BBC on 'full war footing'

Despite calls for a ceasefire, the corporation is on the attack reports James Morrison
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Indy Politics

The BBC may be winning the propaganda battle, but only in the autumn - when the Government launches its long-awaited review of the cor- poration's Royal Charter - will it begin to become clear who has won the war.

A new shadow was cast over the all-important review last night amid claims that present and former ministers have threatened the BBC with "vengeance" if it continues to stand its ground over the Iraq dossier affair.

One such threat, according to an insider, was made by Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister. He is said to have called a "senior player" at the BBC a month ago to warn that its continuing insistence on the validity of Andrew Gilligan's original report on the Today programme, and the accusation that Downing Street had "sexed-up" the dossier, would lead to reprisals.

Though it is not clear whether his call was sanctioned by No 10, the insider says the implications of his words were obvious: he was threatening the BBC's independence.

Others speak of similar bullying calls from "within government", using terms like "vengeance" and "we are going to get you" to harry executives.

It makes all the more ominous a promise by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, on Radio 4's World at One on Friday to "take very seriously" any recommendations on the BBC made by the Hutton inquiry in almost the same breath as she mentioned the licence fee and the corporation's governance.

Mr Mandelson might well have felt he had good cause to be bullish when he issued his hitherto unpublicised ultimatum all those weeks ago. At the time, Alastair Campbell, Downing Street's director of communications, had just made his notorious outburst on Channel 4 News, giving the BBC an unexpected fillip as his judgment began to be questioned publicly; but on the whole the corporation was firmly on the back foot.

It entered last week looking decidedly shaky in the wake of Mr Gilligan's revelation that the primary source for his 29 May report was, after all, Dr David Kelly. Within a day, there was talk of a split on the BBC's board of governors, with some apparently demanding an emergency meeting to discuss the implications.

But 24 hours later, the headlines were changing. As details emerged of the precise nature of Dr Kelly's involvement in preparations for the Iraq war, it became clear that he was more than just "the middle-ranking official" the Government had claimed.

In a curious way, Dr Kelly's death has had the effect of liberating the BBC. Not only did it prompt the corporation to re-examine its refusal to disclose Mr Gilligan's source, it has also enabled Susan Watts, the respected science editor of BBC2's Newsnight, to produce what many believe will be its trump card. The Hutton inquiry will hear an interview she taped with Dr Kelly in which he is said to mention both the vexed question of whether the Government over-egged Saddam Hussein's ability to deploy WMD in 45 minutes and, crucially, Mr Campbell's involvement in this process.

Describing the jubilant reaction of executives to news of the tape's existence, one well-placed source said: "When we heard about it, it was jaws on the floor all around.

"Plenty of us believe Kelly said something totally different to Gilligan to what he said publicly at the committee hearings. The rumours are that it's a devastating piece of evidence. The Government should be pretty worried."

The BBC has now gone on to what insiders describe as a "full war footing" as it endeavours to prepare as watertight a case as possible.

Yet for all its renewed confidence, the BBC remains partially divided over one aspect of its case: Mr Gilligan himself. His superiors are said to be happy that, "give or take the odd semi-colon", the remarks he attributed to his source in his original report are what Dr Kelly told him.

However, as one source said: "There's a sense that they are going to the wall at the wrong time over the wrong story and the wrong correspondent. A lot of people had the impression that Gilligan had another very senior source apart from Kelly, and were very disturbed to find out that he hadn't."

While most papers have now swung behind the BBC, doubts over Mr Gilligan have continued to be exploited almost daily by News International and BSkyB, the media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch. It was The Times to which Ms Jowell turned to rush to the defence of Mr Campbell and to signal her displeasure with the BBC.

Westminster sources claim Mr Murdoch - who is lobbying fiercely for the BBC to be brought fully under Ofcom, the new regulator set up to oversee the media industry - has twice intervened to harden up the stance of Sky News and the News of the World.

Such charges are dismissed by the outlets themselves. In a letter to The Guardian on Friday, Les Hinton of News International wrote: "NI does not, and never has, insisted upon a co-ordinated point of view of this government, or the BBC, in its newspapers. Any honest readers of them will judge for themselves."

And Adam Bolton, political editor of Sky News, last night denied there had been any interference in the tone of his broadcasts about the dossier debacle. "I can promise that no one at News Corps or Sky News has discussed with me how I was covering the story."