BBC story had potential 'to do real damage'

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Indy Politics

Attempts to contain the "firestorm'' sparked by the "ghastly Gilligan story" were described in detail by Alastair Campbell yesterday.

He was in Kuwait, accompanying Tony Blair, who was preparing to meet British troops in southern Iraq, when Mr Gilligan broadcast his allegations that Downing Street had "sexed up'' the Government's Iraq dossier.

Asked of his reaction, he said: "I was torn really. On the one hand I did not imagine anyone could take them terribly seriously. It was such an extraordinary thing to say that the Prime Minister and the Government would do that.''

He said the claims overshadowed what was intended as a morale-boosting visit to soldiers in Basra by the Prime Minister. And upon his return to Britain, Mr Campbell spearheaded a fightback against what he described in his diary as "the ghastly Gilligan story''.

Downing Street's director of communications told the Hutton inquiry: "We were concerned it had the potential to do real damage to the Prime Minister and the Government.''

He said he had decided to concentrate on the Gilligan report, rather than stories run by fellow BBC journalists Gavin Hewitt and Susan Watts, because they were "wholly different'' in magnitude.

He also chose to ignore Mr Gilligan's claim in The Mail on Sunday that he was behind the massaging of the dossier. "My prime motive remained how to reduce the damage being done by the original allegations which had, by then, gone right around the world several times,'' he said.

In his diary of 1 June he wrote the situation was "grim". He said he had discussed the issue with Tony Blair and won the "absolute support'' of John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, for his many attempts to rebut the allegations.

Mr Campbell said Mr Scarlett had told him: "You are the brutish political hatchet man and I am the dry intelligence officer. It rather looks like we're being made to accord to our stereotypes.''

Mr Campbell was challenged over a letter he sent to Richard Sambrook, the BBC head of news, attacking Mr Gilligan's "extraordinary ignorance about intelligence issues''. The letter also pointed out BBC guidelines warning against basing stories on a single source and predicted that Mr Sambrook would defend his correspondent.

He told the committee Mr Sambrook usually promised to investigate complaints, but had replied that "there was nothing wrong''. Mr Campbell said he was unimpressed by Mr Sambrook's response and accused him of being "utterly disingenuous'' on the use of sources. He said; "I was, for many years, a journalist before I went to work for the Prime Minister. I was working on a tabloid newspaper. There was no way in the world that newspaper would have run something like that without putting it to the people concerned, be it a Government minister or in the case of The Mail on Sunday, me. I think with an allegation as serious as that I find it unbelievable - and I found it unbelievable - that this allegation was not put to us.''

James Dingemans, counsel for the inquiry, detailed a stream of complaints fired off by Mr Campbell to the BBC over its coverage of the Iraq war. Mr Campbell agreed there were more complaints being made than usual. "Our concern was BBC viewers and listeners were being given a sense of moral equivalents between the democratically elected Governments on one side and the Iraqi regime on the other.''

He said he did not believe relations had broken down between the Government and the BBC in the run-up to Mr Gilligan's story.