Campbell was out to get us

In January, Gavyn Davies became the first BBC casualty of the Hutton inquiry. The former chairman tells Ciar Byrne of the 'witch hunt' that led to his demise - and why he's still angry
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The Independent Online

For a man about to embark on a month-long family holiday to Africa, Gavyn Davies has a lot on his mind. Alastair Campbell for one thing - the former BBC chairman is still upset that the ex-Downing Street communications chief called him a liar over the Hutton inquiry. Susan Watts for another - Davies believes that if the BBC had known about the existence of the Newsnight science editor's taped conversation with David Kelly, the corporation would have been able to place itself beyond criticism even before Lord Hutton launched his investigation.

On Sunday it will be a year to the day since the government scientist Dr Kelly went missing from his Oxfordshire home. In the ensuing 12 months, the BBC has lost and gained a chairman and a director general and been forced to take a long hard look at its journalism. In a speech to Middlesex University's business school last week, Davies declared that from where he was sitting it looked like the Government had conducted a "witch-hunt" against the BBC in the affair which led to his resignation in January.

Sitting in a sleekly designed office in his leafy Wandsworth home the night before setting off for a tour of Africa with his wife, Sue Nye - Gordon Brown's political secretary - and their children, Davies makes no bones about whom he believes to have been the Witchfinder General. He is still furious about Campbell's gloating speech to the Foreign Press Association following the publication of the Hutton report, when he accused the BBC chairman and director general of "not telling the truth".

"Of course I made tactical and strategic errors faced with an extraordinarily intemperate attack from Alastair, but I didn't do anything to deliberately mislead anybody. When Alastair called me a liar, I thought that was really over the top. I'm still upset about it."

Davies's view is that Campbell pursued a "disproportionate" attack on the BBC over Andrew Gilligan's Today programme broadcast accusing Number 10 of "sexing up" its September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons, because he wanted to divert attention from even more embarrassing subjects. "I think he faced questioning at the Foreign Affairs Committee about the February '03 dossier which he would definitely have found difficult, and as a result he chose to deflect attention towards the September '02 dossier and towards a generalised attack on the BBC. There's no better way of deflecting attention from anything than to blame the BBC."

In contrast, Davies thought Tony Blair, with whom he spoke privately a couple of times in the weeks before Dr Kelly's death, was "rational and cool-headed about the whole thing". With certain nuances, Davies still believes the broad thrust of Gilligan's report was correct and was supported by the tape recording of a conversation between Watts and Dr Kelly. He is convinced that if he and Dyke had known about the existence of the tape earlier, they would have been in a position to address the Government's angry denials before the situation spiralled out of control.

"The nuance is that Andrew did not make clear the difference between the precise words of the source and the interpretation of the source's meaning, and he didn't tell us that until the Hutton inquiry itself."

Davies estimates that the Watts tape backed up around 80 per cent of what Gilligan reported. "I wish that we had known that the Kelly tape existed a long time before we did, but Susan Watts didn't tell us. She tried to prevent us from hearing it."

Watts, who requested separate legal representation from the BBC at the Hutton inquiry and was described by Lord Hutton as an "accurate and reliable witness", accused her bosses of making "misguided and false" attempts to use her to corroborate Gilligan's report.

"I think if the director general and I had known the tape existed and we'd been able to listen to it earlier, we would have been firmer in our generalised support for the Gilligan broadcasts. But we might have been able to draw a clearer distinction between what Kelly actually said and what Gilligan had interpreted... I wish that had happened because I think the BBC would then be beyond criticism."

Today, the governors and management of the BBC will appear separately before the Commons culture, media and sport committee, to give evidence on the corporation's annual report. Last year, Davies appeared before the committee side by side with Greg Dyke, prompting criticism that the board of governors was too close to the executive.

"We challenged management at the board of governors very vehemently on many, many occasions... but what we didn't do was make that apparent to the public," says Davies in the governors' defence.

"I do think that we needed to make the process of governance more transparent and more open to the public. That's one of the things that Michael [Grade] is now doing with the annual report, which I'm sure will be much more a governors' document and much less an executive document than before."

He agrees with some of the proposals for reforming the governance system, including appointing more broadcasting professionals to the board. But he remains opposed to handing over regulation of the BBC to the media watchdog, Ofcom. The fact that this year as last the annual report will show an excess of spending over income, was due to a deliberate decision to fund the launch of the BBC's digital channels, Davies insists. "We've always expected that we would go into very small borrowing last year and we would get back to zero by the end of the charter period, so we're absolutely smack on target," he says, unconsciously slipping back into the BBC "we".

Davies says he was "very happy" that Michael Grade succeeded him as chairman, but is more equivocal about the new director general, Mark Thompson, expressing admiration for Mark Byford, who held the fort after Dyke was forced to resign.

Does he think it was right that Dyke was left with no choice but to quit even after he as the chairman had offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb in the immediate aftermath of Lord Hutton's bloody verdict?

"I thought if I went there was a chance that Greg could stay. I do not resent the fact that the governors took that decision, but probably I would have wanted to take a different decision."

Since leaving the BBC, Davies has taken over a gourmet food delivery service and launched a number of financial services businesses with his former partners from Goldman Sachs, the bank where he was chief UK economist before joining the BBC. Would he consider a return to public life? "No." Not ever? "It's a definitive no until I tell you different. I didn't think everybody acted entirely appropriately last year, and I'd rather let them get on with it."