Andrew Gilligan cut a particularly solitary ?gure up there on the witness stand in Room 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday.
Although there were more BBC journalists in the building than you could shake a big story at to witness his turn on the podium at the Hutton Inquiry, the Radio 4 Today programme’s defence and diplomatic correspondent could not have felt more alone.
All this in the week Britain recorded its hottest temperatures on record, seemingly very apt as an indicator of the intense heat this most recent clash between the Government and the BBC has generated, with Gilligan as ?rebrand.
With most of his peers watching the proceedings via four television screens in the adjacent ‘overspill’ courtroom, the proceedings took on a certain surrealism with the juxtaposition of hi-tech and high tradition – even the ushers wore gowns – and a remoteness Gilligan must have felt not for the ?rst time.
Straining to see barely visible exhibit documents and the real-time transcript added to the bizarreness of the gathering, and the stenographers’ occasional lapses into gobbledygook took it to previously unimagined levels. In that language, it turns out “John Humphrys” translates as “Hum Fridays.”
Meanwhile, the gathering together of journalists to witness the trial of one of their own provided its own peculiar meta-narrative.
Watching other journalists observing the proceedings on TV screens – the only ones anywhere in the world that will be allowed to show them – gave the affair an air of a science class watching an experiment, namely the dissection of a creature that, but for the grace of Lord Reith, could easily have been any one of them.
But, knowing the mixed feelings that Gilligan elicits from his BBC colleagues, one could not ignore a palpable sense of, “We come to praise Gilligan, not to bury him… but we’ve brought a shovel just in case”.
And the gravity of Gilligan’s predicament wasn’t so great as to get in the way of everyday BBC internal rivalries, as one journalist whinged about “how the Newsnight lot manage to just walk in, while we’re stuck at the back of the queue.”
On centre stage for nearly ?ve hours, any feelings of being backed to the hilt by his employers must have faded away – at precisely the moment that BBC politics reared its ugly head in public. In a truly shocking revelation of Machiavellian execution, Lord Hutton’s senior counsel, James Dingemans QC, made public how Gilligan’s status of conquering hero – conferred by Today editor Kevin Marsh the day after the reporter’s “sexed-up dossier” reports were broadcast – was cruelly snatched away a month later.
In an e-mail sent to Gilligan on May 30, Marsh heaped praise upon the reporter for his dossier item: “Statement of the obvious, I guess, but it’s really good to have you back here in the UK. Great week, great stories, well handled and well told.
Course it’s meant Today has had a great week too, and that has lifted everyone.”
However, as the BBC began to feel the pressure from all quarters of government, Marsh wrote another email to his own boss – BBC head of radio Stephen Mitchell – on 27 June, accusing Gilligan of a “lack of judgement” in his dossier report. In that e-mail, the item became “a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by ?awed reporting”.
It went on: “Our biggest millstone has been his loose use of language and lack of judgement in some of his phraseology. It was marred also by the quantity of writing for other outlets that varied what was said or was loose with the terms of the story.
That it is in many ways a result of the loose and in some ways distant relationship he has been allowed to have with Today.”
Marsh went on to propose ways of reining Gilligan in, ranging from getting him to come in to ?le more from BBC Television Centre, where an eye could be kept on him, to a possible ban on writing “for non-BBC outlets”.
The BBC governors had also expressed their doubts about Gilligan’s reports in their extraordinary meeting called on 6 July, concluding that “careful language had not been applied by Andrew Gilligan throughout”.
Gilligan said he had not been aware of his boss’s doubts and consequent change of attitude and, understandably, thought it an unfair assessment.BUT BY THE time the BBC PR machine kicked in after the lunchtime recess – handing out printouts of Marsh’s ?rst e-mail to queuing journalists to ‘accentuate the positive’ – the damage had already been done.
One couldn’t help wondering, if this doubt was being expressed at the highest echelons of the corporation in private, while projecting a united front in public, could this now turn out to be something of an Achilles’ heel in the inquiry? Plus, is it really that easy to be lauded by your boss for a great story one day and then to be blasted for ?awed reporting on the same work the next? Palpably under pressure by now, Gilligan remained consistent in his assertion that Dr David Kelly had brought up the name of Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, in their conversation about the September dossier at the Charing Cross Hotel.
Kelly insisted Campbell was responsible for transforming it “a week before publication, to make it sexier,” and in particular inserted the “45-minute claim” about Iraq’s weapons. However, Gilligan was forced to concede on a number of issues regarding his reporting.
First, he admitted to “unwittingly” giving the wrong impression in his ?rst dossier report on Today at 6.07am on 29 May, in a live, unscripted, twoway broadcast from his home, by suggesting the Government inserted the 45-minute claim into the dossier despite knowing it to be wrong even before it was included. By Gilligan’s own admission, his ?rst report was “not wrong but not perfect”. “Would you agree with the governors’ provisional analysis that ‘careful language had not been applied by Andrew Gilligan throughout'”?” asked Dingemans.
Gilligan replied: “I think in hindsight, as I say, particularly that 6.07, quite unwittingly and unintentionally but I did give people the wrong impression about whether this was real intelligence or whether it was made up or not; and I never intended to give anyone the impression that it was not real intelligence or that it had been fabricated, but I think I must have done. And so, in that sense, I agree to that, I think.”
The language in a further, scripted report at 7.40am was more considered, describing the Government as knowing the 45-minute claim was merely “questionable”.
Secondly, it emerged that the BBC did not approve Gilligan’s Mail On Sunday article of 3 June, in which he mentioned Campbell by name in relation to altering the dossier for the ?rst time.
That said, even if the piece had been vetted, would there necessarily have been grounds for not believing Gilligan or for not allowing “the C word” into the copy, especially as The Guardian had already previously associated the Prime Minister’s chief spokesman with the dossier? In any case, the early appearance of Newsnight science editor Susan Watts on the witness stand seemed to answer a timely rescue call, when she corroborated Gilligan’s evidence that Dr Kelly had indeed ?ngered Campbell as being responsible for inserting the 45-minute claim.
But Watt’s interpretation of Kelly’s disclosure led her to a wildly different conclusion than Gilligan – she decided not to report it. A classic case of one journalist’s scoop being another’s “gossipy aside”. Wasn’t it ever thus?