A new front opened in the Government's hostilities with the BBC over the Iraq conflict yesterday, with the Ministry of Defence considering legal action against a documentary on the war.
The move concerns tomorrow's episode of the BBC series Fighting The War, which claims that Christopher Maddison, a Royal Marine, may have been killed by British "friendly fire", and not Iraqi forces, as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) maintains.
Legal action by the MoD, demanding judicial arbitration, wouldkeep the show off the air until the issue is resolved.
The development is the culmination of a growing row between the Government and the BBC over the series. Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, has expressed his concern over the programmes and what the MoD has done about alleged inaccuracies.
Fighting The War was the result of the corporation being granted unprecedented access during the war. But almost every episode has brought complaints from the MoD, and senior officials have privately accused the BBC of "subterfuge" and "skulduggery".
Under a contract drawn up with the BBC for the series, MoD officials are entitled to see the programmes before they are transmitted. Ministry officials say they have been shown "rushes", film which had not been fully edited, and that additional material had been slipped into the final version. The BBC disputes that it is obliged to show the MoD the final version.
Mr Hoon has asked the MoD to ensure that it sees the full version of the programme. According to a senior Whitehall sources, it is "unlikely" that the BBC will be given "this kind of unfettered access" in the near future. "We feel they have abused our trust. There are other TV channels," he said.
MoD officials complained to the BBC over one episode of Fighting The War that claimed the Government was breaching the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel weapons by "using cluster bombs".
This accusation, say officials, was not in the "rushes" they were shown. The MoD stressed no "anti-personnel" cluster bombs were used. What was used, it said, was the BL755 cluster bomb, which is used against structures and armour and is not banned under the Ottawa Convention.
But it is the programme about the death of 24-year-old Marine Maddison on an amphibious landing craft off Basra on 30 March that has caused the biggest furore.
An investigation by the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police concluded that the attack in which Marine Maddison was killed, and two other marines were injured, was launched with an Iraqi Sagger missile.
Royal Marines with a Milan anti-tank rocket were in the area. But the SIB investigation maintained that at 2.8km, the Milan was too far away to have hit the craft. Copper residue found on Marine Maddison's craft also ruled out a Milan attack, the military police said.
Simon Ford, a BBC executive producer, said in a statement yesterday: "This [RMP] conclusion cannot be drawn from the evidence on the ground. The RMP report may have been written in haste, but in the interest of Chris, his family and his colleagues in the Marines, we believe our evidence justifies reopening the investigation."
The MoD has asked for any new evidence to be handed over to the RMP and Nicholas Gardiner, the Oxfordshire coroner who will hold the inquest into Marine Maddison's death.Reuse content