Memorandum from the BBC
Letter from the Director of BBC News to
the Chairman of the Committee, 1 July 2003
1. I write to clarify some points that arose
from Mr Campbell's testimony (Wednesday 25 June) and the subsequent
exchange of letters and statements involving Mr Campbell, a number
of government ministers and the BBC. Although these exchanges
have received a great deal of media coverage I believe it right
that the Committee should hear from the BBC itself.
2. Firstly I would like to remind the Committee
of the BBC's role. Our task is to report the news. The BBC does
not have collective editorial opinions. What is at issue here
is the difference of opinion between the government's views and
the content of a single BBC report, authored by a single BBC journalist
based on information from a valuable and accurate source.
3. Mr Campbell and government ministers
are accusing the BBC, in the strongest terms, of a string of journalistic
misdemeanours, including lying to the British public. I wish to
set out in two sections the BBC's response to the charges made.
(a) Firstwhy did the BBC choose to
run Andrew Gilligan's story on 29 May?
(b) Secondwhy did it not retract
the story (or apologise) when Mr Campbell and government ministers
denied the various allegations made by Andrew Gilligan's source?
4. Mr Campbelland other ministershave
in recent days asserted that transmission of this story was in
breach of the BBC's guidelines. This is untrue. The Guidelines
are available on the BBC's website (http://sites.gateway.bbc.co.uk/publicpolicy/prodGuidelines/index.html).
I quote from them below:
"Programmes should be reluctant to rely
on only one source". (Page 44)
"The authority of programmes can be undermined
by the use of anonymous contributors whose status the audience
cannot judge. But there are times when anonymity is appropriate,
to avoid undue embarrassment;
"Anonymity should not normally be granted
to anyone trying to evade the law in the United Kingdom".
5. The committee should be assured that
before transmission of the story there was proper consideration
of the difficulty of proceeding with one off the record source.
The BBC abided by its proper process of editorial referral. Of
course we would have preferred the source to have gone on the
recordbut that simply was not possible in this instance.
ON 29 MAY
6. Mr Campbell continues to assert that
the BBC should not have run the story. He does so in vivid terms.
"If the BBC is now saying its journalism
is based on the principle they can report what any source says,
then BBC standards are now debased beyond belief . . . It means
the BBC can broadcast anything and take responsibility for nothing".
(Alastair Campbell statement Friday 27 June 2003)
7. This completely misrepresents the position.
At the risk of repeating some aspects of Mr Gilligan's testimony
of Wednesday 19 June, I should like to point out why the BBC's
decision to run the story conforms to our standards and practices.
(a) The source had been used before by Mr
Gilligan and his information had proved to be accurate.
(b) The source occupied a post that gave
him a significant locus in the compilation of the September dossier.
(c) Before transmission on 29 May Mr Gilligan
knew certain things about the September dossier that increased
still further the credibility of the source and his information.
(i) Mr Gilligan knew that by April 2002 the
government had decided to "delay" publication of any
dossierat least in part because at that stage it did not
contain strong new ingredients. Clearly this decision was reversed
later in 2002which seemed to suggest that the source was
right when he said the 45 minute WMD claim had arrived late in
the day and had been seized on as a matter of importance.
(ii) Further, after the flurry of reports
in the aftermath of the dossier's publication ministers virtually
stopped referring to the 45 minute claimwhich hardly indicated
much confidence in the claim's underlying strength. That fitted
with the source's view that this particular piece of evidence
about the WMD programme was not held in high regard by many in
the intelligence community.
(d) No evidence had been found by 29 May
2003 to substantiate the claims made on WMD in the September dossier
(and that remains the case).
(e) The story told to Mr Gilligan by the
source was also highly plausible because of the general background
of concern about the way intelligence had been gathered and used
to support the case for war against Iraq. I will list these concerns,
all of which were in the public domain before 29 May, and which
were factors known by Mr Gilligan and the editor of "Today."
(i) The February Dossier (the so-called "Dodgy
Dossier") had been undermined by the revelation that its
contents had, in part, derived from a PhD student in Californiawith
no attribution. This revelation was made by a Cambridge academicit
did not come from a government correction.
(ii) In early March 2003 the Director General
of the IAEA, Dr. Mohammed El Baradei, described as "not authentic"
the documents on which an important claim in the September dossier
(the importation of "yellow" cake from Niger) was based.
And he cast doubts on other aspects of the September dossier's
claims about a nuclear weapons programme.
(iii) In a BBC television documentary (The
Road to Wartx April 2003) Hans Blix had indicated his palpable
unease about the intelligence being used to mount a case for war
(iv) Concern had been expressed by the intelligence
services to Andrew Gilligan and other journalists about the government's
attempts to make a linkeven if a tentative onebetween
Iraq and al-Qaeda. Mr Gilligan's intelligence contacts believed
these claims to be untrue and unsupported by evidence. They leaked
him a Top Secret assessment from the Defence Intelligence Staff
saying: "While there have been contacts between Al Qaeda
and the regime in the past, it is assessed that any fledgling
relationship foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideology."
(v) Andrew Gilligan and other BBC journalists
had previously spoken (off the record) to intelligence sources.
They had indicated significant disquiet about the way intelligence
had been used to shape and justify policy.
(vi) Further there had been a variety of
newspaper articles that had separately indicated anxiety in the
intelligence community. It is important to stress that these articles
were not of themselves the trigger for the decision to transmit
the Gilligan story. The factors listed above were more important.
But these articles did form part of the background.
Peter Beaumont and Gaby Hinsliff
wrote (Observer 24 February 2003) of disagreement between the
intelligence services and Downing Street"the essence
of the disagreement is said to have been that intelligence material
should be presented `straight' rather than spiced up to make a
political argument." Their article also talks about "fairly
serious rows" between at least one member of the JIC and
Raymond Whittaker (Independent
on Sunday 27 April) wrote of "a high level UK source"
saying that "intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic
were furious that briefings they gave political leaders were distorted".
He went on to write: "You cannot just cherry-pick evidence
that suits your case and ignore the rest. It is a cardinal rule
of intelligence," said one aggrieved officer. "Yet that
is what the PM is doing." Another said: "What we have
is a few strands of highly circumstantial evidence, and to justify
an attack on Iraq it is being presented as a cast-iron case. That
really is not good enough."
It should now be clear that the source was credible
and there was ample context to justify publication.
THE BBC NOT
8. We published what the source had alleged
and, of course, the denials that followed.
9. It is worth noting that when Mr Campbell
said in his evidence to the committee that "the denial was
made within an hour of the lie being told on the radio",
this is not the case. At about 07.15, a Downing Street spokesman
called the programme to insist that "not one word in the
dossier was not from intelligence sources . . ." In fact
Mr Gilligan's source never alleged that the material was not from
intelligent sources. The programme made a note of the Downing
Street statementand later broadcast it. However, when asked
questions about when the 45 minute claim was first in the dossier
and about Downing Street's role in drafting the dossier, we were
told: "We will not discuss processology." In other words,
their response to questions about how the claim got into the dossier,
wasin effectno comment.
10. The source was rapidly proved right
on one matter of importancethe fact that the 45 minute
WMD claim, contained within the dossier, had emanated from a single,
uncorroborated source. That emerged on "Today" shortly
after 8.00 am on the day the Gilligan report was transmitted in
an exchange between John Humphrys and the defence minister, Adam
11. The source has subsequently been substantiated
on another issuethe late arrival of the 45 minute WMD claim.
Your committee heard from Peter Ricketts and Jack Straw that the
45 minute claim was not included in a draft until early September.
12. Without disclosing anything further
about the identity of the source, it must therefore be clear to
any observer of these events that the source was indeed someone
with accurate inside knowledge. As we have indicated, the source
is a credible figure, who has been right on certain crucial points.
As yet, there is no proof that the source was wrong about anything.
13. What the BBC has a duty to do is to
report faithfully government denials and to give them sufficient
prominence so that the public could make up its own mind. It would
be improper for the BBC to disown its source on the allegations
made without proof that the source was wrong. It would be very
poor journalistic ethics to do so. It would discourage other potential
contributors on other stories. It would undermine faith in the
BBC's resilience and independence if it retracted a story on the
basis of official denialswithout any other evidence. As
things stand there is no proof the source was wrongonly
14. It is not, of course, the BBC's experience
that all denials from government ministers and press officers
are without foundation. But equally governments of all persuasions
have been known to issue denials that have subsequently needed
considerable modification. In recent years the government and/or
Downing Street has had to change its story on matters such as
the resignation of Martin Sixsmith, the advice given by Peter
Foster to Cherie Blair, the Britishness or otherwise of LNMthe
company owned by Mr Lakshmi Mittal, the nature of a phone call
between the then Italian Prime Minister (Romano Prodi) and Mr
Blair involving discussion about Rupert Murdoch's business interests.
Of course the BBC well understands these changes to official statements
have sometimes been made only after new information have been
obtained and I stress again that these examples do not prove that
the government's denials were false. But they help explain why
we have no grounds to report that our source was wrongand
we already know that the source was right onat leastsome
of the matters reported by Andrew Gilligan.
15. I hope the committee will be able to
understand better the BBC's position on these two fundamental
pointsthe decision to publish the story and the decision
that no retraction is appropriate.
16. Let me conclude by saying that if your
committee unanimously decides, on the basis of concrete evidence,
that any part of story was wrong we will correct it and report
publicly any allegations made by the source which were wrong.
Director of BBC News
1 July 2003