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Breakfast with Frost
BBC Breakfast with Frost interview with John Reid MP, Health Secretary broadcast on 29 June, 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Health Secretary, John Reid MP
Does the BBC believe the allegations to be true?

PETER SISSONS: Well, I'm joined now by the Health Secretary, John Reid, and we'll be talking about targets, and some of the other challenges facing the NHS in a moment, but first that row between the government and the BBC which I'm sure you're itching to talk about. Today's Mail on Sunday puts you back in the frame, alleging that you told Labour activists in a conference call at the end of March that Saddam's famous 45 minutes response time was more like 48 hours, by implication backing up Andrew Gilligan's claims two months later that the government had given it undue prominence. Is the Mail account true?

JOHN REID: It's nonsense. Some of the facts are true. But what they've done is they've conflated a September statement with a statement from me and one of many discussions six months later. And during that time of course inspectors have gone in, 200,000 troops were sitting on the borders, the information was not only that in the September document that Saddam wanted to have deploy ability within 45 minutes. It was also during the next six months he was trying to hide the weaponry. So what I said is yes, we had that information, but we also knew he was trying to hide it, so it may be the case whether it was 45 minutes or 48 hours or whatever, the war's a threat to our troops, we ought to operate on the worst possible scenario and when I was asked well, is this too great a threat for the troops I said well we were taking a calculated risk and we were using technical means to try and overcome that. If you want to know what the technical means were, which that doesn't go into, I wasn't willing to discuss it, it was surveillance of various types. So, in other words, the story, the implication the story is nonsense, and actually one month in , because it's one month to the day since the first allegations were broadcast by the BBC, there is actually only one question. And that is, are they true? They were very specific, they were very serious, they said that the prime minister and his staff put information into the public domain they knew to be wrong, a lie. They did it against the wishes of the intelligence forces in this country and they did it to dupe the people of this country. Those are all completely untrue. They have been denied by all the heads of intelligence forces as well as the Prime Minister. What we need from the BBC is a simple statement - do they believe those allegations to be true? They've been broadcast for a month now.

PETER SISSONS: You think it is the big issue but Sunday Times points out today that their view is that the government's biggest problem is that the weapons of mass destruction just haven't been found and until they are the public will suspect we were taken to was on false grounds. That's why the Sunday Times calls the BBC row, which you're obviously seem anxious to carry on, a smoke screen.

JOHN REID: No, I'm clarifying. A month ago today very specific and serious allegations were made against the British prime minister that he lied to the people of this country. That he put information into the public domain that he knew to be wrong and that he did this against the protests of the intelligence services. That was the allegation broadcast by the BBC and they've been broadcast, Peter, every day since for a month. Now, are those allegations true or not. When the BBC is asked if they are true they don't answer, they say we accurately reported what a source said.

PETER SISSONS: That is normal journalistic practice.

JOHN REID: Well if the definition of truth in the BBC is now that they accurately reported what one source said, even if they believe it to be a lie.

PETER SISSONS: Depends who your source is, doesn't it.

JOHN REID: Even if we've got an anonymous source an uncorroborated source.

PETER SISSONS: But a source that the BBC believes is sound, and believable. The BBC is a big journalistic organisation.

JOHN REID: Well it only has to say one thing, it's broadcast these allegations for a month. Prime Minister denied it, intelligence services denied it, the Cabinet's denied it, the Foreign Secretary denied the truth of the allegations. All the BBC need to say today after a month of broadcasting these allegations is, we believed them to be true or we don't. For some reason we can't get that answer.

PETER SISSONS: But the BBC's only offence seems to be annoying the government.

JOHN REID: No, I'm sorry. If I came in here today and said to you before this programme, if I made some allegations, uncorroborated and said you can't use my name, about the Director General of the BBC. And you put them on the air, and then somebody asked you are these true, and you said well that doesn't matter, what matters is that I accurately reflected what I was told.

PETER SISSONS: Political correspondents do that all the time. If a senior government minister said they were about to sack the Director General of the BBC we'd report that like a shot. Andrew Marr would be on his feet saying I have it from the highest possible level that Greg Dykes' job is on the line, or whatever, that is a perfectly fair thing to do.

JOHN REID: Well, that will come as I'm sure, of great interest to your viewers. If you're saying that all the time your political correspondents put uncorroborated, unsubstantiated, anonymous reports into the public domain, I thought that was completely contrary to your own standards. As published incidentally on the web.

PETER SISSONS: We're going to talk health, I mean that was part of the deal for this morning, and quite right too. But do you think the BBC should apologise because we hear there is support on the Labour back benches for the BBC and people who want Alistair Campbell out.

JOHN REID: Well the two names that were mentioned in the story this morning are two of the usual suspects who are constantly against the leadership and I might say so that the truth of the matter is that there are quite a few people who have been still in the BBC and who previously were in it, like Steve Richards this morning, who are saying, look, the standards aren't being applied here. So when you say how does it end, it's very simple. Let the BBC, after a month of broadcasting these allegations say, one way or another, today, do they believe them to be true. Now either they do or they don't. If they say, well no actually we're reporting them but we don't ourselves believe them to be true. Fine, there's a line drawn. If they keep doing what they're doing then a decision will eventually be made by one of the select committees whether these specific allegations that that September dossier included information inserted by the Prime Minister which he knew to be wrong, against the intelligence sources, to dupe the nation, the committees will decide whether that allegation is wrong and the longer it goes before the BBC give us their answer and stop hiding behind, well we've accurately reported an anonymous source. Do you know if the BBC believe the allegations to be true?

PETER SISSONS: I'm not privy to the BBC's highest counsels. Well you're one of the highest.

JOHN REID: I'm not trying to put you on the spot. But it would be helpful if we could ...

PETER SISSONS: I'm glad you're not trying to put me on a spot. Because I'm not going to be put on the spot but I believe profoundly in the integrity of BBC journalism.

JOHN REID: Well, so do I and that's why we all want to see it maintained, Peter.

PETER SISSONS: Health. Now there's growing concern, witness a recent Audit Commission report, the Kings fund, that the money being poured in to health is not having the desired effect. The Kings Fund saying there's no discernable connection between the amount of money going in and the number of patients being treated.

JOHN REID: I think that's unfair, to be fair.

PETER SISSONS: But is it accurate?

JOHN REID: Well I don't think it is entirely accurate. If they're saying that a lot of money is going in and we haven't yet got everything the way we want to get it. That is perfectly true. But it isn't true to say that the 50,000 extra nurses, the 10,000 extra doctors, the 300,000 extra operations, are not having an effect from the patients' point of view. They clearly are. Last year for instance there were something like 22,000 patients who were waiting more than a year to get an operation. And now they're down to about 200. We've got 300,000 more operations a year and, as I said, we're making a real advance but we are way short of where we want to be.

PETER SISSONS: Well you will be if you've got a million still on the waiting list.

JOHN REID: Yes, that's right and we want to get that down as well, but what we decided to do, as you know, in the much maligned objectives and targets, we said let's get the waiting list beneath about a million and then let's reduce the time that everybody's waiting. And we have done that, I think considerably. If you take for instance, one of the most stressful conditions and that is going along to your doctor and being diagnosed with having cancer. When we came in as a government something like 60-odd per cent of people who were diagnosed waited, sorry, got attention by a consultant within a couple of weeks. It is now 97% of patients, so I'm not saying anything's perfect at all. I would rather under-claim and over-deliver. I would rather be told the truth about the bad news than lies about good news. Nobody wants that.

PETER SISSONS: Consultants say that suspected cancer cases are taking priority over more serious cancer cases.

JOHN REID: I don't think that is true either. It is true, the general arguments being put up by consultants who make a marvellous, a fantastic contribution to the Health Service. They're saying look, when you make priorities here to reduce waiting lists or whatever, to go for one target, it tends to de-prioritise other areas. I think that's the point that has been made. That is partially true but it's also true that because we're putting in increased capacity, we're doubling the amount of money going into the National Health Service, and we're increasing the number of nurses and doctors - and we're also changing the way things are done. But it's not an entire 100% transposition. You know there will be some shift of priorities but the extra capacity that we're putting in and the extra doctors and nurses and staff that it purchases, and the changes because we're not just wanting investment, we're wanting improvement. And I personally see three levels of this Peter. The first level is the central resources that we're putting in and national standards set centrally. But we've got to do two other things we haven't done well enough. One is local power, pass decision-making down to the local areas because only they can really start to meet the differentiated needs of 60 million people and finally patient power. Give the patient a choice.

PETER SISSONS: These are, you've said some nice things about the consultants, that will surprise one or two people. You're in the middle of a big dispute with the consultants. Can we expect any movement on that, to settle the row.

JOHN REID: Well, as you know we have met the consultants after a year and a half of negotiation. What the Guardian yesterday called a phenomenally generous offer. You also know that 1.3 million people in the NHS have already agreed with us the agenda for change. The consultants say they have six problems. I want to listen to them. I value very much their professionalism, their integrity and their input. I will meet with them in fact yesterday I agreed that I would meet at the end of next week, the 4th July. I will listen to what they have to say about the six points they say they have in reserve, that they have difficulties with. If I can shift on some of these, if I can tweak, but there is a central line here and that is the red line is that the patient in the National Health Service has to come first and therefore I can't shift from that position. That has been central to what we've agreed with 1.3 million people in the Health Service. So I can't shift from that for the 30,000 consultants but I will see if I can move because I want everybody in the Health Service from the ambulance drivers, the nurses, the doctors who've already agreed, right through to the consultants, working with us in this agenda for change.

PETER SISSONS: Are you going to get foundation hospitals through the House of Commons? I read a report that the fox hunting Bill was going to be given priority.

JOHN REID: Well the Fox Hunting Bill is this week. Foundation Hospitals will be debated the following week. I hope so, for this reason, that the real dividing line, because there's a debate going on there about health - the real dividing line in this country is not about who provides the services or where the money comes from, it is, the dividing line which was the principle on which the NHS was formed and that is, those who believe in health care free at the point of need. That is the dividing line. Now within that, how you actually do it in order to give more power locally and more power to the individual patient, I think is a legitimate area for argument but we are absolutely convinced it is necessary. Put the patient first.

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