BBC digs in as 'mole hunt' for Today source hots up

By WalŽ Azeez

An MP on the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has said that the briefing by an intelligence contact to the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan was in breach of the Official Secrets Act.

The claim was made as the bitter battle between the Government and the corporation escalated this week into a mole hunt for the BBC sources.

Pressure on Today defence correspondent Gilligan to reveal his source intensified after the committee recommended that his contacts in the intelligence services be “thoroughly investigated”.

In the report into the decision to go to war, the committee said it accepted the need for the agencies on occasion to brief the press “within very strict guidelines, to correct inaccurate stories or speculation, but unauthorised contacts and the leaking of information and breaches of security which they entail should not be permitted”.

As well as saying Gilligan’s alleged contacts be investigated, the report recommends that the Government “reviews links between the security and intelligence agencies, the media and Parliament and the rules which apply to them”.

A Labour MP on the committee, Gisela Stuart, told Press Gazette: “There is a difference between intelligence officers briefing on the record and an off-the-record one such as that with Gilligan. We have to make it clear that there is a breach of the Official Secrets Act involved.” The Ministry of Defence then went on the offensive on Tuesday bid to glean details of Gilligan’s source for his report of 29 May. The MoD said an official admitted meeting him to discuss the Iraq dossier, but it did “not know whether this official is the single source quoted by Mr Gilligan”.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon wrote to BBC chairman Gavyn Davies offering to reveal the name of an MoD official who confessed to speaking to Gilligan on 22 May in return for confirmation this was the reporter’s source for the “sexing-up” story.

Davies declined the offer, accusing the MoD of attempting to force the BBC into revealing Gilligan’s source. In reply he said: “You will recognise that it is a cardinal principle of good journalism that sources should never be revealed, no matter how intense the pressure may be. As chairman of the BBC, I support this principle.

“In line with this principle, I do not myself know the identity of the source(s) mentioned above, so I am unable to accept your offer of confirming whether their name(s) match the person who has come forward at the Ministry of Defence.”

The BBC governors have decided to look at tightening up guidelines on staff journalists freelancing, after Gilligan wrote a piece on the dossier for The Mail on Sunday on 1 June, three days after his report on Today.

lRadio 4 Today programme editor Kevin Marsh said on Wednesday he was “terribly proud” of the way Greg Dyke had handled the attack by the Government and defended “the very simple journalistic proposition about the right to publish”. Marsh said the MoD’s statement about Gilligan’s alleged intelligence contact didn’t “stack up” and was “aimed at trying to compromise our source”.

Analysis, page 17

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