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U.K.: Government, BBC Under Fire After Kelly Death

  • Jan Jun

London, 23 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Six days after the death of former UN arms inspector David Kelly, Britain appears divided on who to blame for the tragedy.

A judicial inquiry has been ordered into Kelly's apparent suicide on 18 July. Kelly was at the center of allegations -- made in a 29 May British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) story by reporter Andrew Gilligan -- that Britain had exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify a war. Kelly testified last week before a parliamentary panel investigating the weapons allegations after his name was made public as the probable source for the BBC story.

After Kelly's death, the BBC acknowledged he was the main source for its story, which quoted a "senior intelligence official."

The inquiry into Kelly's death will be lead by Lord Brian Hutton, who has promised a full and open investigation. "I intend to conduct the inquiry with expedition and to report as soon as possible," he said. "It is also my intention to conduct the inquiry mostly in public."

The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair now finds itself in serious trouble over how it handled both the Iraq war and the Kelly case. The BBC, meanwhile, is being criticized for poor judgment and perhaps exaggerating its own story based on Kelly's anonymous comments.

William Hopkinson is a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said the controversy is mushrooming. "What I see now is political actors of various sorts are taking advantage of the tragedy to score points against each other and I include in that political actors, parliamentarians, the government, and the BBC," he said.

Blair is facing plummeting opinion polls and calls for his resignation. An ICM survey found that 54 percent of British voters are unhappy with his performance as prime minister. The poll, published in "The Guardian" newspaper yesterday, found just 37 percent of respondents to be happy with Blair, giving him an overall approval rating of minus 17 points.

In a Mori poll also published yesterday in "The Sun" tabloid, one-quarter of voters who backed Blair's ruling Labor Party in the last election in 2001 said they have since switched to a rival party, while a YouGov survey released yesterday showed 39 percent feel Blair should resign over the Kelly affair.

Blair -- who is on an Asian tour -- yesterday denied that he authorized releasing Kelly's name to the media days before the expert was found dead. Speaking in Beijing, he said a full inquiry will be held to find out the truth. "This is a desperately sad time for the family of Dr. Kelly and his funeral has not been held yet, and I don't want to say more about that situation except to say that there will be -- as there should be in a democracy -- a proper and independent inquiry into what has happened," Blair said.

Observers say the Kelly controversy is likely to result in resignations by top members of the Blair government. Michael Clarke is director of the International Policy Institute at King's College in London. "The careers that are under threat as a result of this are probably [Blair's communications director] Alistair Campbell himself and possibly Geoff Hoon, the minister of defense," Clarke told RFE/RL. "On the other side of the argument, Andrew Gilligan, the reporter at the BBC who first ran this story on 29 May, may also find his job is not very safe because he is standing accused at the moment of overreporting what David Kelly told him. So there may be some heads to roll at the BBC, as well."

Yesterday, London's "The Times" daily suggested that two of the BBC's 11-member board of governors are unhappy about the broadcaster's unqualified support for Gilligan. Kelly was not a senior intelligence official, as Gilligan's story identified him. Gilligan himself has reportedly been pulled from active reporting in advance of the inquiry.

Hopkinson of the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs feels that as for the allegations against the BBC, it is best to wait for the inquiry's outcome. "It may or may not have been right for the BBC to put forward a certain argument based on what [Kelly] told them, and we do not know yet, of course, precisely how what the BBC alleged that the source had said related exactly to what Dr. Kelly had put to them," he said.

The BBC says it intends to cooperate fully with the inquiry but emphasized that it still believes it was right to put Kelly's views about the British dossier on Iraq's weapons programs into the public domain. The inquiry is expected to take at least two months.

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