Ten years on, Gilligan blames the government for Kelly's death

"Failed catastrophically in their duty".

Ten years after the suicide of BBC source Dr David Kelly, the journalist at the centre of that story – Andrew Gilligan – has accused the civil servants who compiled the "dodgy dossier" making the case for war with Iraq of having "failed catastrophically in their duty".

Now London editor of The Daily Telegraph, Gilligan initially came off worse than the government from the crisis which followed the death of Dr Kelly. He resigned from his job as reporter for Today following the publication of the Hutton Report in January 2004.

The report said:

"Whether or not at some time in the future the report on which the 45-minutes claim was based is shown to be unreliable, the allegation reported by Mr Gilligan on 29 May 2003 that the Government probably knew that the 45-minutes claim was wrong before the Government decided to put it in the dossier, was an allegation which was unfounded."

But in 2008 Gilligan was named British Press Awards journalist of the year in recognition of his investigation into London Mayor Ken Livingstone for the Evening Standard.

And writing in The Sunday Telegraph this week he argued that history has borne out the fact that his original story was substantially right.

On 29 May 2003, Today programme reporter Gilligan broke the news that, as he writes this week, "a government dossier making the case against Iraq had been "transformed" at the behest of Downing Street and Alastair Campbell "to make it sexier", with the "classic example" being the insertion in the final week of a claim, based on a single source, that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could be deployed within 45 minutes".

Gilligan admits that in his first Today broadcast, at 6.07am, he mistakenly attributed to his source the claim that the government probably knew the 45-minute claim was wrong.

But he stands by the rest of his story, and blames the then government – and Downing Street spokesman Alastair Campbell – for outing Dr Kelly and pressurising him prior to his apparent suicide.

Ten years on Gilligan notes that BBC management has learnt little about his handling of such crises. In January 2004, then BBC director general Greg Dyke lost his job over his handling of the dodgy dossier affair.

At the end of last year we had the resignation of another BBC director general, this time over the corporation’s handling of the Jimmy Savile debacle.

Gilligan’s rehabilitation as a journalist, and his masterful investigation into Livingstone in particular, shows that he has at least learned from his mistakes. But it is sad that ten years on, we are still seeing a determination to shoot the messenger when scandals are exposed, rather than dealing with the substantive points raised.

The police witch-hunt to find the sources of The Sun’s Andrew Mitchell plebgate story, the current predicament faced by NSA whistleblower Andrew Norton and the Met’s legal action against the Sunday Times over its exposure of corruption involving gangster David Hunt are all cases in point.

Andrew Gilligan. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496