The BBC was wrong to have admitted its source

If you find yourself in a fight with the state, this is the rule: the state gives nothing, you give nothing

The BBC's way of protecting its source, the late Dr David Kelly, in its battle with the Government over the Iraq dossier was, in my view, well intentioned but naive. For when a news organisation is asked to reveal its source for a controversial report there are only two safe replies, neither of which in their stark simplicity seems to have been employed.

The first is to say simply that one never discusses in any way the identity of those who provide information confidentially. My advice is to stop there and keep on repeating the phrase ad nauseum. The second is to say straight away, if confronted by an authority which claims the right to compel disclosure, that one would cheerfully go to prison rather than yield up the informant. Again, if necessary, repeat without adding a single word or phrase.

This, however, is not the way the BBC responded. The corporation wished to appear firm yet reasonable, not recognising that against certain opponents being reasonable is immediately exploited as a weakness. And of such adversaries the state is the most formidable. When the state pursues its purpose, it is always the same: tireless, shameless, hard hearted, unapologetic, vicious, amoral. It matters not whether the state in question is the British state, or, say, the French or American states. This is how states operate. Hence this rule if you find yourself in a fight: the state gives nothing, you give nothing.

Here is the foolish reply that Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter in question, gave to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee: "He is a source of long standing, well-known to me, closely connected with the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, easily sufficiently senior and credible to be worth reporting." Note the use of "credible". This tells me Mr Gilligan was as much concerned with buttressing his own reputation as an experienced reporter as he was with defending Dr Kelly. This was a dangerous distraction for look at what he gave away: long standing, well known to me, closely connected, senior.

Add to this what Richard Sambrook, head of BBC news, wrote to Alastair Campbell - the allegation was made by a "senior official involved in the compilation of the dossier". That narrows the field a bit, doesn't it? Again on 9 July the BBC responded to the announcement that the MoD had found the mole by saying that Mr Gilligan's source does not work in the Ministry of Defence. Exactly, state officials must have said to themselves. They'd guessed he wasn't a career civil servant.

I am afraid my hardline attitude goes a stage further. For I believe that the BBC was wrong to confirm after Dr Kelly's suicide that he was indeed Mr Gilligan's source. I know that the state would not have made this concession with one of its own. If you go to the Public Record Office and examine state documents involving intelligence material released not less than 30 years after the events in question, you will find that the death of the informant has made no difference. The name is still "redacted" out, in other words removed from the record. Sometimes the reason is obvious. In Northern Ireland the family of an informer might suffer reprisals.

The paradox is that the state is the most effective organisation I know in protecting informants. It reveals nothing even, as I've seen for myself, 50 years after the event. If the BBC had behaved like the state, the state would have respected it more.

I am not here laying down rules which I haven't had to learn for myself the hard way. All newspapers face strenuous demands that their suppliers of confidential information be identified. During my period as The Independent's first editor, we inevitably faced such challenges. I was fined £25,000 for being in "contempt of court" in protecting a source. The judge was charming and civilised and whenever we have subsequently met, we have had a pleasant conversation.

Had the BBC followed my method, how would it have worked in practice? In the first place, responding in the way I recommend would not have been a matter for painful discussion at various levels of the BBC right up to the board of governors. For it only required Mr Gilligan to follow the rules for everybody else to fall into line behind him. Second, the sessions in front of the parliamentary committee would have been short. No doubt the members would have shouted and bawled and reminded their witness that they were the High Court of Parliament. But if you say nothing, this cannot go on for very long. Nor will you be asked back for a second examination.

No confirmation on the morrow of Dr Kelly's death? The mystery would remain unsolved. A summons for Mr Gilligan to appear in front of Lord Hutton's judicial enquiry? You employ the second response: I would cheerfully go to prison rather than yield up the name.

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