Politics - John Kampfner finds defiance at the BBC

Downing Street appears to be arguing that, if it denies a particular story, then the BBC should not

In the best spirit of British amateurism, expect a fudge, a rushed job, a botched attempt to resolve one of the most important issues of our time. When the foreign affairs select committee pronounces on whether the government was guilty of "sexing up" claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, the government and its critics will seize on each clause, each line, to justify their arguments. Both will find enough to satisfy them. After all, if Tony Blair could portray a Commons rebellion of 140 on the eve of war as a victory, then all things are possible.

This sorry process has seen the British political system at its worst. In other countries, notably the United States that many love to hate, congressional committees are vested with authority, grandeur, resources and talent. They have powers to summon witnesses, and their reports have statutory authority. Their members have a salary commensurate with the status. Not in the UK, where committees are the repository of opposition backbenchers, plus the has-beens, the never-will-bes and the pliant desperate-to-be Labour ministers. Throughout its questioning, the select committee struggled to keep up with the detail. Alastair Campbell ran rings around it, Jack Straw got cross with it, and the public is little the wiser.

The committee has been deep in discussion over its conclusions, expected on 7 July. So has Downing Street. So has the BBC. The findings have been reduced to a football match between these two powerful organisations. The smart money at Westminster, where matters of great import are given the imprimatur of the bloke in the pub, is on a score draw or a no-score draw. The predictions are that Campbell will be criticised for the "dodgy dossier". The government will be attacked for not co-operating enough with the committee. It will be told to tighten its procedures in presenting intelligence material. On the issue of the September 2002 dossier, the committee might decide it has insufficient evidence to show that Campbell put pressure on the intelligence services. He will proclaim himself exonerated, and the press will be encouraged to move on.

For BBC executives, this tussle has been perturbing and exhilarating. "Greg's absolutely loving it," says one senior manager. "Deep down, there must still be a journalist in there." The appointments of Greg Dyke as director-general and Gavyn Davies as chairman of the BBC were denounced as examples of "Tony's cronies". But it was always likely that they would compensate or over-compensate for their new Labour links. Had John Birt - a man very happy in the company of Blair - still been in charge, the Beeb would not have fought this fight.

Just as BBC executives in the Birt era talked the management-consultancy talk and discouraged journalists from rocking the boat, the same people have now morphed into mini-Dykes. Pugnacity is the order of the day. Still, journalists and programme editors are surprised that they have responded as robustly as they have.

This is all part of the tabloidisation of British political life. Campbell has done it to Downing Street. He is miffed that another august institution, the BBC, seems to be doing it as well.

The journalist at the centre of the spat, Andrew Gilligan, is as far removed from BBC central casting as is possible, drawn from a risk-taking school of Sunday newspapers. Corporation executives would have been more comfortable defending their own stable, but they see bigger issues at stake. "When I was told the name and rank of his source, I realised immediately that we had to defend this with everything we had," says one executive. "This is no junior person with a grudge. This is a senior person who played a role in the dossier."

The executives are especially worried by one argument Downing Street is putting forward - that if it denies a particular story, then that story should not be run. The implications are Orwellian. Meanwhile, the BBC is recasting itself as Britain's own al-Jazeera, fighting for truth and freedom.

This was a row waiting to happen. In my time at the BBC, from 1998 to 2000, relations between the corporation and Campbell were tetchy enough. They have worsened considerably. Campbell is said to limit his contact with the head of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, to sending flaming faxes and shouting down the phone, even over coverage of Afghanistan. He suggested that the BBC had given undue prominence to the record Commons revolt of 18 March.

Yet when ten senior BBC executives and programme bosses went to Downing Street on 12 June, they had a perfectly friendly lunch with Blair. The only other person present was Campbell, who said nothing. The words "dossier" and "Gilligan" were not mentioned. That made Campbell's anger to the select committee over the affair all the more intriguing. As for the weapons of mass destruction that led us to war, sorry, I forgot to mention them . . .

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