Try as they might, the Blair administration and British Ministry of Defense are having a hard time scapegoating BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan as a cause of nuclear scientist David Kelly’s apparent suicide. In the past few days of British lawyer Lord Hutton’s inquiry into Kelly’s death, Gilligan has stood by his story and received backing from his editors and one notable colleague, Susan Watts. While maintaining that she felt pressure from her BBC bosses to reiterate the findings of Gilligan’s report, Watts, who also used Kelly as a source in her reporting, validated some of Gilligan’s most controversial claims against the MOD.
For some time, the British government has attempted to paint Gilligan as an irresponsible reporter who took advantage of Dr. Kelly and misrepresented the information he gave. Most notable was Gilligan’s allegation that Alastair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications, had inserted an incorrect claim into the now infamous “sexed-up” dossier that largely constituted the British rationale for invading Iraq. The claim charged that Saddam Hussein had the ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
Gilligan reported on British radio’s May 29 Today program that the claim was inserted into the dossier by Campbell, and that British intelligence originally left the claim out because it was attributable to only one source. While the British government insisted that Gilligan had come up with Campbell’s name arbitrarily, both Gilligan and Watts’ testimonies revealed that it was Kelly who originally dropped the media chief’s name, the Associated France-Presse reports:
“BBC journalist Susan Watts provided the tape recording in which David Kelly, a respected defense ministry expert on Iraqi weapons, said that a desperation for evidence had led to arguments between the government and the intelligence services.”
“The inquiry in London heard that Kelly said the government had over-played a claim in its September 2002 dossier that it had evidence Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons in as little as 45 minutes.”
“‘It was a statement that was made and it just got out of all proportion. They were desperate for information which could be used,’ Kelly told Watts, the science editor of BBC televison’s Newsnight program.”
Just Saturday, London’s Guardian learned that the 45 minute claim was indeed “based on hearsay information.” The BBC’s role in Kelly’s suicide seems less apparent than that of the Ministry of Defense and Blair administration. The MOD played a process of elimination game with journalists as a way of publicizing Kelly’s name without naming him directly, and Defense Secreatry Geoff Hoon chose to subject Kelly to a grilling by the public Commons Foreign Affairs Committee despite a senior advisor’s request that Kelly be interrogated in private.
Kelly’s leaked names aren’t the only items under scrutiny by Lord Hutton. The facts that he presented to Gilligan as the actual “sexing-up” of the dossier are being addressed almost surreptitiously. The language used in the 45-minute claim, for example, was lengthily mused over by the inquiry. In the midst of the media mayhem, one wonders if the inquiry’s true focus is on the British government’s case for war — and if so, what it would take to get an inquiry started in the US.