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

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.