- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

LONDON — A senior appeals judge castigated the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday for reporting that the government had “sexed up” a dossier on Iraqi weapons, vindicating Prime Minister Tony Blair and prompting the resignation of BBC chief Gavyn Davies.

The 700-page independent report by senior judge Brian Hutton also cleared Mr. Blair and his administration of responsibility in the death of David Kelly, a government expert on Iraqi weapons who committed suicide after being exposed as the source of the BBC story.

The document, so bulky that each copy was delivered in a large cardboard box, hammered the publicly funded national broadcaster’s standards of reporting and — most damagingly — its governors’ decision to support the charges made by a senior radio reporter.

The report said the broadcast bosses had given reporter Andrew Gilligan their backing even though they had failed to check whether his notes matched his on-air reporting.

The prime minister welcomed Mr. Hutton’s “extraordinary, thorough, detailed and clear” report during a crowded sitting of Parliament.

“The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on [Iraqi weapons of mass destruction] is itself the real lie,” a clearly relieved and upbeat Mr. Blair said to huge applause.

The Conservatives’ new leader, Michael Howard, had been sharpening his knife in anticipation that the report severely would damage Mr. Blair’s credibility. Instead, Mr. Howard was thrust onto the defensive.

The Conservatives, he said, accepted the report’s conclusions, but he still contended that Mr. Blair had been disingenuous about the way in which the government had made Mr. Kelly’s name public.

Mr. Davies was appointed by Mr. Blair three years ago to chair the BBC’s Board of Governors and, as a highly paid investment banker, had donated funds to the Labor Party. Yet in his role as chief of the BBC, he staunchly defended the organization.

In his resignation statement, Mr. Davies said he had to accept the judge’s findings, just as a sportsman had to accept a referee’s decision, although he questioned some of the specific recommendations.

In particular, he criticized a suggestion that higher management supervise reporters’ texts on stories about high-level machinations, saying that arrangement could compromise freedom of speech and threaten open reporting on the workings of government.

Also at risk of losing his job was the BBC’s chief executive, Greg Dyke, who acknowledged yesterday that “certain key allegations” made in its reporter’s first broadcast were wrong. He apologized for the errors, but said the network never had accused the prime minister of lying.

The BBC carried hours of reaction to the report on its television and radio stations, and its political correspondents said the report had been a “disaster” that would shake up the corporation.

Among the few defending the network yesterday was Andrew Neil, a veteran BBC commentator, who runs two newspapers and presents a nightly political program on BBC television.

Mr. Hutton “is an anti-journalist judge who gave the establishment the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “The criticisms are devastating, but it’s such an unbalanced report that as time goes on, people will begin to have second thoughts.”

Analysts predicted the report would reverse or at least arrest a steady erosion in Mr. Blair’s popularity fed by months of criticism over the Iraq war and internal policies.

Mr. Kelly came in for some criticism from the judge, who pointed out that the scientist had breached the regulations of the normally secretive civil service by meeting with Mr. Gilligan.

The scientist’s suicide, the judge found, was brought about in mid-July, when, after a rapid and catastrophic loss of reputation and self-esteem, Mr. Kelly swallowed pills and cut his wrists. The judge ruled out foul play.

The judge said it was not within the scope of his inquiry to rule on whether the intelligence information contained in the original publicly released dossier on Iraqi weapons was flawed.

But he said the government had been within its rights to urge the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee to make changes in the report to clarify and even to strengthen its impact — so long as the new wording properly reflected the intelligence consensus.

The intelligence committee’s chief had made some changes and declined to make others requested by the prime minister’s media chief, Alastair Campbell, a former senior political newspaper correspondent.

Mr. Campbell remains a close friend of the prime minister, although he left his position last year and plans to write a book and publish a revelatory diary.

He previously had accused “large sections of the BBC” of having an antiwar agenda, and yesterday charged that many British journalists allowed their personal views or political agendas to distort their factual reporting.

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