BBC ahead on points

A sceptical nation still waits for the discovery of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Until they are found, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES believes Downing Street cannot win against the BBC WHEN MPs and journalists were summoned back to Parliament for an emergency session on September 24 last year, they were handed a 50-page document entitled Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction – the Assessment of the British Government.

A sceptical nation still waits for the discovery of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Until they are found, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES believes Downing Street cannot win against the BBC

WHEN MPs and journalists were summoned back to Parliament for an emergency session on September 24 last year, they were handed a 50-page document entitled Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction – the Assessment of the British Government.

The eighth paragraph of Tony Blair's forward to the dossier is unequivocal: Saddam Hussein's "military planning allows for some WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them."

At the time, it was accepted that the Prime Minister's information was based on reliable intelligence material. His assertion went largely unchallenged.


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But at the end of May, with hostilities over, the BBC Today programme's defence correspondence Andrew Gilligan said the claim had been "sexed up" on the instructions of the Prime Minister's communications chief Alastair Campbell to ensure that the public and MPs would support war.

Mr Campbell went ballistic. He used the word "lies" and "lies" again when he gave evidence of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) last month and demanded an apology.

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The BBC refused, saying Gilligan's sources were reliable. The Prime Minister joined in, alleging that he had been the victim of a grave charge that he lied to Parliament.

All this overshadowed, possibly deliberately, the FAC's other investigation into the second dossier of information published in February, just two weeks before MPs voted on whether to back military action in Iraq.

That dossier, which earned the epithet "dodgy," contained 12 year-old information trawled off the Internet. It was unchecked. It was inaccurate. It was at the behest of Alastair Campbell that it was included.

Inevitably, both the BBC and the Government claimed victory yesterday when the FAC published its findings. The committee divided on party lines to clear Campbell of the central charge that he "sexed up" the first document. But witheringly, it says the Prime Minister – albeit inadvertently –misrepresented the status of the second document.

Downing Street repeated its call for the BBC to acknowledge its claims over the Iraq dossier had been wrong – and refused to accept MPs' findings that Prime Minister Tony Blair had "misrepresented" a second document to Parliament.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted the BBC had a responsibility to make clear its original story – which said that a claim that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were deployable within 45 minutes had been inserted in an intelligence dossier on political orders – was wrong.

"On the central allegation, let's be clear what that has always been. On the morning of May 29 the allegation was made by the BBC that Alastair Campbell inserted the 45 minutes intelligence, that it did so probably knowing it to be wrong and that it did so against the wishes of the intelligence agencies.

"Not only does the FAC report contain no evidence to support this but it says that Alastair Campbell did not play any role in the inclusion of the 45 minutes intelligence and did not exert, or seek to exert, improper influence on the drafting of the September dossier.

"Given that the story has been proved to be false and that has now been stated by No.10, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence agencies and now the committee, does the BBC accept and believe that the story is right or wrong?"

Not likely. Said the BBC: "We believe the decision to highlight the circumstances surrounding the 45-minute claim has been vindicated. We would point to the unanimous conclusion of the Foreign Affairs Committee in paragraphs 70 and 71, which say: 'We conclude that the 45-minute claim did not warrant the prominence given to it in the dossier, because it was based on intelligence based on a single uncorroborated source. We recommend that the Government explain why the claim was given such prominence.

"The committee continues: 'We further recommend that, in its response to this report, the Government set out whether it still considers the September dossier to be accurate in what it states about the 45-minute claim, in the light of subsequent events.'

"It is because of BBC journalism that the problems surrounding the 45-minute claim have come to light and been given proper public attention."

Perhaps the real core of the argument is whether government or the body politic in Britain should try to make the BBC its mouthpiece. Should the Corporation be forced in its news coverage to parrot the official line?

Certainly, Margaret Thatcher was furious at the BBC's questioning coverage of the Falklands war and also when she authorised the use of UK military bases for the American bombing raids on Libya.

The BBC refused to bow to such pressure, just as it is refusing to cave in now to Messrs Blair and Campbell.

Yet the BBC should also remember that, of all the media in Britain, it has a duty to portray news as news, and not spin it to give a biased view.

Its journalists and presenters should not use their own politics, animosities, or strident beliefs to become the agenda. Its studio guests should be subjected to tough, not hostile and inflammatory questioning, and should always be treated with respect.

The current dispute between the BBC and the Government centres on the fact that the weapons of mass destruction we were assured existed have so far not materialised. The Corporation – indeed all the media – is right to keep questioning that lack of evidence.

When Parliament met last September 24, the Prime Minister told MPs that Saddam's WMD programme "is active, detailed and growing. It is not shut down. It is up and running."

Until the evidence is found to support that assertion, the British people – as evidenced in a weekend opinion poll – seem more prepared to believe the BBC and not the Government.

Only when those weapons, if they exist, are found will the Government be able to claim victory over the BBC.

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