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Monday, Feb 02, 2004

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Gathering storm

B. S. Raghavan

THE British Government appointed Lord Hutton in July 2003 as a one man Commission to inquire into the circumstances leading to the death a month earlier of the ace defence expert on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Dr David Kelly. The background to this was that in the Today programme aired by the BBC in May, one of its reporters, Mr Andrew Gilligan, had accused the British Government and particularly the Prime Minister's office, for having "sexed up" the intelligence dossier published in September 2002 to paint Saddam Hussein as sitting over a stockpile of WMD which could be unleashed against Britain within 45 minutes of his giving the signal. Soon the source of that report was traced to Dr Kelly who, apparently unable to cope with the odium this entailed, committed suicide.

Lord Hutton's report, handed on January 28, is in its entirety an uncritical absolving of the Government of any wrong-doing, while it censures the "defective editorial controls" within the BBC as being responsible for Mr Gilligan's account of spicing up of intelligence by officials close to the Prime Minister, including Mr Alastair Campbell, his Communications Adviser and confidant. His Lordship also laid down the dictum which has been widely criticised as "wrong in law" that "accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others should not be made by the media". The Chairman and the Director General of the BBC, as also the reporter concerned, have resigned — but not before lashing out at the Commission for its lack of balance and its failure to weigh judiciously the material placed before it on behalf of the BBC, especially the statement of the head of the MI 6 to the Editor of Today programme that "hard evidence of WMD in Iraq would never be found".

Meanwhile, thunderclouds are gathering ominously over the British media landscape. Pulling itself together after its initial shock over the findings of the Lord Hutton report, the print and electronic media in the mother of democracies, barring a deviant fringe, has sprung to the defence of the BBC which, in the opinion of many, had been dealt an unjust and untenable blow by Lord Hutton. More than 10,000 journalists collected funds to take out a full-page advertisement in the Daily Telegraph to protest the "one-sided" report which has also been flayed for having indulged in what was tantamount to a blatant white washing of the Government and of the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair. A straw poll shows that people trust the BBC over the Government by a factor of three to one. The latest is the demand in Parliament for an all-Party Committee to go into the functioning of the intelligence machinery. This seems only the beginning. Watch this space!

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