When BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan sat down at a London hotel with a senior intelligence contact earlier in the spring, he would have had little idea that their conversation would have such far-reaching implications – not just for the Government, but for himself, the organisation that he works for and journalists everywhere.
The source told him that intelligence personnel were unhappy about the way a dossier purporting to demonstrate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities had been put together. In particular, the source said, there was unhappiness about Alastair Campbell’s input to the dossier that was finally published.
By the time the meeting finished, Gilligan would have known he was on to a huge story. But he still would not have expected to find himself so squarely in the middle of it just a few weeks later.
His subsequent report not only coined a phrase that has already passed into the journalism vernacular -“sexing up” – but lit a fuse that still burns. It’s yet to become clear who it will explode under. The smart money thinks it’ll be Campbell. It might even be the entire Blair Government. Or it might be the BBC.
If it’s the latter, then we’re all in trouble. If the country’s largest employer of journalists is found wanting, it’s a big blow to our collective credibility. With so many acres of newsprint devoted to this story, and so many hours of broadcast programming discussing it, journalism itself is being dissected. From Gilligan’s defence of his source, through Campbell’s storming of the Channel 4 News studios on Friday to John Humphrys’ interview with minister Ben Bradshaw (himself a former journalist), the newsmaking process has become a public show.
Campbell has made doubly sure of that by his vigorous attempt to turn the spotlight back on the BBC’s storygathering techniques. His open letter to BBC director of news Richard Sambrook asked searching questions of its methods and its motives.
Fortunately, the irony of Campbell lecturing the BBC on the use of nameless senior sources has not been lost. This, after all, is the man who has raised the unattributable word-in-the-ear briefing to an art form worthy of the Renaissance masters.
Just as fortunate is the fact that the BBC has Sambrook leading its defence. His nine-page rebuttal of the points in Campbell’s letter was a carefully considered, steely response.
In the face of such an over-the-top attack, it’s in all our interests that his steadfast resolve can remain intact.