Sunday, July 06, 2003

This article in today's Sunday Herald shows a BBC that is not cowed:

The BBC has issued a stark warning to Alastair Campbell that it will sue him if he repeats his allegations that its journalist Andrew Gilligan lied over claims that Downing Street “sexed up” a dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons.

In a defiant signal that the corporation will not be cowed, intimidated or bullied by Number 10 in its increasingly bitter war of words over the Iraq war, the BBC has also authorised its defence correspondent to threaten legal action against a Labour MP who claims that he misled a Commons inquiry.

In a separate development, a senior intelligence officer, who previously briefed the Sunday Herald that the government had misled the public and parliament, last night strongly rebutted Campbell’s denial that he spun the case for war.

“I previously said that there was absolute scepticism among British intelligence over the case for the invasion of Iraq. That is still the case. Campbell’s claims that the dossier wasn’t sexed up are utter rubbish.”

Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist who reported that Campbell had “sexed up” a 45-minute attack warning on weapons of mass destruction, is set to sue Labour MP Phil Woolas over claims he misled a Commons committee.
The move has the full backing of the BBC Director General Greg Dyke, who came to the barricades with his senior managers to defend the corporation’s reputation over the accusations.

“Basically, we’re pretty fed up with this bullying and we want to put a stop to it,” said a senior BBC insider. “We’re fed up of the intimidation and we will sue if Woolas doesn’t retract.

“If we could sue Campbell we would too, but he has been careful to make his statements under privilege while giving evidence to the foreign affairs committee.”

There was also a story in the Sunday Herald today that focused on the methods and tactics of Alastair Campbell as he attempts to spin himself and Tony Blair out of trouble:

It takes one to know one, you might think, but Sir Bernard has some evidence to back his claims. Campbell's appearance on Channel 4 News was an extraordinary piece of television, eclipsing in 10 minutes anything you might wait three weeks to see on Big Brother .

He turned up unannounced at the studios on Gray's Inn Road, London, apparently having made a decision that he, the master of the broadcasting universe, would now talk to the nation. For all the warning anchorman Jon Snow was given, it might well have been Elvis at the door. 'Alastair Campbell is in the building' was what the presenter was told in his earpiece two minutes before the interview -- if it can be described as that -- began. What followed was an incredible gladiatorial clash, with Campbell jabbing his finger and questioning every assertion Snow made. It was a political interview -- but Campbell is not a politician, so he can step outside the conventions of calm politeness that stifle so many television encounters with ministers and MPs. And he did so in spades. The windmilling arm movements which he has taught others not to use; the repeated stretching for a drink of water during questioning; the camera cutting back to capture him with a glass in one hand, pen pointing at the interviewer with the other. The overall effect was of a pub boor -- ironic given that Campbell has famously forsworn alcohol after it nearly destroyed his life.

To those familiar with him, it was a typical Campbell performance. He is belligerent, he argues aggressively, he is passionately loyal to Tony Blair and he will fight tooth and nail to preserve his own reputation and that of the Prime Minister. Yet in the battle for the truth over the reasons for going to war with Iraq, Campbell has been branded a liar. Completely frustrated that he has been rendered unbelievable in the eyes of the public, he has started a street brawl between the government and the BBC, the guardian of the nation's political morals. It is hard ground on which to choose to fight -- the master of spin accusing one of the most trusted institutions in Britain of 'weasel words and sophistry'. The BBC, in turn, has accused the government of attempting to intimidate its journalists in the run-up to and during the Iraq war. This is not just a spat. It is a series of serious hostile exchanges between two of Britain's most important and powerful institutions.

People might debate whether Campbell is mad, but they certainly have to credit him with genius. His appearance on Channel 4 meant the heat was on him and off Blair; it also ensured that for another 48 hours the news focus would remain sharply on the war. Not, that is, the real war -- the dirty one in the desert where British military policemen are executed in gangland-style killings and where weapons of mass destruction remain hidden in the shifting sands of claim and counter-claim. Not that war, but the war of words between the government and the BBC that Campbell engineered earlier in the week.