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Britain: BBC's Judgment, Accuracy Being Questioned Amid Kelly Inquiry

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) places the highest value on its tradition of independent and unbiased reporting. However, the public broadcaster now finds its judgment and accuracy being called into question for its handling of a story concerning alleged exaggerations of Iraq's weapons threat by the British government. The story was based on anonymous comments made to the BBC by Defense Ministry adviser David Kelly, an expert in biological weapons, who died on 18 July in an apparent suicide.

Prague, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The story ends in a field beside a forest in Oxfordshire, England. Or it might be more accurate to say the story begins there. A body lies on the ground, its left wrist cut. A bottle of painkillers is found beside the body, which is that of a distinguished-looking man in his 50s.

It is later confirmed that the body is that of David Kelly, a British scientist and expert in biological warfare who was once a UN arms inspector in Iraq. He apparently committed suicide after coming under what his family called intolerable pressure from a parliamentary inquiry. That panel was examining whether the British government had exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Kelly had been publicly identified as the main source for a story in late May by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan's story quoted a senior intelligence official as saying the government had spiced up the dangers posed by Baghdad in order to justify going to war.

Testifying before the committee, Kelly acknowledged he had spoken with Gilligan but suggested he had not been the main source for the information. But several days after his death, the BBC issued a statement saying he had indeed been the story's principal source. But the BBC maintains that it was not responsible for unmasking Kelly.

The BBC's director of news, Richard Sambrook, defended the story from criticism. "The BBC believes we accurately interpreted and reported the factual information obtained by us during interviews with Dr. Kelly," he said.

Sambrook said the BBC will fully cooperate with the government's planned inquiry into Kelly's death. Sambrook stressed that while the BBC is "profoundly sorry" at what has happened, it believes it was right to place Kelly's views in the public domain.

After its report about the exaggeration of intelligence, the BBC came under a barrage of criticism from the British government. And since Kelly's death, it has had to endure more attacks, this time concerning accusations that it may have "sexed up" its own stories based on Kelly's comments to Gilligan, which it had stood by throughout the controversy. The BBC has also been criticized for revealing Kelly as the source of its story, even after his death.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says government pressure on the BBC is far too great. IFJ spokeswoman Sarah de Jong said: "We feel that the British government is definitely putting undue pressure on the BBC as such. And we feel that the government's action is flying in the face of growing recognition in Europe that journalists' right to protect sources is actually contained in human rights law, and the British government is one of the very few governments which fails to recognize that."

De Jong defends the decision of the BBC to run the Kelly claims, saying the public broadcaster was doing what it is supposed to do. "Any media here in Europe, especially in public broadcasting, have a unique role to play, and part of the media's role is to have an investigative role, and to criticize and question the acts of their own governments," De Jong says.

Observers note, however, that there are several points on which the BBC's judgment and accuracy can rightly be called into question. First, Gilligan's initial report on 29 May described Kelly -- without naming him -- as a senior intelligence official involved in preparing the "exaggerated" government dossier. Kelly was not an intelligence officer and apparently was not involved in the actual preparation of the report. Secondly, as he was not a member of Blair's inner circle, Kelly would not necessarily be able to confirm firsthand that the report had been exaggerated on the orders of Blair aides. Third, there is the question of whether the BBC should be running uncorroborated, single-sourced stories at all.

Gilligan has reportedly been taken off reporting duties until the inquiry is held into the Kelly affair.

In Paris, the organization Reporters Without Borders agrees that the British government is placing an excessive amount of pressure on the BBC. But spokeswoman Soria Blatmann described the Kelly case as a difficult one. "On the one side, in fact, you have a journalist with only one source, although the BBC itself says it needs three sources to make up reliable information. On the other hand, you have the source, a [reputable] scientist, who is independent of the media," Blatmann said.

The London-based magazine "Index on Censorship" points out that in November, a new media regulatory measure will come into force in Britain. "Index" editor Judith Vidal-Hall points to potential threats to the BBC's independence in the wake of the Kelly case.

"There is a proposal now from various people that the BBC is no longer a responsible, trustworthy institution [and that] therefore it must come under the control of this new office Offcom, the Office of Communications. That would be a disaster," Vidal-Hall said.

Vidal-Hall said she does not believe the integrity of the BBC has been compromised by the Kelly case. But she points to another potential threat to its independence. "Next year, the BBC's license as a public broadcaster is up for renewal, and for the first time in the history of this organization, since 1922, instead of calling it 'license renewal,' which indicates an automatic process, it's called 'license reconsideration.' I think there has been huge pressure on the BBC from this government," she said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair received news of Kelly's death while on an Asian tour. Even before the news, Blair's government had been embattled over the accuracy of the intelligence it had used to justify starting the war on Iraq. Blair said a full inquiry will be held into the Kelly affair, and that although he would accept blame for any wrongdoing by the government, he would not resign.

"There is now a proper process that can take place in a proper way where someone wholly and independent will look at the facts, will investigate them and will then make the judgment. And then, after those judgments are published, then of course, we can all discuss what the results of those judgments are. And I think that is the right way to proceed," Blair said.

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