The BBC Debacle

by "FOX News Watch" panelist Jim Pinkerton

Jim Pinkerton
Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.  That's a lesson in every sphere of life, but it's been learned, most spectacularly of late, by the British Broadcasting Corporation.   

The case in point was the recent investigation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's handling of evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.  Those who pushed hardest for the investigation were hoping to see Blair painted as a liar, perhaps even run out of 10 Downing Street.  But they have now discovered that investigations can cut both ways; this particular investigation left Blair unscathed, causing, instead, the resignation of three BBC officials. 

Here's the background on this extraordinary reversal of political-media fortune. 

On a radio news broadcast airing at 6:07 a.m. on May 29, 2003, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan announced that information about Iraq's WMD program had been "sexed up" by the Blair government, as part of a scheme to make the case for "regime change" against Saddam Hussein seem more compelling.   Gilligan was specifically critiquing a Blair government dossier released in September 2002 which stated that Iraq could launch WMDs on 45 minutes' notice.   But, Gilligan said, "The government probably knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong before it decided to put it in."  Gilligan repeated the allegation several times more during that day, and published an op-ed in a London newspaper in which he named Alastair Campbell, Blair's communications director, as the fact-distorting "sex-upping" culprit. 

The Blair government was furious.  It had, after all, been accused of lying in the course of taking Britain into war as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March; it demanded a retraction from the BBC.   (The BBC, of course, is state-owned, but like PBS and NPR in the US, it often enjoys a hostile relationship with incumbent politicians.)  For its part, the "Beeb" stuck by its reporter, Gilligan, dismissing Blair's complaints as "drivel."  And so the battle between pro- and anti-Blair forces raged, stoked by the British print media, always eager for a paper-selling rumble.   

On July 10, a mid-level official in the Ministry of Defence, David Kelly, was identified as the source for Gilligan's report.   Five days later, Kelly was called before an investigatory committee in Parliament.  By all accounts, it was a rough session: Blair's people, led by Campbell, came down hard on Kelly.   Three days after that confrontation, on July 18, his body was found hear his home, a suicide. 

In the uproar that followed, Blair's critics demanded a full investigation of the story of what came to be known as the "dodgy dossier," from its origins in 2002 to its becoming a political football in 2003.   A distinguished jurist, Lord Brian Hutton, was named to lead the investigation.    In the next few months, everyone involved in the contretemps — from Blair and Campbell on the government side to Gilligan and his BBC superiors — were called to testify under oath.   In addition, Hutton reviewed thousands of pages of notes, documents, and tapes. 

During this time, Campbell resigned his post.  Blair's press point man said that his decision to leave had nothing to do with the Kelly case, but Blair's critics thought different.  They hoped that Campbell would just be the first of many Blair dominoes to fall. 

On Thursday, January 28, Hutton issued his report.   It was a shocker, all right, but not for those who had pushed so hard for the investigation in the first place. Instead of condemning Blair, it condemned the BBC. 

Hutton labeled BBC procedures as "defective," adding that the BBC had failed to "investigate properly" the government's complaints of factual error in Gilligan's reporting.  Moreover, it had failed to retract "unfounded" reports.  In addition, Hutton concluded that the WMDs-in-45-minutes claim was a genuine artifact of the intelligence-gathering process.  Finally, he concluded, "I have considerable doubt as to how reliable Mr. Gilligan's evidence is as regards what Dr. Kelly said to him." 

For his part, Blair was gracious upon hearing of the Hutton findings.  He said all along that he merely wanted an apology from the BBC, and that he would be satisfied upon receiving one.  Of course, it was obvious to many that the Corporation had been gunning, ideologically, against Blair and the Iraq war all along.

But the impact on the BBC was seismic.  Gilligan resigned his reporter's job, as did Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies, the BBC's #1 and #2 officials.   In the wake of those resignations, the reeling media giant issued a statement regretting the "mistakes" and "misjudgments" that it had made over the previous eight months. 

Three lessons can be learned from this sorry story: 

First and foremost, reporters have an obligation to be accurate, to have ample documentation for everything that's reported  We may never know exactly what the late Kelly said to Gilligan, but it's safe to say that Gilligan should have done some more digging before he went on the air.  As he said in his resignation letter of January 30, "We deserved criticism.   Some of my story was wrong, as I admitted at the inquiry, and I again apologize for it."

Second, news organizations must be prepared to admit mistakes, or at least to begin a process of self-inquiry when mistakes are alleged.   As Greg Dyke, the ex-BBC hierarch, explained afterwards, "What I should have done, was say, 'No, let's stop, let's do our inquiry.'  Instead I felt the attack on our journalism as such required a quick public reply."  In other words, Dyke thought it was more important to kneejerkily defend the BBC than to get the facts straight.  That's always bad policy.  

Third, observers should understand that in the news biz, there's usually another twist to the tale.  The final irony of the whole Iraq WMD saga is that as of this writing, nobody really knows what was going on with Saddam's weapons program.   The Hutton Commission concluded that Blair & Co. acted in good faith, but that's not the same as saying that the intelligence reports about WMD, cited by Blair, were accurate.    And so on Monday, just hours after the Bush administration announced that it was launching an investigation of faulty WMD reports, the Blair government revealed that it, too, would launch an inquiry into its own intelligence procedures and methods. 

In other words, the same ground that's been fought over for the past year or more — did Iraq have WMDs? did they pose an "imminent" danger to other countries? — is going to be fought over once again. 

Only this time, one presumes, the BBC will be more careful in its reporting.