the public pressures still likely to be encountered when Labour holds its annual conference in Bournemouth in September.

Campbell's departure will be a severe loss to Blair, and will likely leave him to fight the next election with a new circle of advisers, simply because many of his former trusted lieutenants and commanders will have departed.

So far Blair will be without Peter Mandelson (forced to resign), Stephen Byers (forced to resign), Alan Milburn (resigned), chief of staff Jonathan Powell (leaving), foreign affairs adviser Sir David Manning (off to the Washington embassy), political secretary Anji Hunter (left to join BP) -- and Campbell.

In terms of power and influence over the Prime Minister, only Powell is up there with Campbell. His departure later this year was already a worry for Blair. Former Foreign Office diplomat Powell, like Campbell, joined the Blair team before it stormed into Number 10. With an acute understanding of how Whitehall functions - his brother is Sir Charles Powell, former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher - Blair effectively left Powell to direct civil servants and "make it happen".

Blair has probably never seriously considered operating without Campbell or Powell. But he will soon be forced to.

The history of the New Labour project, how it was to be controlled and what it supplanted, is as much Campbell's history as anyone's. In 1987, quietly and behind the scenes, Campbell tried to get Neil Kinnock into Downing Street. Around him were Peter Mandelson and current trade secretary Patricia Hewitt. Kinnock was never a winner and Campbell, despite being political editor of the influential Daily Mirror, clearly wanted to be a player rather than a recorder. In 1994, he found Labour's winner in Tony Blair, leaving the Mirror and taking a massive pay-cut to become Blair's spokesman.

Campbell revolutionised Labour's message machine, ensuring that the agenda of the 1997 general election was fought and controlled by Labour. Party dissidents and troublemakers went, neutralised by Campbell's talent for ensuring everyone who mattered spoke with same voice, a massive change for a party that usually wallowed in self-destruction.

When Blair won in 1997 with a landslide, Campbell became Blair's chief press secretary. But the mere title told nothing of his power. One former Downing Street official said: "The reason Campbell's critics are now relishing his departure is that Campbell was ruthlessly successful. He influenced what the Prime Minister did and thought, and when Campbell spoke he did so with the implicit authority of the PM. Was he the real deputy prime minister? Who cares? Those inside Downing Street knew exactly who he was."

But like any servant in danger of taking the spotlight away from his master, Campbell's high-profile position seemed to be in danger of clouding the message. In 2000, ahead of the coming general election, Campbell stepped back and handed the twice-daily briefing of lobby journalists to two civil servants, Godric Smith and Tom Kelly.

But throughout the election campaign itself, Campbell was back in the driving seat. Those who looked closely found his power enhanced. That has caused him problems. Blair runs the government with the routine Cabinet system diminished to make way for a presidentially appointed team - and Campbell, unelected or not, is far more powerful than any minister except Gordon Brown. One former minister said: "Those round the Cabinet table have often wished for a past era when first-among-equals did mean something. Under Blair and Campbell it has ceased to mean much."

But Campbell's touch seems to have deserted him. The Cheriegate affair left Campbell's legendary control looking fragile. Even Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar, who advised Cherie, had had enough and resigned. But in the book 30 Days - Peter Stothard's recent account of the government at war - Campbell is a ubiquitous figure at the very centre of the decisions that took us to war with Iraq. If Campbell goes, many feel that the departure of Blair cannot be far behind.

The two men are linked like political twins and the reality remains that if any blame sticks to Campbell over the death of Kelly, part of that blame will inevitably fall on Blair.

As one MP said: "Tony and Alastair are the glue of New Labour. They've held the whole damn thing together, and no-one knows how the party will function without their joint input simply because it's never been tested. But if this resignation rumour proves to be correct, we'll soon bloody well find out."

But well before Blair loses Campbell's input and expertise, there is evidence that the Downing Street message machine is unwilling to see any blame circle round the PM.

At the end of last week Downing Street was putting out the message that the events that led to Kelly's "outing" were almost forced upon it. The FT claimed that Blair knew Kelly had identified himself and that the PM had told the MoD to take as much time as it needed to question Kelly.

However Downing Street is likely to tell Hutton that it approached the Intelligence and Security Committee, which was conducting its own inquiry into evidence of WMD and had been told of the mole's existence, and asked if it wanted to interview Kelly in private.

The ISC said it would interview Kelly but only if a public statement was issued to say that an unnamed official had claimed he was a possible source for Gilligan's report. The ISC believed that without a public statement it would be open to accusations of collusion or a cover-up at a later stage.

Part of the Hutton investigation will be to determine if the ISC did try to pressurise the government into making a statement. Once it was issued, the government was in no position to refuse a demand from the FAC that it too be allowed to interview Kelly. If the government had refused the FAC access to Kelly it could have been accused of trying to disguise Kelly's apparent criticism of the September dossier.

The sequence of events that might be offered to Hutton in mitigation by Downing Street is that a joint decision was taken between the troika of Blair, Campbell and Hoon not to knock down media speculation of the mole's identity. By July 7, two full days before Kelly's name was effectively confirmed to the three newspapers, leading figures in Whitehall and inside Downing Street are all said to have known who Kelly was.

Does that qualify as an acceptable excuse? Will it avoid blame being placed directly at the doors of either Blair, Campbell or Hoon by the inquiry team? It will take Lord Hutton an estimated three months to research and deliver his findings. If a week is a long time in politics, three months could feel like an eternity in what is already a blame game in overdrive.

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The war against the BBC may be over its very soul and future'


 

 


 

THROUGHOUT the run-up to the war against Iraq and during the conflict, 10 Downing Street had seen the BBC in general and the Radio Four Today programme in particular as a thorn in its flesh. Ministers and press officers routinely joked that BBC now stood for the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation.

What infuriated them was that they believed that in times of war the state broadcaster should have the decency to wave the Union Jack, with all the gusto of a Sun headline supporting "Our Boys". But because the BBC refused to behave like Pravda in Russia, or Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV in the US, the government now seems intent on fighting and winning a second war, this time against the enemy within, the BBC.

For Downing Street the "crime of all crimes" was committed by a BBC Today report which accused Downing Street (and later Alastair Campbell in particular) of "sexing-up" a claim that Iraq was ready to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. The claim went straight to the heart of the government's case for war, namely that Saddam posed an immediate threat, and the BBC was effectively questioning whether that claim was a deliberate deception.

Alastair Campbell regarded the report by Today's defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, as attacking the very integrity of the Prime Minister and was therefore as severe a charge as could be imagined. Campbell rubbished "Gullible" Gilligan (as he calls him), rubbished the BBC's journalism, demanded an apology and now seems intent on waging war until the BBC surrenders. But to date the BBC has shown no sign of waving the white flag.

What the Hutton inquiry into the death of Gilligan's source, Dr David Kelly, will have to answer is the relatively simple question: did Kelly tell the BBC everything the BBC says he did?

Campbell attacked Gilligan, but equally he could have attacked Newsnight's science reporter Susan Watts or the network news reporter Gavin Hewitt. These three BBC journalists, who had all independently spoken to Kelly, delivered stories which all accused the government of exaggerating the threat of WMD. Last week the BBC confirmed it has the kind of evidence that lawyers break open the champagne for - Watts made a tape-recording of her conversation with Kelly. In addition, Gilligan and Hewitt have copious notes of their discussions.

According to the former head of the BBC World Service, John Tusa, the size of the hole the government now finds itself in can be equated with the "vehemence of their onslaught on the BBC". Tusa believes the war against the BBC is a "displacement activity, a diversion from finding weapons of mass destruction". But, diversion or not, the weaponry at the disposal of the government - everything from threats over the BBC's charter renewal, the licence fee, and plans to replace senior executives and governors - means real damage can be inflicted. And those inside the BBC at the very highest levels realise the current blame game is being played for very high stakes. The war, Campbell's war against the BBC, may be over the very soul and future of the public service broadcaster.

According to the culture and media secretary, Tessa Jowell, the three-year review of the BBC's charter (due to begin in September) could take in the future funding of the BBC and its internal structure. The BBC is established by Royal Charter and funded through its licence fee rather than directly by the Treasury. So although it relies on money from the public, the money does come direct from the government. It is this critical funding arrangement which the BBC believes allows it to broadcast independent journalism . But change how the BBC is funded, and the prospect of government control could loom over the corporation.

Interviewed in The Times on Friday, Jowell made it clear just what consequences, or perhaps revenge, the government had at its disposal. Her review, she said, would look at whether the board of governors should be scrapped and its role handed over to Ofcom, the new communications regulator.

She added ominously that she will await the outcome of the Hutton inquiry and that it will have a bearing on what the government considers should be the appropriate scope of the charter review and what she calls "the future of the BBC". Jowell's message was intended for the consumption of the bosses at the BBC, in effect warning them: this is what we can do to you, so are you ready to start playing ball?

The BBC is quite clear what is at stake and responded with uncanny speed to the government's challenge. Caroline Thomson - whose title at the BBC is director, policy and legal - said that although the conflict with Number 10 was not about charter renewal, but about the rights of an independent broadcaster, the "consequence of the battle, however, will be charter renewal".

Thomson also set out the BBC's own warning to the government. "It should pay heed to the level of public support that the BBC has. Any government that tampers with the independence of the BBC does so at its peril."

Thomson's assertion of the BBC's popularity is borne out by the latest statistics. During the Gulf war, 93% of the British population at some stage tuned into a BBC service. When asked to rank which TV station's coverage they most trusted, the BBC came out with 36%, compared with 10% for ITV and 8% for Sky News.

Nevertheless, Thomson said the BBC tried to close down the conflict with Number 10 by agreeing to disagree. But BBC insiders at the highest levels said peace never broke out. One source close to the director-general, Greg Dyke, said: "During conversations between BBC executives and senior figures in the government that took place at David Frost's summer party in London in the first week of July, it was agreed that enough was enough. The battle was damaging us both." Plans for peace were agreed. But the source added: "Campbell would have none of it."

Thomson will be in charge of the charter renewal process and accepts that the government can now make it difficult for the BBC. "But it would be ill-advised to do so. Through all of this [the conflict between Campbell and Gilligan], the public have been reminded why they need the BBC, why they need an independent state broadcaster."

The death of Kelly and the prospect that the Hutton investigation will force the BBC to open doors it has so far kept closed, seems to have re-energised the corporation and forced it to accept that what is now at stake is the independence of its journalism. Asked by Kelly's family to confirm or deny if he was the source, the BBC issued a statement last week which confirmed his identity as the source of Gilligan and others' reports. But it came with a qualifier. The BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, issued a reminder that Gilligan's report on May 29 was "broadcast in the public interest".

The BBC is also confident it can defend Gilligan's report, which described Kelly as "involved in the preparation of the dossier". In effect, the BBC will set out to persuade Lord Hutton that Gilligan should be believed over the evidence Kelly gave to the Commons Select Committee. The BBC is adamant that, for Hutton to believe the contrary, would spell its end as a trusted independent public service broadcaster.

Greg Dyke has told staff the initial decision to protect the identity of Gilligan's source was correct and to have acted in any other way would have meant a BBC not worthy of its charter .

Although Dyke had in the past been a Labour supporter and donor, he appears to have cast off his political allegiances. The contrast with his predecessor, John Birt, is stark. As one insider put it: "He's not been popping in and out of Downing Street as John did. But these rows come around every decade or so. And the outcome gets everyone back on track. But admittedly the heat this time is very fierce indeed."

Are the BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, and chairman, Gavyn Davies, government targets? Margaret Thatcher, after the Falklands war, decided that Alasdair Milne, the then director-general, had not done enough to ensure a pro-government reporting line. She eventually succeeded in delivering a new regime of governors that resulted in Milne being forced to leave.

BBC regime change this time would not be such an easy process for the government, says Thomson. "Changing the director-general of the BBC is nothing to do with the government. And if it did become something to do with the government, it would be atrocious, because it would signal the end of the BBC, effectively it would be a revoking of the BBC Royal Charter - and the government does not have the power to do that."

What if the government tried? Thomson is clear: "Then that would be war. They would technically have to sack the entire board of governors, appoint a new group, and tell them who they should appoint as director-general."

But circling the BBC at the moment are media vultures smelling a kill in prospect. The Rupert Murdoch-owned Times and Sun are effectively backing the government in its war with the BBC. The prize for Murdoch, if Campbell delivers a bloody victory, could be a reduction in the power and status of the BBC, perhaps ultimately reducing it to a structure similar to the subscription-only Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States.

As the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, said in his closing remark in his report on the Hutton inquiry last week: "The BBC is very much in the dock. If Lord Hutton decides its journalism was over-excited or badly founded, the ministers are saying privately that they will act against the corporation, both in terms of management and possibly even funding."

One senior news executive, however, believes that even with that threat in the air, the BBC will change nothing, offer no compromise.

In the job three years, those close to Dyke believe the institution has changed his view of how an independent state broadcaster should operate. But if forced into a compromise that ripped the heart out of the BBC and altered its independence from the government, what would Dyke do? One of Dyke's closest aides said: "He would go." Probably just what Alastair Campbell would regard as the battle won.

WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT...

THE BBC

"It was the BBC's obsession with Alastair Campbell that led more than anything to the breakdown in relations between the government and Britain's principal public service broadcaster, with the result we have seen. The BBC backed itself into a corner and chose to turn a resolvable disagreement into a pitched battle about its honour and independence as a broadcaster, irrespective of its confidence in the story.''

Peter Mandelson

"If the BBC had made this statement [confirming Dr David Kelly as the main source of Andrew Gilligan's story] while Dr Kelly was alive, I believe he would still be alive and I think the chairman of the BBC board of governors should resign over this matter. Greg Dyke should also consider his position."

Robert Jackson, Kelly's MP

"The truth is [Campbell] didn't do it. The BBC should remember it is paid for by people of different political parties. It is not a newspaper, nor the Opposition and should retain its impartiality."

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP

"[Kelly's] desperate act brings us to the second tragedy - the death of the BBC's priceless reputation for integrity. Last night, that reputation was tarnished further when Andrew Gilligan tried to save his own skin by accusing a dead man of being a liar. Heads will roll for this disaster."

The Sun leader, Monday July 21