A witch-hunt in Britain

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

The Blair government picks a fight with the BBC to cover up its own difficulties over Iraq, thereby setting off a chain of events ending in the suicide of a scientist.

in London

IS the Blair bubble about to burst, finally? There have been many premature obituaries ever since British Prime Minister Tony Blair embarked on his controversial Iraq adventure, but each time he has bounced back, surprising his critics with his remarkable resilience and instinct for survival. But each crisis has meant one more dent in his image.

No wonder, therefore, that as a result of months of pounding from just about every quarter - the electorate, his own party's Members of Parliament, Ministers, his European allies and now even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), once known as the Blair Broadcasting Corporation because of its top brass' proximity to New Labour - Blair has started to betray signs of mortality. On the eve of his recent five-nation tour, Blair looked so politically vulnerable that even The Guardian, which, despite its deep dislike for his style of functioning would be loath to see him go, was prompted to ask: "Is Blair mortal after all? Could he fall from power?" This has added to the speculation whether he would survive the remaining three years of his second term in office.

New Statesman, owned by a Blair-ite, was even more pointed. "What's the point of Tony Blair?" it asked. Apropos of the gossip in political circles, it said: "The Westminster village may be posing the wrong questions. It is not: Can he survive? It is not: At what point will he stand down? It is not: Has Iraq found him out? It is: What is the point of Tony Blair? Why is he there?"

Blair's approval ratings are at their lowest since he came to power six years ago. According to an opinion poll, only 37 per cent of the respondents said that they approved of his performance as Prime Minister. Much of the damage was done in the past one month when Blair's office was involved in a bitter public row with the BBC over allegations that Downing Street manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in order to justify an attack on Iraq. During this period, his popularity fell so low as to go into a negative mode. He is also dragging the party and the government down with him. And for the first time since the Tories lost power in 1997, they are showing signs of recovery - lagging only two points behind Labour. This does not mean that if elections were to be held tomorrow, the Tories would win. But if the trend continues, the danger of Blair losing his magic touch for good is very real.

And anything can contribute to that trend - for example, another David Kelly/BBC-like affair, which has exposed the Blair government's legendary arrogance in a manner not witnessed before. The "Kelly affair" is inextricably linked to Blair's Iraq policy, more specifically the charge that he took Britain to war on a false pretext. Unable to answer some very hard questions over Iraq, the Prime Minister's office picked a fight with the BBC to cover up its own difficulties, thereby inadvertently setting off a chain of events that ended in the death of an innocent man whose only crime was that he gave voice to the widespread concern in the intelligence community over the way Downing Street used intelligence in the run-up to the war on Iraq.

True, the BBC has not come out of it clean either, but the Blair government's role has been murkier - how it turned a personal battle with the corporation into a full-blown crisis in what is seen as an attempt to shift the focus from the wider issue, namely whether Blair misled the country in the way he portrayed the threat from Saddam Hussein. David Kelly was a casualty of an aggressive media culture on the one hand and an intolerant style of governance on the other. "David Kelly, victim of another war?" asked The Times in a screaming banner headline the day after his suicide, echoing a widely held view.

Who was Kelly and what exactly did he do to bring the entire weight of a powerful government machinery down upon his head?

A former United Nations weapons inspector from Britain who was instrumental in unearthing much of Iraq's biological weapons programme in the 1990s, Kelly was a senior adviser to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on biological and chemical weapons at the time of his suicide at the age of 59, on July 17. Weeks before he was driven to taking his own life, he had emerged as a key figure in the Blair government's row with the BBC over allegations that it "sexed up" a crucial intelligence dossier on Baghdad's weapons capability. To understand his precise role in the controversy, let us go back to how it all started.

On May 29, the BBC's Today programme on Radio 4, which often sets the news agenda for the day, broadcast a report by its defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan quoting an unnamed "British official" as saying that some of the information in the government's September 2002 dossier was questionable and that most people in the intelligence community were not happy with the document. The "classic example", the report said, was the inclusion of a single-source information that Saddam Hussein could deploy his weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. It suggested that the 45-minute bit was not there in the original draft and was included in the final version at the behest of Downing Street. In an article in the Mail on Sunday, Gilligan went a step further and named Alastair Campbell, Blair's all-powerful communications chief, as the man who was responsible for "sexing up" the dossier.

The then unnamed official, who later turned out to be Kelly, gave similar briefing to two other BBC correspondents, Gavin Hewitt and Susan Watts, but their reports were more sober and went almost unnoticed. Campbell picked on Gilligan and demanded an apology from the BBC for broadcasting "lies". Campbell's attack on the BBC's "journalism" became more furious after a parliamentary committee, which looked into his role in compiling the dossier, exonerated him from the charges of wrongdoing.

It was then that the hunt started for the BBC "mole", and Kelly was identified. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon personally took charge of the campaign to force the corporation to confirm or deny whether Kelly was its source. But the BBC refused, even after Kelly acknowledged before a Commons' inquiry committee that he had spoken to Gilligan the same day that the journalist was supposed to have met his source. But he denied most of the remarks attributed to him in the BBC report.

Although the MoD claimed that Kelly had volunteered to appear before the committee, at least two MPs said that he did not seem "entirely happy giving evidence" and gave a "hint of pressure". He looked tense and unable to cope with the pressure, and the committee later wrote to the government saying it believed he had been "poorly treated". One MP asked Kelly whether he felt he had been treated as a "fall guy".

Two days after his nervous appearance before the committee, Kelly mysteriously disappeared from his Oxfordshire home after telling his family that he was going for a walk. Next day his body was found in a nearby woodland. He had killed himself by slashing his left wrist. The dominant view is that he simply "cracked up" under the pressure after being thrust into an intense media glare as a result of the government's decision to put his name in public domain.

Blair, who was then in Tokyo, was asked by a British reporter whether he believed he had "blood on his hands", and at home Kelly's daughter accused the Blair government of treating her father shabbily. Kelly was said to have felt betrayed when his employers disclosed his identity. A week before his suicide, Kelly told one journalist that he felt he had been put through the "wringer" by the MoD as, apparently, he had been led to believe that his name would not be made public.

THE BBC's conduct, too, has been awkward, to put it mildly. First it needlessly dragged on the controversy over the identity of the source, even after it had become the worst-kept secret; it admitted it only after Kelly's death. But more seriously, holes have appeared in its controversial May 29 report, which, it seems, was factually wrong on crucial points - particularly in relation to the inclusion of the 45-minute bit. Now it appears that it was Gilligan who might have "sexed up" his report. Kelly, in his deposition before the MPs committee, had made it clear that he did not recognise the remarks attributed to him. Yet the BBC refused to accept that it got it wrong - a situation that has raised questions about its credibility and the quality of its journalism.

There are questions to be answered by both sides, and a judicial inquiry chaired by a senior law lord, Lord Hutton, is to look into the circumstances surrounding Kelly's death. But there is pressure on Blair to broaden the scope of the inquiry so as to include the wider and crucial issue of the alleged abuse of intelligence by his government for political purposes. After all, that is what the Kelly affair is all about.

For all the criticism of the BBC, the affair has been more damaging for the government. Roy Hattersley, a former deputy chairman of the Labour Party, said it had been a "disaster" for Blair. According to a poll taken at the height of the controversy, nearly two-thirds of the respondents believed that the Blair government had "lost control" and was at the "mercy of events". For a government which once took pride in its ability to "control" and became famous for "control freakery", this is clearly bad news.

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