As courtroom dramas go — and every critic will tell you that courtroom dramas go very well — the Hutton enquiry in London is providing enough thrills and spills to win the British equivalent of a Tony. (The Evening Standard Drama Awards for those who like footnotes.) At the end of Tuesday’s proceedings, the Blair government seemed to be doing badly and the BBC reasonably well. Both Andrew Gilligan, the Today reporter who had leveled the original charge that Downing Street in the person of Alastair Campbell had “sexed up” the intelligence report, and Susan Watts, the Newsnight science editor who had the late David Kelly on tape, had seemingly confirmed each other’s stories. And although a BBC internal memo admitted that Gilligan’s report was marred by “flawed reporting” and sloppy language, the gist of his BBC report seemed to be intact — which in turn meant that Downing Street had distorted an intelligence finding by inserting a dubious claim that Saddam’s forces could have chemical weapons ready for firing “within forty-five minutes.”
Wednesday, however, Susan Watts, continuing her evidence, complained that the press had misinterpreted her remarks. Kelly, she said, had specifically stated that Campbell had not inserted the “forty-five minute” claim. She then played the tape of her telephone conversation with David Kelly confirming this but also establishing that he had criticized the Downing Street press machine in more measured terms. (The tape transcript is available from the BBC site and all the testimonies can be found on the Hutton site.) Ms. Watts further surprised the court by revealing that she had hired her own solicitor rather than rely on legal help from the BBC because she felt pressured by the Beeb’s bureaucrats to “mould” her story in such a way as to “corroborate” Gilligan’s report which she felt was not entirely accurate. It would have been only slightly more sensational if she had pointed at Lord Hutton, declared that he was the father of her unborn child, and fainted dead away. (Curtain.)
So all is changed, changed utterly. How does the scorecard read now?
Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, and Tony Blair are still in trouble — in descending order of peril. Reading the transcript of Kelly’s telephone conversation with Watts — and it is poignant to think that the poor man killed himself over such fine distinctions — one discovers that the “forty-five minute” claim was “single-sourced” and that it probably should not have been included in the intelligence dossier. Exactly why it was put in is explained somewhat confusingly by Kelly. He thinks there was no willful deception; that Downing Street seized on the claim because it was something that could be put into simple words that the public could understand; that it probably exaggerated the imminence of Saddam’s threat but that once it had got into the document, it was difficult to get it out; that, as in the film Rashomon, different people saw the claim differently and may not have realized that there was any distortion; and so on. In other words, the intelligence services were reluctant to disappoint a Downing Street that wanted something dramatic to give the public, and when it learned about the single-sourced 45-minute claim, the services did not stress the weak status of the dramatic claim with sufficient vigor.
That leaves Downing Street and Campbell in some peril because, as Kelly says to Watts, “Alastair Campbell is synonymous with that press office [that put out the dossier] because he’s responsible for it.” True enough, but in the same sense Blair is ultimately responsible both for Campbell and the press office. That leaves him theoretically exposed on the grounds of ministerial responsibility. But since only four ministers have resigned because of the actions of civil servants for which they were responsible since the Second World War — namely Lord Caldecote in the 1953 Crichel Down case and Lord Carrington and two foreign-office junior ministers following the Argentine seizure of the Falklands — the prime minister is probably safe enough. Or to put it another way, if he does fall, it will be because Labor MPs are sick of him — and Kelly’s suicide is a useful pretext.
Dr. Kelly’s reputation is also suffering. Both the taped conversation and the testimony of a third BBC reporter, Gavin Hewitt, established that Hewitt had spoken to Dr. Kelly — something that the scientist had denied in front of the parliamentary committee. And though Kelly was shown to be a senior defense-department scientist on the first day and was not the “fantasist” alleged recently by another Downing Street press spokesman, he seems at times to be exaggerating his inside knowledge (and at other times, when the heat was on, to be minimizing it). So the sole source for the “sexed up” allegation is looking at least a little shifty.
It is, however, the BBC that is looking really shifty, as well as glassy-eyed. Several internal e-mails have been published by the Hutton enquiry (all available on the BBC site, to give credit where it’s due) showing that BBC editorial managers had very grave doubts about Gilligan’s testimony. Then, if Ms. Watts is to be believed — and the substance of her testimony was in fact confirmed by BBC’s news director, Richard Sambrook, later that day even though he understandably put a favorable spin on it — the BBC pressed Ms. Watts to make her report corroborate a report by Gilligan she considered not quite accurate. Even more eloquently she did not feel she could rely on the Beeb’s lawyer to represent her case fairly in the matter. And, finally, Mr. Sambrook conceded his own error in making the claim on behalf of the BBC that their source was a “senior intelligence” somebody — which he had not known but which he had “subconsciously” inferred. None of these doubts, however, had been admitted or allowed to qualify the BBC’s strong defense of Gilligan and his report in advance of the Hutton investigations.
If this is damaging to the BBC’s editorial department — and it is — it is far more damaging to the BBC director general, to its board of governors, and to the chairman of the board. All of these worthies made the strongest possible public defense of the Corporation when it came under fire, and the chairman of the board, Gavyn Davies, writing in the London Sunday Telegraph, declared that the Blair government’s criticism of the BBC’s journalistic standards was a disguised attempt to destroy the independence of public broadcasting and bring it under direct political control.
In the bright shining light of the Hutton proceedings, those high-minded declarations now look like the worst kind of comic dishonesty — all the more damning because they were delivered by what the British call “the Great and the Good” (from whom BBC governors are invariably recruited). One is reminded of Ray Cooney’s wonderful line, the most famous line in any British farce: “Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars.”
But the curtain is about to rise for the next act. It will be several more acts before the star, now touring in Barbados, returns to center stage. The critics forecast: This one will run and run.
— John O’Sullivan is currently editor-in-chief of United Press International and editor-designate of The National Interest. O’Sullivan can be reached at www.benadorassociates.com.