BBC warns Alastair Campbell: repeat allegations and we'll sue
The BBC has issued a stark warning to Alastair Campbell that it will sue him if he repeats his allegations that its journalist Andrew Gilligan lied over claims that Downing Street "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's banned weapons.
In a defiant signal that the corporation will not be cowed, intimidated or bullied by Number 10 in its increasingly bitter war of words over the Iraq war, the BBC has also authorised its defence correspondent to threaten legal action against a Labour MP who claims that he misled a Commons inquiry.
In a separate development, a senior intelligence officer, who previously briefed the Sunday Herald that the government had misled the public and parliament, last night strongly rebutted Campbell's denial that he spun the case for war.
"I previously said that there was absolute scepticism among British intelligence over the case for the invasion of Iraq. That is still the case. Campbell's claims that the dossier wasn't sexed up are utter rubbish."
Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist who reported that Campbell had "sexed up" a 45-minute attack warning on weapons of mass destruction, is set to sue Labour MP Phil Woolas over claims he misled a Commons committee.
The move has the full backing of the BBC Director General Greg Dyke, who came to the barricades with his senior managers to defend the corporation's reputation over the accusations.
"Basically, we're pretty fed up with this bullying and we want to put a stop to it," said a senior BBC insider. "We're fed up of the intimidation and we will sue if Woolas doesn't retract.
"If we could sue Campbell we would too, but he has been careful to make his statements under privilege while giving evidence to the foreign affairs committee."
Campbell, the Prime Minister's communications director, lashed out at the BBC last Wednesday accusing the corporation of having an anti-war agenda and Gilligan of lying in a report that alleged British security officials were unhappy with the way intelligence material was being twisted by Campbell to present the case for war.
Campbell's attack, made while giving evidence under legal privilege to a Commons inquiry into the reasons for the war, was followed by an exchange of angry letters between himself and the BBC. Campbell is demanding an apology from the BBC and an admission that Gilligan's story was wrong.
The BBC, fully expecting further attacks from the government's heavy guns over the weekend, sent out a message last night that it would not be stepping back from the battle.
Although Gilligan would sue Phil Woolas, the deputy leader of the Commons, in a private capacity, the BBC made it clear that he would be backed all the way.
"The letter was issued on BBC paper, through the BBC press office and action would be paid for by the BBC," said a senior corporation source.
Gilligan wrote to Woolas last night accusing him of the "blatant misrepresentation and selective quotation of my evidence".
He added: "I now require a full apology and retraction of your claims which were widely reported on Friday morning, are entirely unsupported by evidence and were clearly intended to blacken my character.
"In the absence of this I will have no option but to put the matter in the hands of my lawyers. I should make clear that I write this letter with the full knowledge and support of the BBC."
The thrust of Phil Woolas's allegations against Gilligan, written on Thursday, is that Gilligan misled the Foreign Affairs Committee by claiming that he only reported on his source's allegations.
Last night Woolas said he had not received a letter from the BBC. Far from being apologetic, he was furious.
"The BBC is behaving like a minor opposition party, not like a public corporation. Andrew Gilligan has not responded to the points I raised, or heard the conclusions of the committee, but if the BBC wants to play politics they are welcome.
"If the public is unhappy with me they can sack me, but to whom is the BBC accountable?"
The Battle of the Beeb will be joined again tomorrow when Campbell intends to issue another withering rebuttal to the BBC's response to his initial questions over its ethics and reporting.
Public trust in Tony Blair has fallen to 36% of the population, according to a Mori poll for today's News of the World. According to the survey of 1000 voters, Blair is doubted by 58%, a big slip on a similar survey in October 2000. Conservatives and Labour are tied at 35% support in the poll with the Lib Dems on 19%.
The BBC is not alone
The Sunday Herald reported on June 8 that Operation Rockingham, a dirty tricks operation run by British intelligence, was designed to cherry-pick information to produce a misleading picture that Saddam had WMD. Rockingham also ignored intelligence pointing towards Iraq disposing of stockpiles. Its existence was confirmed by former UN weapons inspector and intelligence officer Scott Ritter.
The Sunday Times also reported that a dossier was altered before publication, in a deal which would include Tony Blair's assertion that Saddam posed 'a serious threat to UK national interests'.
Former Cabinet minister Clare Short told The Sunday Telegraph: 'The suggestion that there was the risk of chemical and biological weapons being weaponised and threatening us was spin. That didn't come from the security services'.