Tuesday 31 August 2004

How Blair betrayed me - and the BBC

Greg Dyke was at the centre of a battle that pitted him against an old ally - the Prime Minister. For the first time, he reveals the full truth about Blair, Campbell and Hutton

I first met him at a dinner party in north London around 1980. I remember the evening well, and in particular this fresh-faced young man with a very upmarket accent, which was unusual in the circles I moved in. In those days in the media, even people brought up with plums in their mouths spent most of the time pretending they did not have them. He told me he was a barrister but what he really wanted to do was 'to serve' his country. I genuinely thought he meant he wanted to join the priesthood. He explained he wanted to serve the country by becoming a Labour MP.

As the wine flowed I explained that I didn't think his idea was a particularly good one. I think my exact words were: 'The Labour party needs another barrister like it needs a hole in the head.'

Roll forward to May 1997. It had been a beautiful day and it was a beautiful night. My partner Sue and I were at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the great and the good to celebrate Labour's election victory. Tony Blair arrived amid huge jubilation in the early hours. This was the same man who had been my table companion nearly 20 years earlier.

I remember the excitement of the following day as if it were yesterday. One friend said to me that Blair was the first prime minister who looked as though he might have been round Tesco's. I checked that out with Cherie later, and she laughed at the idea.

Seven years on all that optimism has gone. Tony Blair has turned out to be just another politician and in some ways worse than those before him. They never promised us a new sort of politics. He did.

For me, disillusionment came late. At the BBC I took no part in politics and kept my feelings about it to myself. Then came Iraq, Gilligan and Hutton, and suddenly it struck me how naive I had been.

It is now obvious; the decision to go to war was made first, and the intelligence to support that move was discovered afterwards. One by one the reasons the prime minister gave us have been proved to be wrong. But it's even worse than that. He took us to war on the basis of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and the 45-minute threat which, at the very least, he didn't understand and didn't question.

The charge against Blair is damning. He was either incompetent and took Britain to war on a misunderstanding, or he lied when he told the House of Commons that he didn't know what the 45-minute claim meant. It was he who said Gilligan's reports were 'a mountain of untruth'. That wasn't the case.

But there were 'mountains of untruth' - the dossiers he and his colleagues in Downing Street produced to justify the war. And yet the Prime Minister has never said to the British people: 'I am sorry.' There was a moment when he could have done so, and we might have forgiven him. That moment is past.

We were all duped. History will not be on Blair's side. It will not absolve him, but will show that the whole saga is a great political scandal. What is really frightening is that Blair still doesn't believe or understand that what he did was fundamentally wrong.

In the five years before I joined the BBC the donations I'd made to Labour totalled £55,000, a significant sum but nothing compared to the £1 million I'd given to charity in the same period. That's not to say there haven't been times recently when I haven't been tempted to write to the party and ask for my money back.

And a decade ago, in a very small way, I helped Blair to become Labour leader by giving £5,000 to help him run his leadership campaign. Of course he would have become leader without my money, but I regret giving it. He's a decent man but I don't like what he has allowed to happen to our political system. I don't like 10 Downing Street's obsession with spin, and I believe he misled the nation on Iraq.

Blair is, in electoral terms, the most successful Labour leader ever, and New Labour can claim some real achievements. And yet I suspect his legacy will be summed up in two words: Iraq and spin. The Gilligan affair was about both.

In Alastair Campbell I believe the government had a time bomb waiting to go off. He just happened to go off in the direction of the BBC. For me to have been cowed by a bully whom the Prime Minister was clearly unable to control, would have betrayed everything I believed in.

In my four years as director-general of the BBC it was a standing joke that I always seemed to be away when really big stories broke about the corporation. True to form, I was on holiday in the west of Ireland on 29 May 2003, the day Andrew Gilligan, the Radio 4 Today programme's defence correspondent, broadcast his story on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

You can get a signal in that part of Ireland, but I wasn't up in time to hear the report that eight months later would lead to my exit from the BBC.

My private view of the war was that I was marginally in favour of trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I regarded him as a nasty bastard whom the world could well do without. Mistakenly, as it turned out, I also thought Blair and the government knew more about Iraq's weapons than they were able to tell us.

As director-general, however, my feelings about the war were irrelevant. The BBC's job was to be impartial and tell the story as our journalists saw it. It was certainly not to be the government's propaganda machine.

For Campbell and his team our refusal to report what they wanted us to, in the way they wanted us to, made us a target even before the war began. It was easy to see why he was so anxious, Blair's whole future was in the balance.

In the run-up to war, criticisms of the BBC's reporting were largely confined to complaints to Richard Sambrook, head of BBC News. I heard nothing directly from Downing Street until the week the war started, when both the chairman Gavyn Davies and I received private letters from the prime minister.

The letter to me, sent on 19 March 2003, said that while Blair accepted it was right that 'voices of dissent' were heard, the BBC had gone too far, and he had been shocked by some of 'the editorialising' of our interviewers and reporters.

Full story...