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U.K.: BBC And Government Both Under Scrutiny Over Death Of Weapons Expert

  • Kathleen Moore

The inquiry into the death of British government scientist David Kelly today focused on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Kelly was the primary source for a controversial BBC report claiming the government had exaggerated the case for going to war in Iraq. BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, who broadcast the report, testified today before the inquiry in London. RFE/RL reports on the latest developments in a case that is putting unprecedented pressure on the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Prague, 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The inquiry into David Kelly's death has heard evidence from its first star witness. BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan took the stand in London today, the second day of a judicial inquiry into last month's apparent suicide of the government weapons expert.

Kelly was found dead with a cut wrist shortly after coming under grueling questioning before a parliamentary hearing. The hearing was looking into allegations the British government had exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Gilligan was the author of a May report quoting an unnamed senior British intelligence official as making those claims. The report sparked a fierce row between the government and the BBC.

Today, Gilligan stood by his story. He said Kelly, his source for the story, had criticized the way the dossier had been "sexed up." Reading notes from his meeting with Kelly, Gilligan said a "classic" example of this was the inclusion of a claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

And he again said Kelly had named Alastair Campbell, a close aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair, as the man responsible for transforming the dossier. Campbell denies the allegation and has demanded an apology from the BBC.

The inquiry is in its early stages, but the evidence so far has not been kind to the government, which had sought to portray Kelly as a relatively junior official who overstepped his authority in talking to the press. One government spokesman even compared him to Walter Mitty, the fictional character with dreams of grandeur -- though he later apologized for the remark.

Yesterday, witnesses said Kelly was a senior source, with high-level access to intelligence at the Defense Ministry. They testified that Kelly was one of Britain's top weapons experts with extensive experience in Iraq -- and that he was also at times responsible for talking to reporters.

Most damaging of all, defense official Martin Howard said two intelligence officers had written to express concern about the way information was presented in the dossier, though he added that it was quite normal for analysts to disagree over such things.

The whole affair has damaged the credibility of Blair and his government. A poll by YouGov this weekend found 41 percent blame the government for Kelly's death. And more than two-thirds say the government is dishonest and untrustworthy.

YouGov research operations head Joe Twyman compared the Kelly affair to the scandal that erupted after Jo Moore, a government adviser, sent an e-mail to colleagues saying 11 September would be a good day to bury bad news.

"Public opinion has been very, very sure about its feelings as regards to the Kelly affair as a whole. What it's done -- and we saw this in the Jo Moore case -- is it's raised the question about presidential government, the culture of spin. All these issues that bubble under the surface have again been brought to the fore, and this is damaging for the government," Twyman said.

Still, the BBC is not looking too pretty either, and it's finding itself under scrutiny for its journalistic practices. Twyman's poll found 29 percent of those Britons polled blame the broadcaster for Kelly's apparent suicide. Kelly himself had said he didn't believe he could have been Gilligan's sole source, since he hadn't recognized his own words in the BBC story.

But most of all, it's Blair who's in the hot seat. Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University, told RFE/RL, "Whether he likes it or not -- and I'm sure he doesn't -- Mr. Blair's personal reputation, his personal credibility, are on the line."

King believes Blair is in no danger of losing his job, but he asked: "Can he recover in another sense? Can he recover his political authority, his moral authority, his ability to persuade people to do what he wants them to do simply because it's he who wants them to do it? I think he can't. I think the charges of deceit, of dishonesty, of manipulation that swirl around him, even if they're not directly aimed at him, are now so considerable in volume and have been going on for such a long time, that for the rest of his time in office, Tony Blair is going to be a wounded political leader as compared with what he was before the Iraq war."

Blair is due to give evidence to the inquiry at a still unspecified date in the future, a prospect he's unlikely to relish. But time may be on his side. Twyman said if only three or four high-profile witnesses give evidence, and the inquiry drags on for months, the public may simply lose interest.

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