Christopher Bland: A gross media manipulation that has eroded public trust in Government

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:22

"Nothing to add to evidence to inquiry. Dossier not case for war." (Alastair Campbell, Twitter, May 12 2011.) "Alastair Campbell said to the Inquiry that the purpose of the Dossier was "not to make a case for war". I had no doubt at the time that this was exactly its purpose...." (Major-General Michael Laurie's letter 0f 27.1.10 to the Chilcot enquiry, released on Thursday, 15 months later.)

You pays your money and you makes your choice. The Major-General's letter does, of course, remind us of what most of us knew already. The UK went to war in Iraq on the basis of a dud prospectus. The dossier that the Prime Minister used to convince the House of Commons and the country that the war was justified was based on flawed intelligence. Even more important, the political pressure brought to bear on the intelligence community to strengthen the dossier, in particular in relation to the 45-minute claim and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, was totally improper. Tony Blair's Introduction to the Dossier, in which he said: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his effort to produce nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme," turned out to be totally misleading.

Yet for many weeks in 2003-04 all this seemed far less obvious. The immediate aftermath of the Hutton Report was not the discrediting of the Government, but the resignation of the BBC's chairman and director-general.

How did this happen? Lord Hutton turned out to be a brilliant choice for the inquiry, not because of any lack of integrity, but because of an unworldliness that led him to give the Government the benefit of every doubt and the BBC of none.

A brief intended to focus on the circumstances of Dr Kelly's death was narrowed and changed to focus on the BBC. And while in a narrow sense Dr Kelly was responsible for his own death, it was not the BBC's actions that contributed to his disturbed state of mind, but the threats and bullying of the Ministry of Defence.

The intelligence community allowed themselves to be manipulated in a wholly unacceptable way. Major-General Laurie refers to "the direction and pressure being applied to the JIC and its drafters." When asked what he would have done in Sir John Scarlett's position, he said: "One has to have courage and stand up and say, 'I can't sign up to that'." Nobody stood up.

The newspapers generally were ambivalent, torn between a healthy scepticism about the Government's manipulation of the media and schadenfreude at the extreme discomfiture of the BBC, although it was arguably The Independent's brilliant blank "Whitewash" front page that did most to turn the tide of the debate. Within the BBC, internal rivalries meant that Panorama's and Newsnight's coverage of the whole affair was remarkably unsympathetic to the Corporation.

The BBC was at the centre of a storm that it had helped to create. The tragedy was that while almost no one now doubts the essential truth of their story, that the intelligence had been embellished to strengthen the case for war, the serious error in Andrew Gilligan's early broadcast both undermined the BBC's central case and provided a distraction that Alastair Campbell was able to exploit to the full. Suddenly the BBC, not the Government, was in the dock.

What was that error, was it significant? "What I have been told is that the Government knew that the claim was questionable even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier." Thus Andrew Gilligan; this was not a trivial accusation. It implied that the Government in general, and Tony Blair in particular, were deliberately misleading Parliament and the country. Lord Hutton correctly decided that the allegation was unfounded. Gilligan's words went out at 0607 on the Today programme, and were subsequently and safely watered down in the later piece at 0732. But the damage had been done.

The damage was not immediately irretrievable, but rapidly became so. Alastair Campbell went ballistic, turning up uninvited on Channel 4 and laying into the BBC. The BBC, not the dossier, had become the story. The BBC's immediate response was a general defence of everything Gilligan had said, and that included the indefensible.

Inexplicably the BBC failed to invoke its own elaborate and exhaustive complaints procedures to deal with Campbell's outrage. Had the BBC kicked the specific complaint into the long grass of its Complaints Review Procedures, trawled through all the transcripts and notes, and interviewed everyone involved, it would have been able to stand by its central story about the dossier. And, months later, apologised for a serious error of judgement with much less permanent damage.

Why were the BBC's due processes bypassed? One senior member of the Corporation's staff told me not long afterwards: "It was the men – it was all about testosterone, Alastair Campbell versus Greg Dyke. The women in the organisation, including Jenny Abramsky, then Director of Radio, were never properly involved." Immediately after the publication of the Hutton Report Gavyn Davies resigned as Chairman, and the BBC Board of Governors, headless and shell-shocked, lost their nerve and their Director-General. Greg Dyke had always had an amiable and ill-concealed contempt for the Board of Governors, and that attitude was costly when he needed their support. It was not forthcoming. Without a Chairman and a Director-General, the BBC went into apologetic mode. Its journalism appeared compromised, its morale at an all-time low.

In the short term at least, Alastair Campbell had triumphed. He had two substantial scalps dangling from his belt; more importantly, he had diverted attention away from a real threat to the Government's credibility. And the Conservative opposition, no natural lovers of the BBC, allowed themselves to be diverted.

The long term damage is not to the BBC, whose self-confidence has returned. It is, as Major-General Laurie's evidence has reminded us, to have undermined our trust in Government and the intelligence community. We have been reminded of the dangers of unscrupulous media manipulation. And whenever anyone speaks of Alastair Campbell's brilliant diversionary tactics, and begins the analysis by saying, "You may not like him, but you have to admire his brilliant technique," stop them at once. Because no, we don't.

The writer was BBC chairman from 1996 to 2001

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