An account in the Observer brings the moment into focus: The Thistle Charing Cross in the Strand, midday, May 22. Outside the Victorian landmark is one of the busiest streets in the world and a train station linking London with the coast. Inside, a quiet dining room, where two men — a journalist and a scientist attached to the ministry of defense — sit chatting over a lunch.
“The two men…could not have been much more different,” says the paper. “One was Andrew Gilligan, the Today programme’s defence correspondent — garrulous and heavy set. Sitting opposite was [Dr. David] Kelly. Fit for his age, tanned and smartly turned out, he was everything the journalist is not: quiet, deeply serious and rather introverted.” The lunch had a purpose, of course. Gilligan was working on a story designed to discredit Blair’s reasons for going to war in Iraq. Kelly was there to help by giving him information.
A week later, apparently based on comments Kelly made over lunch, Gilligan broadcast his assertion that in order to gather support for its policies, the Blair government — and specifically Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications director — had “sexed up” (a phrase used only by British celibates) an intelligence dossier. How? By insisting that it must contain an apparently false warning that Saddam Hussein could unleash chemical and biological weapons on the world in as few as 45 minutes. If true, the story would bring disgrace on Blair and Campbell, who is a former journalist and is therefore loathed by the press, and on the government’s policy in Iraq — and possibly even bring down the government itself.
But less than two months later, Gilligan would be clinging desperately to what remains of his job. And the scientist? He would be dead.
Blair’s government and the BBC have been at war since long before Gilligan’s May 29 broadcast on the Today program — one of many anti-American hotspots on the BBC’s many dials. In fact, the BBC had been in a running battle with the government well before any shots were ever fired in Iraq. The executives running the Corporation already had decided the war was unwise, unjustified, wrong, and they were determined to report it that way. According to the Guardian, as early as last March, the BBC was ordering journalists “to reflect significant opposition in the UK (and elsewhere) to the military conflict” in their dispatches. That had been important, because for the BBC, no matter who won the shooting match in the deserts of Iraq, the war itself must be seen as illegitimate, phony, bogus. Like many other news organizations and journalists who believed the same things, once the fighting ended, the BBC had begun their bizarre obsession with parsing sentences and phrases, angry, mindless players in a pointless game of gotcha. To Gilligan, the 45-minute claim, from his single, anonymous source, was the smoking gun he needed to prove what he and his employers thought must certainly be true: the war in Iraq was based on lies.
Campbell immediately rejected Gilligan’s claim. But it was a furious denial, one played out in press conferences and in TV interviews (and covered in this space a couple of weeks ago). Soon, letters and threats were going back and forth between Downing Street and the BBC’s upper echelon, as papers such as the Telegraph cheered from the sidelines. BBC news chief Richard Sambrook made Gilligan give him the name of his source. Gilligan complied. Without naming Kelly, the two men described the source to BBC director-general Greg Dyke and BBC chairman Gavyn Davies. All of them decided to back up Gilligan, since the alternative was to admit they were wrong. So within days, the BBC had reached its Jayson Blair moment, the point at which obedience to an agenda and a worldview makes it impossible to admit fault. Thanks to Gilligan’s bosses, the reputation of BBC News now rested on two men: Andrew Gilligan and David Kelly.
The problem with the Dyke-Davies strategy: According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, to many of his colleagues, Gilligan wasn’t exactly a model of journalistic gravitas, if you’ll excuse the oxymoron.
Not only that, but Kelly wasn’t exactly the man Gilligan advertised. Gilligan had said there were doubts in the intelligence community about the claims in the dossier, that MI6 was worried and that his source — described by Gilligan in his broadcast as “a British official who was involved in the preparation of the dossier” — had inside information about the way the document had been compiled: “It was transformed in the week before it was published, to make it sexier. The classic example was the statement that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use within 45 minutes. That information was not in the original draft. It was included in the dossier against our wishes, because it wasn’t reliable.” If those were the words of Defense Minister Geoff Hoon or the head of MI6, then Gilligan would have his one-source scoop for sure.
But Kelly, in the words of Peter Prescott, the former Guardian editor, writing against the wind but in defense of the BBC on its own website, was no spymaster: “Dr Kelly was not, as claimed, a senior and credible ‘intelligence’ official. He was a boffin working for the Ministry of Defence. He had, indeed, been involved in the drafting of the September dossier — but only as the writer of a few paragraphs of history.”
He was also a nervous man, and, worried he would be caught, he told his boss he had met with Gilligan. Word was passed on up to the top, to Hoon himself. Although Kelly had had a high reputation as an expert on biological weapons and had been involved in inspections in Iraq in the ’90s, Hoon knew he was not in a position to make the kinds of judgments Gilligan attributed to him. In fact, the Defense Ministry was so pleased with the weakness of Kelly as a source that a press rep guided a caller from the Times to the man’s name.
There was one other problem with using Kelly as a source for a story so important: If he was the source Gilligan used, he had been misquoted. According to the Guardian, Kelly told members of a parliamentary committee investigating the charges, “From the conversation I had with [Gilligan] I don’t see how he could make the authoritative statements he was making from the comments that I made.” He flatly denied saying that Campbell had added the 45-minute claim to the dossier. Gilligan’s reaction? Kelly’s a liar, he told the press in a written statement.
There will be no rebuttal from Kelly, of course, because by the time Gilligan’s damning remarks appeared in print, Kelly was dead. Late last week, he walked out of his home and into the woods, took a painkiller, slit his wrist and bled to death.
Of course, the reaction in the Euro-press to Kelly’s death was hysterical. When the story broke, Blair was instantly fingered as the villain. All over Europe, radio, TV, and newspapers were full of hand wringing, heartfelt, pseudo-angry comments. In Germany, the Suddeutsche Zeitung wondered just how far Blair could go, and in France, Liberation called Kelly a “victim of Blair’s war”, the symbol of a “sickness” growing in the very heart of the British government. In Britain itself, a piece in the Telegraph had Kelly “Torn apart by the wolves of Westminster”, while all the Independent wanted to know was, “Who will take the blame?”.
Not to speak ill of the dead (I’m no Gilligan!), but how about Kelly taking the blame? Kelly is an appealing source for journalists like Gilligan who simply need somebody to help fill in the blanks in the story they’ve already written in their heads. There are many such sources in London and elsewhere. They’re men to whom the information entrusted to them is hard currency, because with it they can buy momentary importance. Or they use their information to help a journalist spin a tale their way. Or they’re men who envy what they see as a journalist’s power and are happy to get in on the action, pleased to watch the news unfold while they stand in the wings anxiously thrilled with the small role they played in the drama. They never expect to get caught, that’s for sure.
To Gilligan, Kelly wasn’t Deep Throat. He was Loose Lips, dropping an innuendo here, slipping a reference in there, perhaps inflating his importance at the expense of others as he went. Kelly obviously relished his relationships with journalists, of all people. Up until his last moments, he was emailing reporters, his new best friends. He left no suicide note for his wife or children, but, according to the Telegraph, he had time just before he left the house to tell a New York Times reporter his thoughts on the “many dark actors playing games” who he felt were tormenting him, when, if we choose to believe Gilligan, all he did was talk and spin a little, just like them.
Some actors. Some game. The Kelly “scandal” — if “scandal” is what it is — is like an exploded diagram showing exactly how modern journalism covers modern politics. Sixteen words, 45 minutes — it’s all a game of numbers and nuance and nonsense. Cynical, superficial, inconsequential, Gilligan’s story signified nothing. It was simply another shot in the dark, hoping to bring down a prime minister who had done the unforgivable, ignored the wishes of the media and sided with the Americans. He used Kelly because he couldn’t find any sources anyplace else to support his tired thesis. The politicians reacted predictably. Campbell, a master spinner, finally found a principle — albeit one dealing with self-preservation — he wouldn’t abandon. Blair seemed shell-shocked by the news of Kelly’s suicide. According to the IHT, Blair told reporters who asked him the bloody-hands question that, no, he wasn’t going to resign, thanks.
By Sunday, as Kelly was being buried and as the BBC was explaining that “politics in Britain has change for ever,” the dust was settling on a very familiar landscape — proving that once again, the BBC had it wrong. By Monday afternoon, it was politics as usual. As today’s Guardian makes clear, the same old actors are playing the same old games: “The BBC is preparing to mount a high-stakes defence of its correspondent Andrew Gilligan against an onslaught directed by Downing Street,” the paper reports.
One way to mount a defense? Keep spinning! According to the BBC, the investigation into Kelly’s death really shouldn’t be about Kelly’s death at all. After all, he’s dead. It should be about — what else? — the war in Iraq and the lack of legitimacy. “Political pressure is mounting for the inquiry into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly to look at the way the government made its case for war with Iraq,” says the ever-hopeful BBC.
The war to win the war is far from over. Rather than admit they’re wrong about Gilligan, wrong about Kelly, wrong about the 45 minutes, and wrong about the legitimacy of a war most of them just didn’t like, an entire cohort of ridiculous Beeb ideologues apparently would prefer see the Corporation’s once-sterling reputation for fairness, excellence, and journalistic integrity go straight to hell. But somewhere way out yonder, where Howell Raines sits rereading Amiri Baraka one more time to poor Gerald Boyd, someone is making a place for Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davies, Richard Sambrook — and, of course, their man Gilligan, who will send dispatches home claiming life in hell is just heavenly.