Ministers threatened revenge on the BBC in the feud that led to the death of the government scientist David Kelly, according to senior sources within the corporation. One said: "There have been phone calls from within government saying 'we are going to get you', talking about 'vengeance'. There's a war going on against the BBC of some kind."
The threats were seen by the BBC as part of an orchestrated campaign to intimidate the corporation over its coverage of Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Another highly placed source alleged that the former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson had sought to negotiate a "deal" which it is believed would have involved the BBC publicly retracting allegations made by Andrew Gilligan, defence correspondent for the Today programme, who claimed in a broadcast on 29 May that Downing Street had altered intelligence reports on Iraq to make them "sexier", to buttress the case for going to war.
The BBC subsequently phoned Mr Mandelson back, rejecting the suggested deal. According to the source: "That's when the not-so-veiled threat was made. Essentially, the meaning was 'we'll throw everything at you'. It was a clear attempt to threaten the BBC's independence by getting us to pull a story we had publicly said we stood behind. The tone of the conversation seemed to be 'retract or else'."
The row comes as the Prime Minister has appealed for restraint in the wake of the death of Dr Kelly. Today, Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, accuses politicians, broadcasters and journalists alike of being sucked into a "Westminster bubble" where political debate is driven out by spin and "on-message government boredom".
Writing in this newspaper, Mr Hain warns fellow members of what he calls "the political class" that unless they introduce more integrity into public life, "we will all go down together" if public disenchantment with politics worsens.
Yesterday Lord Hutton, who will head the official inquiry into Dr Kelly's suspected suicide, paid a courtesy call on his widow at her Oxfordshire home. Tony Blair, who will hold a final press conference on Wednesday before his summer break, has called for "restraint" until after Lord Hutton's inquiry.
The steady drip of information from inside the BBC as it prepares for the Hutton inquiry has infuriated government supporters. One former minister has accused BBC staff of being more guilty than the Government of "spinning".
Last week, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee "reluctantly" agreed not to publish a transcript of its final hearing in which Andrew Gilligan gave evidence, after receiving a personal request from the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies.
Gisela Stuart, a Labour member of the committee, said: "If we withheld the transcript, in the interest of stabilising the situation, I would have expected a similar attitude from the BBC. I would have expected them to give up spinning."
In his evidence, given in private at the very time when Dr Kelly was walking to his death in an Oxfordshire wood, Mr Gilligan is understood to have claimed that he was trying to persuade the source of his allegations to come forward, implying it was someone other than the scientist.
The BBC has since confirmed that this source was in fact Dr Kelly, who had appeared before the committee two days earlier. Mr Gilligan may have to explain to Lord Hutton why he appeared to give misleading information to a Commons committee.
Mr Hain, who had already complained of the deteriorating quality of political debate before the events that led to Dr Kelly's death, has added a warning that: "Politicians, news broadcasters and journalists now form a 'political class' which is in a frenzied world of its own, completely divorced from the people, and which is turning off viewers, listeners and readers from politics by the million.
"Government can do more to cut out the spin. But equally the media can do more to report substance. If we don't burst this Westminster bubble, we will all go down together."Reuse content