Wednesday 13 August 2003

Labour's attack on Gilligan is just nit-picking

by Rod Liddle

I am not privy to how Andrew Gilligan recuperated yesterday evening after his grilling at the deft hands of Lord Hutton. He does not smoke, drink or take drugs, so those recourses would have been barred to him. Perhaps he opened a couple of cans of Fanta - a favourite tipple - instead. He is in many ways a strange fellow, with his incessant supply of sugary drinks and chocolate bars and crisps.

He would have known that the government - and its supporters on those newspapers whose proprietors have most to gain, financially, from attacking the BBC - would leap gleefully upon his admission that he might have phrased better a minute part of the earliest one of his interviews - heard by almost nobody at seven minutes past six on the morning of May 29. Apparently his editor, Kevin Marsh, thought he might have phrased it better too, according to a memo he sent to one of his multifarious bosses.

As a vindication of the government's position it seems rather a slender affair.

But let's examine the charge against him, anyway. It relates to only one of Gilligan's 18 radio broadcasts on May 29 and did not figure at all in the original complaint made by Alastair Campbell. That, in itself, is an important point. But then, every time one looks up, the goalposts have been moved.

Anyway, at seven minutes past six, on the Today programme, Gilligan reported the comments made to him by Dr David Kelly, all of which have since been corroborated by other security service personnel. And then, after doing so, in response to a question from John Humphrys, Gilligan suggested of his own volition that the government had inserted the infamous 45-minute claim [that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction in that time] into the September dossier and - here's the contentious bit - had done so knowing it to be wrong.

We know, for a fact, that the government knew full well that senior security sources had grave misgivings about the 45-minute claim. We know that fact from Monday's proceedings at the Hutton Inquiry and from countless, unattributed, briefings from security personnel to the press, including this paper's Richard Norton-Taylor.

We know too that Kelly - and others - complained that the 45-minute claim had been inserted at the front of the dossier at the government's insistence. So the only point of contention is Gilligan's use of the word "wrong." Perhaps, then, we should concede that a better word, a more felicitous description, would have been merely "dubious". Or how about: "knew it to be unsupported by evidence of any kind and derided by every expert called upon to give advice."

But not necessarily "wrong." Even though, as it turned out, it was entirely "wrong", as Gilligan asserted. And that the government may, in fact, have known that it was wrong. But we cannot prove here and now that the government knew it to be wrong, whatever we might suspect.

As I say, this allegation against Gilligan and the BBC did not even figure in the gist of the original complaint. Then, Campbell's objection was the wholly fatuous point that Gilligan had used only one source, if you remember. I suspect nobody heard the earliest interview. Throughout the rest of the morning, Gilligan didn't repeat the wording he had used at seven minutes past six; not once during 18 broadcast interviews. In other words, the government's case now rests upon proving that Gilligan was at fault for using the word "wrong" rather than "dubious" or "unsupported by any evidence... etc" - and doing so once in 18 broadcasts.

But, of course, that's not the issue at all. The point is that this government will do anything it possibly can to wriggle off the charge that it deliberately misled parliament and the public over the severity of the threat posed by Iraq. It will dissemble, obfuscate and mislead the public. It will vilify and attempt to destroy the reputation or career of anyone who stands in its way, be it the angry members of the security services, Gilligan, Kelly, BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, the BBC governors and - I suspect, by the time this inquiry concludes - its own ministers or press officers or both. It will rewrite history and hope, in the meantime, that nobody notices. It will even attempt, slyly, to threaten the BBC's independence and funding when the corporation will not bow to its wishes and cave in.

Full story...