Kevin Marsh’s book, Stumbling Over Truth, tells of his time as editor of the BBC Today programme in 2003 when it broadcast Andrew Gilligan’s report about the Iraq dossier. It is a savage condemnation of how a cabal of people in positions of power, their certainty reinforced by groupthink, sexed up an important piece of work, including in it things that they knew were wrong.
I refer to Marsh, Gilligan and their superiors at the BBC. Rarely has a book intended to make the case for one side in a controversy been so damning of the case it seeks to defend.
Marsh is astonishingly rude about Gilligan, the reporter whose journalism he purports to defend. As I said about Marsh’s pre-publication blog posts (my posts are here, but in the wrong order), Marsh’s case is that Gilligan misspoke in unscripted parts of broadcasts, but he was all right when he stuck to the agreed script.
This is not the case, but Marsh at least acknowledges that the BBC should have accepted earlier than it did that the unscripted reports were flawed.
Marsh fails to see how self-incriminating his account is, however. One aspect in particular was new to me and a rather important story. He says that, when Greg Dyke, the BBC Director General, became involved, weeks after the broadcast, he asked Gilligan if David Kelly had used the actual words Gilligan had used in the unscripted version of his first report.
Dyke himself had grilled Gilligan over exactly what his source had said. He’d asked him outright whether he’d used the words “the Government probably knew the 45-minute claim was wrong before it included it in the dossier”. Gilligan assured him more than once that he had.
Those were the words that Gilligan had “made a complete mess of”, according to Marsh. They were not the words that Gilligan had told him that his source had used, and they were not the words that were in the script agreed by Gilligan and Marsh.
Later, as the dispute between the BBC and Alastair Campbell escalated, Dyke spoke to Gilligan again:
He asked Gilligan again whether he stood by every word of every one of his reports. Was he certain his source had used the phrase “sexed up”. And that he’d said the Government “probably knew” the 45-minute claim “was wrong before it decided to put it in the dossier”. Gilligan answered once again, “Yes.”
“You’d better be effing right,” Greg told him. Then, turning to the rest of us, “He’d better be effing right.”
Gilligan was not right, as Marsh now says. We cannot know exactly what Kelly said to him, but Marsh accepts that he did not say, “The Government probably knew that the forty-five minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in,” which are the words that Gilligan actually used on the programme. For one thing, Marsh accepts that Kelly knew that “the Government” in the form of No 10 did not put material in the dossier.
Kelly’s complaint about the dossier, as far as we can tell, was that the spies felt under pressure from Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and put stuff in the dossier that they should not have done. Even that would be only a point of view: it would seem that John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, were only too keen to put intelligence in the dossier that they should not have done.
But even Kelly’s apparent allegation is very different from what the BBC broadcast on 29 May 2003 in the scripted version that Marsh still defends. The scripted broadcast said, for example, that the BBC’s source (Kelly) said that the 45-minutes point
was included in the dossier against our [the intelligence agencies'] wishes, because it wasn’t reliable; … we believed that the source was wrong. Most people in intelligence weren’t happy with the dossier, because it didn’t reflect the considered view they were putting forward.
Marsh’s book is well written, and his opinions, except on the central point, are surprisingly balanced. But I cannot see how he can continue to defend journalism that made such a serious allegation that was incontrovertibly wrong.
Just as I finished this post, Marsh was on Radio 4 The Media Show, so you can listen to him explain himself. He says again that the unscripted 6.07am broadcast “was wrong”; that he argued that the BBC should correct it and lost the argument; but that a correction and apology “wouldn’t have changed the course of events”. Surely the BBC’s obligation to the truth goes further than whether or not it would “change the course of events”?
Coincidentally, Richard Sambrook, Marsh’s former boss, was also on the programme. He hedged about whether the unscripted report was “wrong”, but when pressed by the admirable Steve Hewlett on whether the Government acted in “bad faith” he says: “I accept the BBC was wrong to suggest bad faith.”
But by the time the BBC had “worked out what the contentious issue was” it was “too late” for an apology.
Extraordinary.Tagged in: blair rage, iraq, iraq war, kevin marsh
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