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?
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.
'Time to lower the decibel count amid a human mess'
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
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?
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
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
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.
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
So whilst he was a very good source, he was not in vital respects a first-hand one.
We have a human mess, not a malign or contrived mess
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
We can't begin proper textual analysis. But there may, as so often in
journalistic and political life, be the muddle of humanity here.
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).
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.
David Kelly: Not a 'naive scientist'
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.