Norman Tebbit: The BBC doesn't invent lies against the Government

To tell the truth, I was so strident over the Libyan affair partly because I had unease about our policy
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The Independent Online

On the Today programme last week, Andrew Marr was asked if Campbell versus the BBC was a more angry and bitter row than Tebbit versus the BBC in 1986 over Kate Adie's reporting of the American air strike on Libya.

Well, there were similarities, but rather more differences. My complaints did not descend to the playground yah boo, did-didn't level. Nor did the Prime Minister or I call Ms Adie a liar. My complaint was delivered in a dry factual dossier comparing news bulletin by news bulletin, line by line, the reports broadcast by BBC and ITN.

That dispute is all water under the bridge now, long gone by. The Campbell dispute is altogether more remarkable since its viciousness, anger and heat spring, as often they do, from powerful emotions of betrayal and self-guilt.

To Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, for the BBC to attack New Labour is an act of treachery. The corporation has been staffed with Tony's cronies and assumed patsies. It has been protected, cossetted and privileged. So one element of the row is Blair's indignation that, after all his favours, the BBC should turn and bite the hand that feeds it.

Perhaps even more corrosively, the BBC coverage of the run-up to war, of the war itself and its aftermath, may well have been critical of Blair's policy but it has been straight bang down the middle of Labour Party policy. To the collective mind of the BBC, the Government has veered wildly away to the right, falling into line with that neo-con, Christian fundamentalist President Bush. While the deep unease in the ranks of New Labour has been suppressed by the need to keep out of power the Tory political terrorists whose weapons of mass destruction on hospital, schools and pensions could be deployed within 45 minutes of an election victory, the BBC has spoken as the conscience of New Labour.

The anger eating out the hearts of Blair and Campbell springs from the failure of their policy on Iraq. The Prime Minister never intended to go to war without a new UN resolution. That failure led directly to the "dodgy dossier" and the "sexing up" of the dry bones of intelligence reports. The support given by Iain Duncan Smith, and the Attorney General's advice that war would be legal, were based on the premise that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction ready for use outside its borders.

Without evidence of WMD primed and ready for use, the Attorney General would have found it difficult to persuade himself that Iraq was in such flagrant breach of UN resolution 1441 that it would be lawful to go to war. Simple, black-hearted old Tory that I am, I believe any war authorised by Parliament is lawful whatever foreigners might say. But for Blair, Lord Goldsmith's opinion that the attack on Iraq was authorised by 1441 and no new resolution was needed, was essential. Without that legal opinion Blair would have had to rat on Bush or his party would have ratted on him

Like a Greek tragedy - but without a chorus to reveal the plot - events are following the path made inevitable by the actor's character. Blair, less a liar than a fantasist, easily convinced himself of what he wanted to believe. The peacemaker's costume was jettisoned, the war hero's uniform assumed.

The evident lack of enthusiasm at the BBC for a US-led war, opposed in the UN and Brussels, was infuriating, but with victory in Baghdad and Basra it seemed inconsequential. However, the end of the war brought few signs of peace and prosperity, nor any sighting of a single WMD, and Andrew Gilligan's reports casting more doubts on the veracity of Blair struck on some very raw nerves at No 10.

The spin machine went into overdrive. Faithful to the Goebbels dictum: "Never admit to a lie - simply keep repeating it," No 10 condemned Gilligan for relying on a single source. It looks and sounds like the vicar caught in bed with the organist's wife blaming the curate for peeping through the keyhole.

I have to come down on the side of the BBC. This may surprise many people. Of course it is institutionally Labourist and badly needs counselling and retraining to understand what political neutrality entails. But with rare exceptions (and this is not one) it does not invent an elaborate lie against Government - least of all one it did so much to help elect.

My biggest dispute with the BBC - the Libyan affair - was about what I believed to be a slant on the presentation of facts, a quite different dispute to the Gilligan affair. And, to tell the truth, I was probably as strident as I was partly because I had reservations (which I think were justified) about the Government process which led to our involvement, and some unease (which proved unjustified) about the policy itself. In that sense I understand how the Blair-Campbell anger is all the greater - because they know full well they cannot justify to themselves what they have done. Their venom springs not from the belief in the guilt of the BBC but from the certainty of their own self-guilt.

In one way the row is for them a blessing in disguise. It obscures the institutional anti-Tory bias of the BBC and diverts attention from an examination of Labour's war policy. The danger is that it strengthens the case that Blair is an untrustworthy, authoritarian fantasist.

The writer is a former chairman of the Conservative Party and cabinet minister in the Thatcher government