No 10's hype merchants hit the fast spin programme

By Toby Helm and George Jones
(Filed: 08/07/2003)

Within minutes of the select committee's report being published yesterday morning, the Downing Street spin machine was in operation. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Tom Kelly, Tony Blair's official spokesman, were "on message", briefing journalists at opposite ends of Whitehall.

Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's communications chief, had been cleared of the central charge that he exerted "improper influence" over the drafting of the September dossier. The BBC should now apologise, they chorused.

But they made no attempt to address the serious concerns in the report about the handling of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.

It was in keeping with the way Downing Street has consistently sought to divert attention from the bigger picture - were Parliament and the public misled about the reasons for going to war with Iraq? - to the sideshow of Campbell versus the BBC.

Although the Labour majority on the foreign affairs committee ensured that Mr Campbell escaped direct censure, the overall tone of the report was highly critical of the role he played in the presentation of intelligence material in the run-up to the conflict.

The committee cleared Mr Campbell of one important charge: the same one he successfully made everybody think was the only important issue in the whole inquiry.

That was the assertion first aired in a BBC report on May 29 that No 10 had insisted on inserting a passage, against the will of intelligence chiefs, into the September dossier saying that Saddam Hussein's weapons could be fired within 45 minutes of an order.

Mr Campbell was named as being behind the changes in the dossier in an article by Andrew Gilligan published in the Mail on Sunday on June 1.

The committee conclusions said that, based on the evidence available to members, Mr Campbell "did not exert or seek to exert improper influence on the drafting of the September dossier".

But even this was not quite the victory it seemed. The clause was approved on the casting vote of the Labour chairman, Donald Anderson.

Three Tories on the committee, one Liberal Democrat and one Labour MP - Andrew Mackinlay - decided that they were "neither equipped nor willing" to arbitrate in the dispute between Mr Campbell and the BBC.

Without full access to the relevant papers and witnesses, they did not believe that they could resolve the matter satisfactorily. But they were voted down.

Elsewhere in the report Mr Campbell was further criticised. The MPs said the 45 minute claim, while not inserted at his request, nonetheless "did not warrant the prominence given to it in the dossier because it was based on intelligence from a single uncorroborated source", said the committee.

In a further implied criticism, it said that the language used in the September dossier was "in places more assertive than that traditionally used in intelligence documents".

The criticism was stronger over a second dossier put out in February, for which Mr Campbell was directly responsible. Chunks of this paper were lifted, without attribution, from a paper written by an Iraqi exile.

The committee concluded that the shoddy way in which this "dodgy" dossier was put together "undermined the credibility of their (the Government's) case for war and of the other documents which were part of it".

There was no direct criticism of the BBC anywhere in the report. The BBC's refusal to be cowed by the unprecedented barrage of attacks from the Government has surprised those inside and outside the corporation.

Reading between the lines of the report, it is clear the committee came to the conclusion that the Government had exaggerated the case for war.