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

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.