'I don't see how we could have handled it much differently'
THE SPIN DOCTOR
"What they like to say is they were broadly right," says Alastair Campbell of the fateful Today programme broadcast that set in train events that, a decade later, still cast a shadow over his career and that of his master Tony Blair. "They weren't broadly right! They weren't right on any of the detail at all!"
Long after his departure from Downing Street, Campbell remains by far Britain's best-known political spin doctor. His proactive methods are copied by ideological opponents and his many followers on Twitter let him know when David Cameron's team are "taking another one out of your playbook". He is flattered. "That's part of reputation as well," he says, by way of arguing that his legacy should be considered in the round.
The irony for Campbell is that he believes the most important story of his time in politics – the presentation of the case for war in Iraq – has been cruelly spun against him. "The reason why people say the BBC got it right and you were wrong is because the media keep saying that," he says. "It is, I'm afraid, a very good example of media spin."
Wearing a black track-suit jacket and talking in the airy kitchen at the back of his north London home, Campbell, 55, does his best to give the impression that he has moved on with his life.
He says he no longer dwells too much on the reporting by Andrew Gilligan of the BBC on 29 May 2003 that prompted a political uproar that ultimately lead to the suicide of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, the Hutton inquiry, the resignations of the broadcasting organisation's two most senior figures and, in the eyes of many, define his own time in Downing Street.
And yet, even as he insists that the public judges him differently from the media, he reveals how the events of 2003 still loom large in his life. He mentions that he spent the previous evening at a book-signing event for "a Jewish charity that helps asylum seekers" and received a positive response. "Of course you get people who say 'I will never vote Labour again' but you will also get a lot of people saying the opposite."
Campbell's confidence that he was on the side of right rests on two pillars of support. The emphatical support for the Government's position in the findings of Lord Hutton's inquiry into the whole affair in January 2004, and Labour's victory in the 2005 general election.
The Hutton report may have been widely dismissed as being one-sided – The Independent famously published a front page that was blank save for the words "Whitewash? The Hutton Report" – but that was due to the bias of the print media, Campbell says. The Independent, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror were angry over the Iraq war, while the majority of Tory papers were hoping that the judge would find against the Blair government. Campbell found himself the target of an unlikely alliance between the BBC and the Daily Mail, which wrote of the "wretched" post-publication spectacle of the spin doctor crowing "from the summit of his dunghill".
For 10 years, the mood music has remained the same. "Whenever the Hutton report is mentioned it's always surrounded by some sort of pejorative adjective or noun – whitewash, or one-sided, controversial, or hotly disputed. So lots of people say 'We believe the BBC'."
It was, he says, precisely because of the credibility of BBC journalism that he felt obliged to respond to the Gilligan story in the way that he did. "I still find it very difficult – even looking back with the 10 years that have elapsed – to work out what a different strategy would have looked like," he says.
He disputes the notion, advanced by the BBC, that Radio 4's original 6.07am broadcast was heard by very few people and deserved a proportionate response. "By the next day it was leading the news around the world! Partly because it was the BBC, a reputable organisation, making profoundly serious allegations against the British Prime Minister," he says. "This idea that it was half a dozen people listening, forget it!"
Campbell also rejects the suggestion that the Government's targeting of the BBC failed to recognise that the allegations made by Gilligan were part of wider media coverage of dissatisfaction in the security services over the way the case for war had been presented. "Those stories were of a low level – once the BBC had done it, it was a different thing."
He blames the BBC for allowing the dispute to fester. "What they should have done from the word go, from the moment we first complained… was to establish that the broadcast, as broadcast, should not have been made."
And he accuses BBC News of collectively twisting the story to claim Gilligan had only accused the Government of using "disproportionate emphasis" in its claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "They didn't allege that at all! They alleged that we invented intelligence, inserted it into a dossier knowing it to be untrue, against the wishes of the intelligence services. That's a very different thing."
The shock over Hutton, he argues, was the result of selective media reporting of the inquiry itself, feeding an expectation that the judge would find in favour of the BBC. "What the inquiry was ultimately about was, did we sex up the dossier as described by the BBC – and was there some underhand strategy in relation to [naming] David Kelly? And the judge decided no in relation to both. And if [they] actually bother to read the evidence, reasonable people will be led to that conclusion."
Some of Campbell's Labour colleagues, including Blair, were alarmed at the way Campbell was consumed by the Gilligan story. Even Campbell's wife Fiona Millar thought he made a mistake by personally going on Channel 4 News to defend the Government. "There are people – including my missus – who will say it was a bloody stupid thing to do, and I still don't agree with that."
Does he have any misgivings? "Do I regret that the situation became so difficult and confrontational? Obviously I do. Do I regret that David Kelly killed himself? Of course. Do I regret that the Hutton Inquiry had to happen and everybody had to be put through that? Of course I do," he says. "But I have the benefit of having kept a diary and, even accepting that from time to time I lost my temper and from time to time was getting very angry, I don't see how we could have handled it much differently."
Although no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, and the Iraq war cost many thousands of civilian lives (as well as 179 British military personnel), Campbell stands behind Hutton in saying "that does not justify the reporting by the BBC at the time".
In any case, he denies that he will defined by Iraq. "People often say to me, 'You must find it really frustrating that Tony Blair's entire legacy is dominated by Iraq' and I say, 'Go and tell that to somebody in Kosovo, or somebody in Northern Ireland'." he says.
"Look, in a way it was my final moment in government but who did Tony Blair want to run the 2005 campaign, who did Gordon Brown want to go back and run the 2010 campaign, and who is the person that lots of Tories – even though I left 10 years ago – can't resist having a pop at because I get under their skin?"
A decade after the Gilligan broadcast, Campbell has a portfolio lifestyle. He speaks, he writes, he does consultancy, some of it unpaid. He works one day a week for the PR company Portland. And he has just written a novel about alcoholism, from which he suffered during his earlier career as a journalist. The work he finds "most satisfying" is campaigning on mental-health awareness for the charity Time to Change. "I'm where I want to be really," he says, not that convincingly.
He knows, of course, that Iraq, Andrew Gilligan, Greg Dyke and David Kelly will always be central to his story. But he has found a way to live with that. "Was it for me personally the most difficult period? Without a doubt, any shadow of a doubt. Was it for Tony? It probably was in some ways. But the other thing, which very rarely gets mentioned, is that Tony won another general election afterwards – and I was part of the campaign team."
'I was quite clear that I had made some mistakes'
In times when so many live in hope of an incident that will propel them to instant celebrity, Andrew Gilligan has a warning over his own moment of fame. "It was, by a long distance, the worst experience of my life," he says.
The Sun put Gilligan on its front page under the headline "You Rat" and denounced him in a leader as the world's worst journalist. He was forced to leave the BBC or else face a future as "the highest-paid traffic reporter in Radio Norfolk". He has spent years where "my first wish was to be known for something other than the Hutton Inquiry".
And, most of all, he has had to cope with the fact that Dr David Kelly, a source who had spoken to him on the grounds of anonymity, had been driven to suicide after being publicly identified.
But for all he may have suffered over his flawed 29 May 2003 report on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Gilligan, 44, exudes a sense of vindication. "It all turned out fine in the end, and I don't think it has done any long-term damage to my reputation or to my employability, maybe the reverse."
Ten years on, Gilligan writes for the Daily Telegraph while also working two days a week as a "cycling tsar" for the London Mayor Boris Johnson (he spoke to The Independent before taking up the post). After leaving the BBC he was named Journalist of the Year for his critical reports for the London Evening Standard on former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, which won't have offended his current employers.
"I'm quite pleased with how it has turned out," he says. "Most of the people who behaved well over Hutton have done all right. Most of the people who behaved badly have reaped their just rewards. I don't think Alastair [Campbell] is ever going to be able to escape it. He and Blair have been defined by it and they will never be able to escape it for the rest of their lives."
The journalist claims that the difference between him and his nemesis of 2003 is that the spin doctor has never held his hand up. "One of the reasons I have been able to rebuild my professional reputation is that I was quite clear I had made some mistakes," he says. "I owned up to them, apologised for them and took my punishment. I resigned from my job and that was right. He has never admitted a single error, he has continued to pretend that his behaviour throughout was completely unimpeachable."
Surprisingly, the two have never spoken. They stood awkwardly in the same room at a Labour Party conference fringe event, and then again at an ITN election party. But on neither occasion were words exchanged.
Gilligan sees Campbell's response to his story as a calculated distraction from the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been discovered by allied forces in Iraq, weeks after the fall of Baghdad. "Campbell decided he needed to change the narrative and he did it brilliantly. There is nothing the media likes more than a story about the media and the story became all about [the BBC] and not about the Government. It was tactically brilliant but strategically catastrophic."
Downing Street's attack was not initially about the clumsy dawn two-way with Today presenter John Humphrys, when Gilligan said: "What we've been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier was that, actually the Government probably erm, knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in."
The 6.07am piece was aired to "an audience of about 100,000 sheep farmers", he jokes. "The Government didn't even complain about it for a month. It was only after they paged through their transcripts and realised here was a weakness they could exploit that they decided to get angry about it."
He is bitter towards former Today editor Kevin Marsh, who initially praised the reporter for a "good story, well told" but later emailed to rebuke him for his sloppiness. "As soon as things got difficult he decided to change tack and decided it was a bad piece of journalism done by a rogue reporter."
He praises Greg Dyke as "one of the best leaders the BBC has ever had" but says the organisation as a whole is unable to cope with its own emergencies. "They seem to melt down in every crisis and their answer is new bureaucracies and procedures which actually just make it harder to handle."
The recent scandal concerning Jimmy Savile "showed the same structural weaknesses at the BBC which contributed to our little story", he says. "It's astonishingly badly managed. Strategically BBC managers are actually quite thoughtful and farsighted. But tactically in any crisis they are all over the place."
As regards the tragedy of Dr Kelly, Gilligan points to the weapons inspector's wife Janice blaming the Ministry of Defence for making his identity public. He admits that the suggestion that the Government "probably knew" its dossier was wrong had not come from Dr Kelly but was the journalist's own invention.
Even so, his story was "broadly correct" and "the vast majority of the country agrees with me", he argues. "I don't think anyone, with the possible exception of Alastair Campbell… would dispute that the dossier was sexed up. It's absolutely beyond question." f
In 2003, a BBC report alleging that the Government had 'sexed up' an intelligence dossier to justify war, ended in tragedy. Recriminations, resignations, and the Hutton Inquiry followed – here, its key players recall a summer of scandal
'The bulk of BBC governors were gutless buggers'
THE BBC BOSS
Ten years after the Gilligan story, which caused Greg Dyke to resign from the biggest job of his life, the former BBC director general has landed a role which almost matches it for high public profile.
The chairman elect of the Football Association should feel more confident than ever in putting behind him the traumatic last eight months he spent running the BBC. For a long time afterwards he was bitter. And on many occasions more recently he has claimed to have moved on.
But there is still a hint of anger in his voice when he talks of Alastair Campbell. "I don't make enemies easily but when I do, they are enemies," he says. Dyke, 65, still feels betrayed by Tony Blair. "A man who I helped support earlier in his career, I look back on as a disaster for the Labour Party and for this country."
His departure from the BBC, to the dismay of the many staff who revered him, was the inevitable consequence of the lack of support he received from the BBC governors. "The bulk of them were gutless buggers and the history of the BBC governors is that they pretend they are the great defenders of independent journalism and at any time that it gets tough they are not."
Dyke draws a distinction between his departure alongside that of chairman Gavyn Davies after the Hutton Inquiry and the recent resignation of director general George Entwistle over the Savile scandal. "We had something worth defending," he says. "We were defending our right to broadcast somebody's assertion from inside the defence community who said they sexed up the case for war. The Savile stuff was just a cock up."
He seems convinced that history has already judged his cause to have been just. "These days I don't meet anybody who doesn't think we were right, except for Alastair Campbell who still shouts about it." The view that the Government sexed up the case for war "has become the accepted norm now", he says.
And yet, still awaiting the much-delayed publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, Dyke craves closure to the pain he suffered over Hutton. "I've no doubt that in another 10 years, just as with Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday, the truth will out," he says hopefully.
Gavyn Davies resigned from the BBC to take responsibility for Hutton's findings (although he totally rejected them), thinking it would save the director general. Dyke himself argues that "If my chairman hadn't resigned and the governors hadn't decided to get rid of me I think we would have all survived it. I think once you had seen The Independent's front page…"
After leaving the BBC, Dyke went on to build a portfolio of jobs that included being chairman of the British Film Institute, the Ambassador Theatre Group and Brentford Football Club. He is also chancellor of the University of York. "I wouldn't have been at the BBC anyway by now," he says. "I would have been well out – I was only ever going to do another two years."
He is proud of having set up Freeview as well as having germinated ideas for the iPlayer and the move of large parts of the organisation to Salford, two of the most significant features of the tenure of his well-regarded successor Mark Thompson. Had he stayed for those two years he might have tackled some unfinished business. "We could have carried on with what we were doing about reinvigorating the staff. That got lost," he says. And damage was done to the BBC news room, which caught a chill. If this episode had never happened and Dyke had served a full term in charge, then "I think their journalism might have been a bit braver," he says. "I think the place was really shocked by losing the chairman and director general together over one issue."
'Campbell had a real animus against me and against Today'
Kevin Marsh, the former editor of Today, says there is "bad blood" between him and Andrew Gilligan, his former reporter.
This much is clear from the way that Marsh casually speculates that Gilligan was "in his underpants sitting on the end of his bed presumably", when he delivered the 6.07am broadcast that was to cause them both so many problems.
Gilligan, who says that he was dressed before he called in from his ISDN phone line at his home in south London in May 2003, notes that he was sent a laudatory email by Marsh shortly after breaking his story.
A decade later the editor is adamant that, while he stands by "every word" of the BBC's scripted story, he had concerns from the moment he heard Gilligan come on air as he travelled to work in a taxi. "I was listening to it in the cab and I swore quite a lot because I had only read this script about an hour and a half before and I thought 'I'm sure that's not what was in the script.' As soon as I walked through the door, Downing Street was on the phone."
Despite initially praising the report, Marsh later emailed Gilligan again to criticise him for good journalism "marred by poor reporting". When asked to define Gilligan's strengths and weaknesses, he starts with the latter. "His weaknesses were that he just didn't know what words meant – quite fundamental in a journalist," he says. "His weakness was that, when it came to the reporting stage, he was just too fast and loose with his language."
Gilligan's great forte was his nose for a story. "He did see significance in just ordinary conversations," concedes Marsh, talking in a hotel café near Broadcasting House. And in Gilligan's conversation with the weapons inspector he "picked up on the significance of what Kelly had said about the judgements of the intelligence analysts being overridden – he could see that was a good line".
Marsh, 58, who has written a book about the sexed-up dossier called Stumbling Over Truth, continued editing Today for a further two and a half years after the Hutton report. Tensions between the Government and the BBC fell away soon after the report was published because Alastair Campbell, Marsh's nemesis, had left Downing Street. "Campbell had a real animus against me and against Today."
He acknowledges some chilling effect on the BBC's reporting after Hutton but attributes this to the "very cautious" personality of the deputy director general Mark Byford, who was placed in charge of the organisation's journalism.
Marsh was "bitter" that he never got the chance to give evidence to the Hutton Inquiry. "He picked up a whole stack of misunderstandings from everyone and my story never got heard," he says. "The classic was that he thought Gilligan was the only person who checked this story out. He said in his conclusions that editors didn't look over the script – he just didn't seem to understand how news organisations worked."
He now runs a consultancy firm called Offspin Media, having previously been executive editor of the BBC College of Journalism. Gilligan sneers that this career path amounts to "his just deserts". But Marsh believes he was unscathed by the saga. "I think the effects on me were fairly minimal," he says.Reuse content