If there were an award for Media Bureaucrat of the Year, Kevin Marsh, editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, would be the undisputed winner. Plodding minds might imagine that the job of the editor of the Today programme was to edit the Today programme: to ensure that what was broadcast met the corporation's high standards and to accept that the buck stopped with him when flawed stories reached the listener. Such simplistic reasoning fails to appreciate the qualities of a great bureaucrat. Rather than stopping the buck, he passes it on. Rather than backing his programme's coverage, he covers his back.
Mr Marsh's memo to his bosses at the BBC provided a moment of welcome and unexpected relief for the government during Lord Hutton's inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly. It began by saying that Andrew Gilligan's story about a senior source telling him that Downing Street exaggerated the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction "was a good piece of investigative journalism". This was undeniable. More than anyone, Mr Gilligan brought home how tenuous was the Prime Minister's justification for going to war with Iraq. There were, however, minor mistakes in Mr Gilligan's first report, which were corrected quickly. Instead of accepting editorial responsibility for broadcasting them, Mr Marsh attacked his subordinate. The "good piece of investigative journalism" was, he told Stephen Mitchell, head of radio news at the BBC, "marred by flawed reporting. Our biggest millstone has been his [Mr Gilligan's] loose use of language and lack of judgement in some of his phraseology and in the quantity of writing for other outlets . . . That is a result, in many ways, of the loose and in some ways distant relationship he has been allowed to have with Today."
Such nimble footwork may well be called "the Marsh Gambit" by future generations of managers. On the one hand, the obvious is accepted - this was "a good piece of investigative journalism"; on the other, trivial faults are seized on and laid at the door of juniors. The buck is passed and the back is covered in one seamless movement.
We expect many to play the Marsh Gambit as Lord Hutton's inquiry goes into September. How, for instance, will the government handle the memory of Dr Kelly? When it didn't know the name of the BBC's source, ministers claimed that Mr Gilligan had been talking to a "rogue" intelligence officer with a chip on his shoulder. The line changed when Dr Kelly told his superiors at the Ministry of Defence that he thought he might be the source. Dr Kelly's name was leaked and the government portrayed him as a relatively minor civil servant who couldn't possibly have said that Downing Street "sexed up" the claim that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons ready for the order to fire in 45 minutes, since he was too lowly to know the workings of Downing Street. Dr Kelly himself more or less denied making the offending remarks when he was interviewed by MPs. Armed with his apparent rebuttal, the government accused Mr Gilligan of producing a spurious, outrageous and sexed-up report.
Then Dr Kelly killed himself, and the public learnt that he was anything but a minor figure. He was, as the Hutton inquiry heard, Britain's foremost expert on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, with a global reputation. His work in disarming a tyrant who had started two wars and run a one-sided civil war against the people of Iraq for decades deserved the highest praise. Dr Kelly had, in fact, helped to write the section of the government's dossier on the "threat" from Iraq that covered the history of weapons inspections. Meanwhile, evidence from Mr Gilligan and Susan Watts of BBC's Newsnight has left no one in any doubt that Mr Gilligan's account of his conversation with the scientist was accurate. Dr Kelly did indeed blame Downing Street for inserting the 45-minute claim. He was indeed a senior government adviser. In short, when the extent of Dr Kelly's knowledge became clear, the government was in trouble.
Now it is relying on the Marsh Gambit to fight its way out of a tight corner. On the one hand, it accepts the obvious and concedes that Dr Kelly was a distinguished public servant who had more knowledge of Iraqi militarism than anyone else in the country. On the other, its spokesmen whisper that he was also a "Walter Mitty" character whose language was loose and judgement sadly lacking. Downing Street is dropping its previous claims that Mr Gilligan had misquoted minor officials. Now its defence has been reduced to holding the narrow ground that Dr Kelly couldn't have known what Alastair Campbell had done because he wasn't involved in drawing up the section of the dossier which dealt with the claim that Saddam was ready and able to launch chemical and biological weapons attacks in less than an hour.
This may be true - but if Lord Hutton finds that it is a lie, then Tony Blair will have to resign. Mr Campbell has been protesting his innocence with the outraged air of a habitual offender who has been accused of the one crime he hasn't committed. But even if the government is cleared on the narrow point, the wider charges remain. Mr Gilligan's reports were a fair account of what he was told by a senior government adviser. The government's attacks on him were slurs. Not only Dr Kelly but many others in Whitehall thought the government was deceiving the public. There were no chemical or biological weapons ready for the order to fire in 45 minutes or 45 hours or 45 days. At the end of his dictatorship, Saddam didn't threaten anyone - except Iraqis. If Mr Blair went to war to liberate them, he should have said so. His possibly terminal troubles flow from a congenital inability to level with the electorate.