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Digging into BBC report exposes differences among British, U.S. media

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) LONDON - Imagine Sam Ervin, the crusty old chairman of the Senate Watergate committee, asking Woodward and Bernstein to reveal the identity of "Deep Throat."

Imagine the two Washington Post reporters volunteering the name of their confidential source, and then turning on each other and their bosses - publicly airing the newspaper's dirty laundry and casting doubt on the integrity of their newsroom and the methods of their profession.

That, more or less, is what the BBC has been doing to itself during the first week of the Hutton inquiry.

The inquiry, headed by a senior judge, Lord Brian Hutton, is investigating the circumstances surrounding the suicide of David Kelly, Britain's top expert on chemical and biological weapons. Kelly killed himself July 18, little more than a week after the government leaked his name as the source of news stories that Prime Minister Tony Blair's staff had "sexed up" an intelligence report to help make the case for war in Iraq.

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President Bush is accused of doing much the same when he included discredited information about Iraq's nuclear potential in this year's State of the Union address. But while Bush has thus far emerged unscathed, Blair and the BBC are locked in ferocious fight that is likely to leave one or both gravely diminished.

The struggle is providing a warts-and-all look inside the BBC, Britain's preeminent news organization. It also underscores the profound cultural differences between Britain and the U.S. with respect to the right of the press to protect confidential sources and material.

It is not uncommon for U.S. prosecutors and other public officials to demand that journalists reveal their sources or hand over notes. But only rarely do American journalists oblige. A few have gone to jail for contempt of court for refusing to supply requested information; more often judges have upheld the right of the press to protect its sources - even dead ones. Some states have "shield" laws that grant a journalistic privilege to protect sources in most cases.

In the Kelly case, it was the government that leaked his name to the media in an apparent attempt to discredit him. But the BBC has voluntarily supplied the Hutton inquiry with the recording of a phone conversation between Kelly and a BBC reporter, notes from several interviews between Kelly and BBC reporters, and internal e-mails and memos that critique - often harshly - the work of one of its reporters.

At the heart of the controversy is a May 29 report by Andrew Gilligan, the BBC's defense and diplomatic correspondent, who claimed that No. 10 Downing Street had "sexed-up" an intelligence dossier during the run-up to the Iraq war. A few days later, writing a guest column in a newspaper, Gilligan was more specific. He said the dubious claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes was inserted in the dossier at the behest of Alastair Campbell, Downing Street's director of communications and Blair's "spin doctor."

Subsequent evidence presented to the Hutton inquiry has indicated that Gilligan's reporting was on target. The dossier was re-written to strengthen the case for war; British military and intelligence officials were uneasy about the new language, especially the re-written version's hyping of the 45-minute claim. Who, exactly, did the rewriting is not yet known, but Campbell remains a prime suspect.

After Gilligan's report was aired, Blair's government went on the warpath, accusing the publicly funded BBC of bias and trashing Gilligan's reputation as a journalist. At the same time, it launched an internal investigation to find and punish the source of the leak. When fingers pointed toward Kelly, he was called on the carpet by his superiors at the Defense Ministry.

At first, Kelly denied he was the source for the BBC's stories. Later, he owned up, but claimed that Gilligan had gotten things wrong. He stuck to this story during televised testimony before a parliamentary committee in early July.

Meanwhile, the government tried to portray its top weapons scientist as a flake and a fantasist. In reality, it appears Kelly, 59, was a classic whistle-blower, deeply knowledgeable about his field but naive about the intensity of the media glare.

Why he took his life may never be known, but many suspect that public exposure of the fact that he lied to his bosses and to Parliament may have been too much for him to bear.

Gilligan's version of his conversation with Kelly, reconstructed from his notes, was substantially corroborated by another BBC journalist, science editor Susan Watts. She had had a similar conversation with Kelly three weeks before Gilligan, and another the day after Gilligan's broadcast. She taped the latter conversation.

In the first conversation, Watts said that Kelly brought up Campbell's name and blamed him for hyping the 45-minute claim. Watts said she did not pursue this lead because she considered it "gossipy."

The day after Gilligan's story aired, Watts called the scientist, this time with her tape recorder running.

"So it would be accurate then, as you did in that earlier conversation, to say that it was Alastair Campbell himself who ?" Watts asked.

"No I can't. All I can say is the Number 10 press office. I've never met Alastair Campbell so I can't ... but I think Alastair Campbell is synonymous with that press office because he's responsible for it." Kelly replied.

BBC news executives may have been relieved that Watt's tape appeared to lend credence to Gilligan's reporting, but they clearly were distressed moments later when Watts turned on them, accusing BBC management of attempting to "mold" her stories to corroborate Gilligan's.

Watts, who came to the inquiry with her own lawyers and an apparent disdain for Gilligan, also said she was under "considerable internal pressure" to reveal her source.

While she refused to identify Kelly to her BBC bosses, Watts said, if asked, she would have named him to the parliamentary committee investigating the matter. Watts explained that when Kelly told parliament that he had not been her source, she felt released from her obligation to protect him.

BBC news director Richard Sambrook, who testified after Watts, felt differently: "In my view (Kelly) was attempting to protect himself it would have been quite wrong to identify him." He rejected Watts' claim that BBC management tried to mold her stories.

BBC management also has released internal e-mails that revealed its mixed feelings about Gilligan's reporting.

"Great work, great stories, well handled and well told," said an e-mail to Gilligan from Kevin Marsh, his boss on BBC's Today program.

Days later, Marsh offered a different view of Gilligan's work in an e-mail to the head of BBC Radio news: "This was a good piece of investigative journalism marred by flawed reporting. Our biggest millstone is a loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology," he wrote.

Why would any news organization expose itself in such away?

"This is uncharted water, but it's pretty much in the interests of both sides to have full disclosure," said Polly Toynbee, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper who once worked for the BBC. "In this case you can't sit back on your journalistic high horse and say we won't tell you anything."

American news organizations generally regard the privacy of reporters' notes and internal memos as something close to sacrosanct. They also would argue that any disclosure of a reporter's confidential sources would have a chilling effect on the newsgathering process by discouraging potential whistleblowers from coming forward.

Toynbee said she would like to think that the BBC "would have happily gone to jail" to protect Kelly's identity, but that his death changed the equation, especially as the government continued to heap scorn on his reputation.

"The BBC had evidence that slightly unrubbished Kelly and helped shore up their own journalism," she said. "It would be a little bit eccentric to hold back a good piece of evidence on their side."

The Hutton inquiry, which is expected to last until autumn, is scheduled to take testimony from Campbell this week.

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