- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

A judge yesterday summoned a BBC reporter and Prime Minister Tony Blair to testify on the suicide of an official who was the source for a BBC report on “sexed-up” intelligence about Iraq.

BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan, BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies and Mr. Blair will be among those to appear before an official inquiry headed by Lord Brian Hutton.

Judge Hutton, a senior jurist, is probing the July 17 suicide of government scientist and arms expert David Kelly. He was found with his wrist slit after he was identified as the primary source for reports by Mr. Gilligan and other BBC reporters that the Blair government overstated the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein to justify war against Iraq.

The resulting scandal has transfixed Britain and damaged the public image of both Mr. Blair’s government and the venerable British Broadcasting Corp., a publicly funded news and entertainment network.

BBC officials have defended their coverage of Iraq and the weapons dispute.

Mr. Kelly conceded he spoke to Mr. Gilligan and other BBC reporters about his doubts, but in a letter released by Judge Hutton yesterday, the arms expert provided fresh ammunition to critics of the BBC’s reporting.

In a June 30 letter to his Ministry of Defense superiors, Mr. Kelly said he did not recognize his views in Mr. Gilligan’s subsequent highly critical reports.

He wrote: “I can only conclude one of three things — Gilligan has considerably embellished my meeting with him; he has met with other individuals who truly were intimately associated with the dossier; or he has assembled comments from both multiple, direct and indirect sources for his articles.”

Mr. Blair and Alistair Campbell, his chief communications aide, have furiously denied the BBC reports, sparking an extended and bitter fight between the government and the 81-year-old broadcast service.

A BBC spokesman said yesterday the network “welcomes the clarification of the scope of the inquiry and will continue to offer all the assistance that we can.”

While Mr. Blair’s political woes have been well-chronicled, the role of the BBC in the Kelly affair has inspired an equally heated debate in media-mad Britain, with the government and conservative critics of the BBC saying the incident reflects a much larger “soft-socialist” bias.

“The BBC is pathologically hostile to the government and official opposition, most British institutions, American policy in almost every field, Israel, moderation in Ireland, all Western religions, and most manifestations of the free-market economy,” charged Conrad Black, the Canadian-born media magnate who owns the London Daily Telegraph.

“It benefits from an iniquitous tax, abuses its position commercially, has shredded its formal obligation to separate comment from reporting in all political areas, … and is poisoning the well of public policy debate in the United Kingdom,” he wrote.

Israeli government officials were so incensed by what they saw as pro-Palestinian BBC reporting that they banned BBC reporters from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s press conference during a visit to London last month and have refused to make government officials available to appear on BBC programs.

Britain’s conservative tabloids have all but blamed Mr. Gilligan and the BBC for driving Mr. Kelly to his death, and even more restrained critics say the latest row reflects an insular, group-think mentality at the BBC.

BBC bias “works by agenda-setting, by angle of approach and by ideological attitude,” wrote Eoghan Harris, a columnist with the London Sunday Independent.

“All you have to do is decide to do a daily update on, say, child casualties in Iraq, and put on a compassionate voice, and no number of government spokesmen and no amount of airtime will wipe out an indelible public image of dead children.”

With a wide range of political, cultural and education broadcasting, the BBC has always had a more controversial reputation at home than abroad.

Founded in 1922, the BBC is run by an independent board of governors but financed through a mandatory “licensing fee” imposed on every television-owning household in Britain, currently about $168 a year.

Labor and Conservative governments throughout the years have been critical of BBC reporting as insufficiently sympathetic to the government line, from the 1956 Suez Canal crisis to the Iraq debate about weapons of mass destruction.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the BBC “pinko” after watching its reports on the 1982 Falkland Islands war with Argentina, while critics dubbed it the “Belgrade Broadcasting Corp.” for its coverage of the 1999 Kosovo war.

The BBC has its defenders, many of whom note it is a time-honored strategy for governments in political trouble to attack the BBC.

“You can always tell how big a hole a prime minister or government is in by the vehemence of their onslaught on the BBC,” said London Guardian columnist John Tusa.

BBC Chairman Mr. Davies accused the Blair government of “political bullying” when a minister suggested last week that the government might seek tougher oversight of the network when the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal in 2006.

And the British polling firm NOP found that Mr. Blair had taken a bigger hit to his credibility than had the BBC in the dispute.

More than 54 percent of those polled earlier this week said they trusted the BBC more than the government on the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, with only 20 percent saying the government was more credible.

But more than half of the survey respondents also said they trusted television and radio news less than they did a year ago, with only 14 percent saying they had more faith in the media.

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