Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2004 / 12 Shevat 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The BBC meets British justice | An aside I heard long ago about the English keeps coming back every time I read still another story about the BBC's reportage, or rather misreportage, of the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Thirty years must have passed since I heard the phrase over breakfast. It was a breakfast to remember - not the food but the conversation. The place: Sanborn's, the American-style restaurant in Mexico City. That's where Norte Americanos go when we can't take another tortilla with refried beans, and are dying for pure bland.

Making his way through the crowded dining room was an older, neatly dressed little fellow I'll always think of as the Gentleman From Vilna. He carried a Hebrew newspaper tucked under his arm, so naturally we stopped and asked him to join us. After all, how often do you see a copy of "Ma'ariv" in Mexico City?

Over the toast and eggs, our new friend chatted about having attended both the finest Jewish seminary - the yeshiva at Vilna in Lithuania - and the finest university in Europe - at Grenoble in France - and having learned only one useful lesson from it all: that 1939 was no year to be a Jew in Europe.

He'd promptly taken the Trans-Siberian railroad across Asia on forged papers and, after many an adventure, found his way to the nearest British outpost at the time: Calcutta. There he'd learned how to be a gentleman's tailor, and, when the British Raj left India, he'd left with it. Just like Lord Mountbatten, though probably not in first-class.

Why this affinity for the British? The gentleman from Vilna paused, probably for effect, before answering. "The English," he explained, "are a cold people, but they have character."

I think of that comment as I go through the official report of the inquiry into the BBC's various sins of commission, omission and general disregard for the mere facts.

On almost every count, the senior judge who supervised the exhaustive inquiry - Lord Hutton - found the BBC guilty of journalism in the tabloid degree. The good, terribly gray BBC! Whose very name, in another and now distant age, used to be synonymous with reliable, unbiased, even understated news.

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How reliable was the report from the BBC's Andrew Gilligan that the British government had inserted material into its intelligence reports to make the case for war? "Unfounded," Lord Hutton found.

And the charge heard 'round the world that Tony Blair's government had "sexed up" intelligence reports to justify going to war? "Unfounded" again.

And the suggestion that either the prime minister or a key aide had to be lying? "Incorrect and not supported by the evidence."

It is now revealed that Andrew Gilligan himself, in his official testimony before the Royal Courts of Justice, admitted that his reporting was "imperfect." A classic British understatement.

What he'd done was hoke up what he'd been told by an anonymous source. That source turned out to be David Kelly, the British scientist who committed suicide after his identity was revealed.

The government had no choice but to disclose Dr. Kelly's name, Lord Hutton concluded, once the BBC's phony story had been broadcast. After all, questions were being raised in Parliament, and suspicion was falling on other civil servants.

What's more, Downing Street would surely have been charged with staging a cover-up if it hadn't revealed the scientist's name.

Lord Hutton did say the Government should have warned the scientist he was about to be outed, but Dr. Kelly, he also noted, was an intensely private soul who "was not easy to help."

As for the role his editors at the BBC had played in allowing and even backing up Andrew Gilligan's own, sexed-up story, "the editorial system which the BBC permitted was defective."

Another splendid example of British understatement. This story was so badly handled, you'd think it was a New York Times special by Jayson Blair and Maureen Dowd as edited by . . . nobody.

The ripples of the scandal have continued to spread. The chairman of the BBC's board of governors was the first to resign. (Yes, there are still countries in which officials take full responsibility for their agency's actions.)

The chairman of the board's resignation was soon followed by that of the BBC's director-general. And now Andrew Gilligan, the reporter who started it all, has resigned, too. Finally.

The moral of the story: The English are a cold people, but they have character. The gentleman from Vilna, like Tony Blair, has been vindicated. And the BBC, which has been acting like a branch of Al-Jazeera for years now, has come clean about at least one of its stories. Now if we could just get Lord Hutton over here to investigate NPR . . . .

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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