Ten years after the suicide of BBC source Dr David Kelly, the journalist at the centre of that story – Andrew Gilligan – has accused the civil servants who compiled the ‘dodgy dossier’ making the case for war with Iraq of having “failed catastrophically in their duty”.
Now London editor of The Daily Telegraph, Gilligan initially came off worse than the government from the crisis which followed the death of Dr Kelly. He resigned from his job as reporter for Today following the publication of the Hutton Report in January 2004.
The report said:
Whether or not at some time in the future the report on which the 45-minutes' claim was based is shown to be unreliable, the allegation reported by Mr Gilligan on 29 May 2003 that the Government probably knew that the 45-minutes' claim was wrong before the Government decided to put it in the dossier, was an allegation which was unfounded.”
But in 2008 Gilligan was named British Press Awards journalist of the year in recognition of his investigation into London Mayor Ken Livingstone.
And writing in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday he argued that history has borne out the fact that his original story was substantially right.
On 29 May 2003, Gilligan broke the news that, as he writes this week, “a government dossier making the case against Iraq had been ‘transformed’ at the behest of Downing Street and Alastair Campbell ‘to make it sexier’, with the ‘classic example’ being the insertion in the final week of a claim, based on a single source, that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could be deployed within 45 minutes”.
Gilligan admits that in his first Today broadcast, at 6.07am, he mistakenly attributed to his source the claim that the government probably knew the 45-minute claim was wrong.
But he stands by the rest of his story, and blames the then government – and Downing Street spokesman Alastair Campbell – for outing Dr Kelly and pressurising him prior to his apparent suicide:
He came forward to his bosses as my source under a promise that his identity would be kept secret, but was effectively given up to the world after Campbell, in his words, decided to “open a flank on the BBC” to distract attention from his difficulties over the dossier.
Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the FAC, was inquiring into the dossier. After it failed to denounce me to Campbell’s satisfaction, he confided to his diary that “the biggest thing needed was the source out”. That afternoon, on Downing Street’s orders, Ministry of Defence press officers announced that a source had come forward, handed out clues allowing anyone with Google to guess who he was, then kindly confirmed it to any reporter who guessed right. One newspaper was allowed to put more than 20 names to the MoD before it got to Dr Kelly’s.
Once outed, Dr Kelly was openly belittled by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw. The FAC, by the way, didn’t want to question him – its inquiry had finished and its report had already been published – but Downing Street forced it to hold a special hearing anyway. The day before, for several hours, he was intensively coached in the need to “f—” me. Under great pressure, he blurted an untruth in the glare of the TV lights; an untruth which, on the morning of his death, his bosses told him they would investigate.
Ten years on Gilligan notes that BBC management has learnt little about his handling of such crises. In January 2004, then BBC director general Greg Dyke lost his job over his handling of the dodgy dossier affair.
And following the resignation of George Entwistle as BBC director general over his handling of the Jimmy Savile affair, Gilligan notes: “Over successive crises, the BBC’s management has been as incompetent as ever. “
Though it is perhaps worth noting that in April 2011 Gilligan’s Today editor Kevin Marsh told Press Gazette that BBC management’s problems with the handling of the affair were partly caused by Gilligan himself.
Referring to Gilligan’s mistaken claim that Kelly said: "I think they probably knew it was wrong", Marsh said: “He [Gilligan] told us that the direct quotes were direct quotes from Kelly and to this day nobody can be sure exactly what Kelly said and what he didn’t. We never got to the bottom of when the notes were written.
“After Kelly had committed suicide one of the things that kept the whole thing going was Andrew’s assurance that this was absolutely what Kelly had told him. It wasn’t until the Hutton inquiry itself that Andrew finally conceded that this might not have been the case.”
Gilligan’s rehabilitation as a journalist, and his masterful investigation into Livingstone in particular, shows that he has at least learned from his mistakes. But it is sad that ten years on, we are still seeing a determination to shoot the messenger when scandals are exposed, rather than dealing with the substantive points raised.
The police witch-hunt to find the sources of The Sun’s Andrew Mitchell plebgate story, the current predicament faced by NSA whistleblower Andrew Norton and the Met’s legal action against the Sunday Times over its exposure of corruption involving gangster David Hunt are all cases in point.