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25 August 2003

Why the BBC is losing

If the Hutton inquiry vindicates the Today programme, Tony Blair is history. But the calm of the Bla

By Nick Cohen

Alastair Campbell is so much the creation of hostile journalists that it’s tempting to put his name in inverted commas and wonder if he is a fictional character. He is everywhere discussed and reviled, but the public is no more likely to have heard him speak for himself than to have spent an evening with Harry Potter. It was therefore a shock to watch the monster of media imagination spend five hours giving unspun evidence to Lord Hutton at the Royal Courts of Justice and emerge at the end of the session as a calm, self-assured figure.

You could hear the same self-assurance in the voices of the other Blairite witnesses – Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and Sir David Manning, his former foreign policy adviser. Anyone who believes the Hutton inquiry will be a British Watergate should read the transcripts of their evidence at www.the- What is striking is the absence of fear. Obviously, every witness has spent weeks checking what they did and didn’t write in e-mails and memos. Obviously, too, they know that the frenzy which led to Dr David Kelly’s suicide was, in retrospect, inexcusable. But there is no trepidation in their voices and few evasive notes in their answers. All stick with absolute confidence to a truth they hold to be self-evident: the BBC got it wrong. Alastair Campbell did not override the protests of the intelligence services to insert the false or highly questionable claim that Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

The Blairites know they are on their own. Although the inquiry has heard details of dozens of meetings between combinations of Blair, Campbell, Powell and Manning (with Peter Mandelson popping up every now and again, as he invariably does), the Parliamentary Labour Party and the cabinet are absent. There is no minute that describes Blair discussing his strategy over a whisky with, say, Gordon Brown or John Prescott or David Blunkett. Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon are minor players, who are on stage simply because they happened to be in the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. The Hutton inquiry is an inquiry into Blair and his kitchen cabinet. And at the time of going to press, nothing in the mountain of internal Whitehall documents that Lord Hutton’s staff have collected has wounded them. Perhaps, when you read this, the story will have moved on and the government’s case will have fallen apart. Perhaps Tony Blair will have cracked under interrogation. Perhaps a killer e-mail will have emerged from the data banks of Downing Street. But for the moment, the government line is holding, and Blair and his supporters know it.

This knowledge explains their relaxed style. When Powell gave evidence, the court was full and an overspill marquee for excluded hacks was half-full. When Campbell gave evidence, both the court and marquee were packed as journalists from all over the world collectively willed him to fail, like a hostile crowd praying for a penalty-taker to miss. But Campbell, like all the other government witnesses, spoke as if only Hutton and James Dingemans, senior counsel to the inquiry, were in the room. There was no playing to the gallery, no propaganda points. In a memo to John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which forms part of the government’s defence, Campbell told the spy that the September dossier on weapons of mass destruction should be the work of the intelligence services. “The drier the better,” he said. “Cut the rhetoric.” Campbell and his colleagues have followed this maxim at the inquiry. They have answered questions, avoided elaboration and given every appearance of bending over backwards to help His Lordship.

To moderately curious British citizens, their openness is beside the point. They wonder why there isn’t an investigation into how the public came to be told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when there were none worthy of the name. They wonder why Britain went to war. The Hutton inquiry hurries past these large issues. They are raised only to be left hanging in the air, as the court concentrates on its narrow remit to investigate the events that led to Dr Kelly’s death.

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Thus Dingemans asked Campbell what were the toughest questions the government had to answer in the run-up to war. “Why now? Why Iraq?” Campbell replied. The best answer, he continued, was that “the debate, particularly in the United States, had really moved on to a different level”. This is the truth of the matter. Blair took Britain to war because George Bush was determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein, WMDs or no WMDs. The Prime Minister was equally determined not to break the Atlantic alliance and could not see why it was an outrage against basic decency to get rid of a tyrant with the blood of a million or so people on his hands. But having touched on the greatest foreign policy controversy in a generation, Dingemans forgot about it. He did not ask why Britain must always be America’s camp follower, or what Britain got in return for her loyal service.

Given the evasion, it is easy to dismiss the Hutton inquiry as another manifestation of a crazed political culture that combines amnesia with obsessiveness in equal measure. The big issues – Why Iraq? Why now? – are shoved into a corner as politicians, civil servants and journalists lose themselves in the details of a scandal. But there is a difference between the inquiry and hundreds of similar obsessive-compulsive disorders that have afflicted the Westminster village: this time, the detail matters. If the BBC is vindicated, Blair will have to go.

When Dr Kelly was revealed to be the BBC’s source, it looked as if the Today programme’s journalists would triumph. Here was Britain’s foremost expert on Iraq saying that Campbell, and by extension Blair, had overruled honest spies and tricked the country into fighting a capricious war. Newspapers were hearing murmurs of dissent from spooks of all shapes and sizes. Surely it wasn’t fantastic to believe that Campbell, the greatest spin-doctor of them all, had spun Britain into a conflict?

And yet the claim can’t be pinned down, and the doubts about the Today programme won’t go away. I have been covering the inquiry for weeks, and every piece I’ve written has contained words to the effect that “the BBC has had a rough couple of days, but now it’s new Labour’s turn”. It hasn’t worked out like that. First was the infamous e-mail about Andrew Gilligan that Kevin Marsh, the editor of the Today programme, sent to his bosses. “I hope that by then my worst fears – based on what I’m hearing from the spooks this afternoon – aren’t realised. Assuming not, the guts of what I would say are: This story was a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by flawed reporting.” Note my italics. It appears that MI6, whose director was lunching editors at the time, had told Marsh that the allegation was false. If MI6 wouldn’t confirm Gilligan’s story at a private dinner, it is unlikely to back it up in public. Then there was Susan Watts saying that the BBC management tried to bully her into following the corporate line. Then there was the revelation that the BBC did not follow standard journalistic practice and put the allegations against Downing Street to the government. As Campbell was finishing his evidence, Dingemans said he had received a copy of an e-mail from Gilligan to the Liberal Democrats which all but screamed that Kelly was his source and advised the opposition how to embarrass the government. Journalists whose salaries come from public funds aren’t meant to do that.

Judge-watching is a dangerous sport because judges are treacherous beasts. They appear to be house-trained pets when they ask their polite questions, only to go wild when freed to deliver their verdicts. Predicting their conclusions is a mug’s game. But my impression of Hutton is that he doesn’t like the BBC’s sharp practice and isn’t too keen on the manner in which both the corporation and the MoD treated a distinguished public servant. If he reprimands the MoD, new Labour can live with the loss of Hoon or a few MoD suits. But if he upholds Gilligan’s accusations, Blair will be history. Behind the meticulous answers from Blair’s advisers is a quiet confidence that their master will be with us for a while yet.

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