Sunday, February 01, 2004

Hutton's standards and Gilligan

From the BBC's internal report on the correctness in law of Hutton's statement that "accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others should not be made by the media" (Hutton actually wrote "false accusations of fact . . . ", which begs the question):

"As a general and unqualified proposition, this extract is wrong as a matter of law. That is not to say that the BBC defends those parts of its reports in which it inaccurately reported Dr Kelly. However insofar as Dr Kelly was accurately reported - which in large measure he was - the BBC was entitled to broadcast them whether or not the BBC had itself managed conclusively to verify what he had said. Andrew Gilligan did repeatedly make clear that his story was derived from what his source said. BBC coverage throughout carried balancing government denials."

Hutton wants to force the media to stop reporting on the rulers by making it meet impossible standards when dealing with its sources. In most cases, it is journalistic practice not to publish or broadcast based on one uncorroborated source. In a case like this one, there is no possible corroboration. The lone whistleblower comes to the press because he knows the information is not otherwise going to get out. On top of that, it is not like Kelly was an unknown source spouting crazed gossip who Gilligan met in some dark alley. He was an acknowledged expert in the field, had been at the meetings in which the dossier was discussed, and, most importantly, was an ongoing official government liaison with British journalists on matters concerning weapons of mass destruction. Gilligan and Kelly met at the Charing Cross Hotel, a place used by journalists for meetings with senior figures from the Ministry of Defence. The doubts that Kelly raised were in line with doubts that had been expressed by many experts, including Scott Ritter. As long as Gilligan made clear that his story was based on what his source told him, there should be no possible complaint about what Gilligan did. The fact that the 45 minute claim made by Tony Blair, which is the crux of the complaints about Gilligan's reporting, has turned out to be a 'crock of shit', also doesn't hurt Gilligan's case. It has been pointed out that it is inconsistent for Hutton to be happy with Blair's reliance on one uncorroborated source for the 45 minute claim, when he comes down on the BBC like a ton of bricks when Gilligan relied on one uncorroborated source in his reporting. But it is much worse than that. As sources go, there could not possibly be a better one than Kelly, an acknowledged expert reporting on what he'd actually seen of the process of preparing the dossier. The 45 minute claim came in suspiciously almost at the last minute (more on that later), was from an unknown source in Iraq whose credibility could not be judged, and, to top it all off, was based on hearsay (i. e., the source was someone reporting on what someone else in Iraq had said). It could not conceivably have been a worse source, and it was Kelly's realization of this that led to much of his anger. But it is even worse that that. We know, from the testimony of John Scarlett, that the intelligence agencies were completely aware that the 45 minute claim referred to battlefield weapons which could not possibly have been an 'imminent' threat to any British interests (and Scarlett felt that Kelly did not know this: see here, sections 144-145). In other words, we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the intelligence preparers of the dossier knew that the 45 minute claim could not be used to justify an attack on Iraq based on an imminent threat, and that therefore the key point in Blair's dossier was a lie. The testimony on this point by Scarlett, later confirmed by Sir Richard Dearlove, is the single most important part of the Hutton inquiry. It means that the dossier was a lie and the intelligence experts knew it to be a lie. Hutton and Blair have managed to sidestep the main issue with some fancy footwork stomping on Gilligan, the BBC, and freedom of the press in Britain. They should not be allowed to get away with it.