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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 July, 2003, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
No heroes or villains in Kelly tragedy
By Peter Preston
Former editor of the Guardian

If the senior British adviser to the Iraq Survey Group - the UK's lead man on weapons of mass destruction - sat across a lunch table from you and seemed to blame Downing Street in general and Alastair Campbell in particular for straining every last fact and adjective in the assessment of threat that led to war, then would you, a BBC journalist, report it?

'Time to lower the decibel count amid a human mess'
Of course. Not necessarily as a fact. Even Dr Kelly was only a single source. But certainly as an authoritative opinion which needed to be aired - and was on two separate occasions: to Andrew Gilligan and to Susan Watts of Newsnight.

And if your source talked to you under conditions of anonymity, would you do everything in your power to protect him - including maintaining silence even after he'd identified himself to his bosses and talked, not entirely frankly, to the foreign affairs select committee?

Of course. No question of that either. Sources come in many shapes, forms and conditions of confidentiality. Once they place their faith in you, your faith and your room for manoeuvre belongs to them; and after their death, their family.

Too much, I think, has already been written these past few days expressing too much certainty about this miserable affair.

That's not a mistake to carry on compounding. A judge and an official inquiry offer better routes to truth than speculation.

But we can already, perhaps, see more complexities than were allowed for in the first few hours after Dr Kelly's apparent suicide.


Was he a leaker of conviction suddenly surprised by the salience given to his views? What kind of pressures precipitated his death? Was it reasonable, in the circumstances, not to expect pressure - indeed, even welcome it?
Too much, I think, has already been written these past few days expressing too much certainty about this miserable affair
Peter Preston

A leading civil servant of 59, used to dealing with the press and having journalists as friends, may be a man of fierce views and integrity. But he is not unworldly, a naive scientist unaware of the way the media and political world turns. He blows a whistle to be heard.

On the big issues, then, I believe the BBC can await the Hutton inquiry with reasonable confidence. It was right to publish, right not to apologise, right to withstand storm by Campbell, and right to say nothing further to jeopardise its source.

But there will be criticism, nevertheless: and some of it will be justified.

Dr Kelly was not, as claimed, a senior and credible "intelligence" official. He was a boffin working for the Ministry of Defence. He had, indeed, been involved in the drafting of the September dossier - but only as the writer of a few paragraphs of history.

Good source

Was he directly privy to the 45-minute missile claim or to its late insertion into the report? It appears not, at least at this stage.

We have a human mess, not a malign or contrived mess
So whilst he was a very good source, he was not in vital respects a first-hand one.

Was that made quite clear on air? And, since such questions are there for the asking, did Andrew Gilligan's Mail on Sunday article, leaving the parcel of "sexing-up" at the single door marked "Campbell", have the virtue of simple, spare reportage?

Or, for that matter, protect the source as punctiliously as it should have?

We haven't seen Gilligan's second testimony before the select committee yet.

We can't begin proper textual analysis. But there may, as so often in journalistic and political life, be the muddle of humanity here.

An experienced and angry source who didn't quite realise what he was getting himself into. A reporter with an eye for hot story giving what he was told full weight (rather more vividly than Ms Watts).

'Human mess'

David Kelly, government weapons proliferation adviser
David Kelly: Not a 'naive scientist'
A government already infuriated by what it perceived as unfair BBC war coverage seeing this as the final straw - to "Campbell's" integrity. And a row spinning haplessly out of control.

We have a human mess, not a malign or contrived mess. We have a quagmire of good intentions. No villains or heroes. We also, in all probability, have reason to lower the decibel count.

The BBC and its governors were staunch under fire. They, and the Corporation's editors, got the major issues right.

But there's at least one nasty issue floating in behind. Is the BBC, the giant of reporting rectitude and balance we all pay for, right itself to hunger for more scoops and high profile controversies (the Gilligan role)?

And if it is, then how on earth does it keep the subsequent reporting of that controversy in balance - when the intrinsic issue is the health and survival of the corporation itself?

That's ultimately mission impossible; and perhaps not a mission to undertake too lightly or often, especially without non-dodgy documentation.

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