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U.K.: BBC Stung By Hutton Report, While Blair Escapes Largely Unscathed

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Senior British judge Lord Brian Hutton today released the results of his inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of British government scientist David Kelly. Kelly committed suicide shortly after being named as the source of allegations that the British government had exaggerated the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify war. The British political establishment and the media have been waiting in suspense for today's report, knowing it could spell the end for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and could also severely damage the British national broadcaster, the BBC, which carried the allegations.

Prague, 28 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair is today savoring his apparent political survival after perhaps the most tumultuous week of his career.

Blair has been exonerated from wrongdoing in a crucial official inquiry into the death last year of British government arms specialist David Kelly.

Kelly died by his own hand shortly after being publicly named as the source for a BBC report that alleged that the Blair government had exaggerated the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a justification for joining the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Senior British judge Lord Brian Hutton led the months-long inquiry into the affair, which had the potential to topple Blair from power. Hutton, reading extracts from his report today, said the government had not acted dishonorably. Referring to allegations that the government had used a questionable assertion that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in as few as 45 minutes, Hutton said: "The reality was that the 45-minutes claim was based on an intelligence report which the secret intelligence service believed to be reliable, and the 45-minutes claim was inserted in the [government's] dossier with the approval of the joint intelligence committee, the most senior body in the United Kingdom responsible for the assessment of intelligence."

Hutton also criticized Kelly's personal behavior: "Dr. Kelly's meeting with [BBC reporter Andrew] Gilligan was unauthorized, and in meeting Mr. Gilligan and in discussing intelligence matters with him, Dr. Kelly was acting in breach of the civil service code of procedure which applied to him."

But Hutton reserved his most stinging criticism for the BBC, saying the broadcaster's managers were at fault, as was the BBC board of governors, as well as the reporter Gilligan himself: "The allegations that Mr. Gilligan was intending to broadcast in respect of the government and in the preparation of the dossier were very grave allegations on a subject of great importance, and I consider that the editorial system that the BBC permitted was defective, in that Mr. Gilligan was allowed to broadcast his report at 0607 a.m. without editors having seen his script, or having considered whether it should have been approved."

Last May, Gilligan used Kelly as a source in a report that alleged that the government had "sexed up" an intelligence dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to sell the war to the British public. During the Hutton inquiry, Gilligan admitted that some of the wording in his unscripted reports was incorrect, and that parts of his report represented his interpretation rather than Kelly's own words.

Hutton today said an active media is part of democratic life, but that false accusations of fact should not be carried by the media. Blair had indicated he would resign if the Hutton report proved that he had lied about his part in how Kelly came to be identified by name as the source of the BBC report. Kelly, a former arms inspector in Iraq, committed suicide in a fit of depression after his name was leaked.

Summarizing his report today, Hutton said no one could have foreseen that the strain would have lead Kelly to kill himself. Blair has acknowledged that -- once Kelly's name had already been referred to speculatively in the media -- he told his inner circle of ministers and advisers that the name would have to be confirmed. But he has denied actually taking part in releasing the name.

Blair later addressed the House of Commons, where he has in recent weeks been subject to biting criticism that he lied over the Kelly affair: "I am immensely grateful to Lord Hutton, his team, and inquiry staff, for the work they have carried out. The report, itself, is an extraordinary, thorough, detailed, and clear document. It leaves no room for doubt or interpretation. We accept it in full."

Alastair Campbell, Blair's former communications chief who resigned in the middle of the row, was also cleared of wrongdoing by the Hutton report. The criticism of the BBC comes at a delicate time for the broadcaster, which gambled in backing Gilligan without making a thorough examination of the accuracy of his reporting. The famed public broadcaster is about to undergo a parliamentary review of its charter, which could result in a reorganization which supporters fear could reduce its independence.

Media analysts say it would be foolish to suppose that the charter review will not be affected by the contents of the Hutton report. For Blair, today's events are the culmination of possibly his most difficult week as a politician. Last night, by the narrowest of margins, he avoided his first major parliamentary defeat. He won a crucial vote on university fee reform by 316 votes to 311, amid a revolt by scores of his own party members. The unpopular measure will make attending university more expensive for students.

Although Blair has survived this week's ordeals, it remains to be seen how much is left in the long-term of his once commanding position in the ruling Labour Party.
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