The Government made an unprecedented attack on the BBC yesterday, stepping up its demand for an apology over allegations that it "sexed up" a dossier on Iraqi weapons.
Downing Street, ministers and Labour backbenchers tried to turn the tables on the BBC by accusing it of "misleading" the public and MPs - the same charge levelled at Tony Blair over his warnings on weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Mr Blair snubbed the BBC by pointedly refusing to take questions from its journalists at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President. His spokesman suggested that such tactics would continue until the BBC apologised. He denied it was "petty manoeuvring" and claimed that the whole Cabinet had endorsed demands for the BBC to apologise when it discussed the dispute yesterday.
But some Labour MPs said the battle with the BBC was a deliberate "diversion" from the issue of whether Iraq possessed WMD. Brian Donohoe, who was persuaded not to vote against the war, said: "We have to be shown that at the time there was the best information available that there were weapons of mass destruction."
Frank Dobson, a former cabinet minister, said: "I think this is all a diversion." He suggested the BBC may have been manipulated by the secret services to distract attention from the poor intelligence on Iraq.
Ironically, the rift comes at a time when the Tories have called the BBC the "Blair Broadcasting Corporation" after two Labour supporters, Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies, were appointed BBC director general and chairman respectively.
Relations between a government and the BBC have not been so low since Norman Tebbit, as Tory chairman, attacked coverage of the American bombing of Libya in 1986. Lord Tebbit's campaign was mounted from Conservative Central Office, while Mr Blair deployed the full government machine yesterday. When he gave evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday, Alastair Campbell, the No 10 director of communications, switched the spotlight to BBC claims that he "sexed up" a dossier in September to include a warning that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes - against the wishes of the intelligence services.
Downing Street is increasingly confident that the committee will endorse its version of events. Mr Campbell is expected to supply the MPs with changes made to the September dossier during its drafting, showing that the "45-minute claim" was in the first draft, not added a week before publication, as the BBC had claimed.
Mr Campbell gave the BBC an ultimatum, demanding an answer by last night to 12 questions on its claims and asking whether it was sticking to them. He told Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, that the many statements by BBC journalists "amount to charges that the Government, from the Prime Minister down, misled Parliament and public about the case on which he had led the country into conflict". He criticised the BBC's "refusal ever to apologise, even on a story that is potentially so damaging to the integrity of the Prime Minister, the Government and the political process".
Phil Woolas, the Deputy Leader of the Commons, wrote to Andrew Gilligan, the defence correspondent who claimed the dossier had been "sexed up", claiming that the BBC was "in full retreat from the original allegations because you know them to be untrue". Mr Woolas said Mr Gilligan appeared to have misled MPs when he gave evidence last week.
Last night Mr Sambrook said the BBC would "respond properly to these matters" but not to Mr Campbell's deadline.
Mr Campbell replied: "The fact that he cannot reply to yes- or-no questions in this way confirms me in my belief, that he, in common with the vast bulk of BBC journalists, knows that the allegations made by Mr Gilligan were false."
The BBC's Andrew Gilligan reported that a senior intelligence source said the first dossier had been 'sexed up' by the Government
Alastair Campbell, No 10's communications chief, said the report was a lie and issued a challenge to Mr Gilligan
Richard Sambrook, the BBC director of news, said he stood by his correspondent and would not be dictated to by Mr CampbellReuse content