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Opinion: Trouble at the BBC

With serious questions about its reporting, it looks increasingly likely that that heads at the BBC, and not 10 Downing Street, will roll over the suicide death of government advisor and source David Kelly.

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Consequences for the death of David Kelly are likely to be drawn from one of these addresses.

Two days after the suicide of the biological weapons expert, David Kelly, the British Broadcasting Corporation admitted for the first time that the government adviser was the main source for the serious charges against Tony Blair’s government. The broadcaster had reported that the government had deliberately hyped an intelligence dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass-destruction. Now a lot of people in Britain are asking whether the BBC, which dealt very critically with the Iraq war, reported carefully and in a fitting enough manner on the dossier. Grahame Lucas has this commentary:

Prime Minister Tony Blair has paved the way for a public inquiry, presumably hoping that in the end not he but the BBC will be in the pillory. But he must still face a number of questions. How, for example, was David Kelly’s name revealed to the public as the BBC informer? Was he put under pressure by government officials as an alleged traitor and driven to suicide?

Depending on the way these questions are answered before the inquiry commission, heads may have to roll within the government. And first in line would be Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and Downing Street’s Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell. Blair’s own position would only be at risk if the commission were to confirm the BBC’s accusations that the government “sexed up” the intelligence dossier.

But this seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, it seems increasingly to be the credibility and the reporting of the BBC that are at stake. There’s no doubt that it could have named Kelly as its source much sooner, thus enabling a

clarification of the situation. The fact that it didn’t may be seen by some as an attempt to keep the topic in the headlines for as long as possible. The corporation’s news chief, Richard Sambrook, was extremely defensive when he made a statement to the press on Sunday, saying the BBC had correctly “interpreted” Kelly’s statements.

That’s not enough by a long chalk. The broadcaster must now make clear what was said and what defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan concluded from it. In addition, the BBC must explain why it consistently referred to an intelligence source, when Kelly worked as a biological weapons expert and adviser to the defense ministry and not the secret service as the broadcaster implied. Last week, Kelly himself admitted to the House of Commons select committee that he had spoken to Gilligan to explain the background of the situation in Iraq. He said he was convinced he was not the BBC’s main source for the accusations. It’s being virtually ruled out by independent media representatives that Kelly lied to the committee.

But we may never find out what took place between Kelly and Gilligan. For the main witness has been dead since last Friday, and Gilligan must fear the loss of his reputation and of his job. So it’s one side’s word against another’s.

News chief Richard Sambrook’s chair is also extremely wobbly. Even the names of directors who are thought to have sanctioned Gilligan’s report in advance are being mentioned. But in the end, the BBC will have to live with the reproach that it broadcast Gilligan’s accusations without checking its accuracy carefully enough -- without first finding confirmation from another source. The fact that this is affecting the respectable BBC, which ever since it was set up in 1922 has attached great importance to balanced and factually correct reporting, says a great deal about the changes in Britain’s media landscape. There, a merciless rivalry prevails, and a quick exclusive report is apparently more important than well-founded reporting.

Grahame Lucas heads Deutsche Welle Radio's English Current Affairs program.

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