Tony Blair on Andrew Gilligan, Dr Kelly and WMDs - Press Gazette

Tony Blair on Andrew Gilligan, Dr Kelly and WMDs

Tony Blair blames former Radio 4 Today journalist Andrew Gilligan for dealing a permanent blow to his integrity with his infamous report about the 'sexing-up' of the dossier making the case for war with Iraq.

In his memoirs published today, former Prime Minister Blair talks in detail about the BBC's reporting of the '45-minute' claim on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the creation of the September 2002 dossier.

He admits that the intelligence on WMD was wrong, and that this was a 'real story'. But he denies Gilligan's implication of deceit which turned a 'difficult situation' into one which 'remains an ugly one' and 'set the pattern for interaction between ourselves and the media in the years that followed'.

Blair quotes at length from one of Gilligan's Radio 4 Today Programme reports of 29 May, 2003.

In it Gilligan said: 'What we've been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier was that actually the government probably knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong even before it decided to put it to Downing Street, our source says, a week before publication ordered it to be sexed up, to be made more exciting and ordered more facts to be discovered."

Blair writes: 'There could hardly have been a more inflammatory or severe charge. Mistaken intelligence is one thing. Intelligence know to be mistaken but nonetheless still published as accurate is a wholly different matter. That is not a mistake but misconduct.'

Blair says that as a result of the story 'the division over the war became not a disagreement but a rather vicious dispute about the honesty of those involved. A difficult situation became and remains an ugly one'.

Blair says: 'The intelligence was wrong. We admitted it. We apologised for it. We explained it, even. But it was never enough, in today's media, for there to have been a mistake.

'The mistake is serious; but it is an error. Humans make errors. And, given Saddam's history, it was an understandable error. But it leads to a headline that doesn't satisfy today's craving for scandal.

'A mistake doesn't hit the register high enough. So the search goes on for a lie, a deception, an act not of error but of malfeasance. And the problem is, if one can't be found, one is contrived or even invented.'

Blair says that the 45-minute claim was put in the dossier by the Joint Intelligence Committee.

He adds that Gilligan made the situation worse by claiming in a Mail on Sunday story that Alastair Campbell was the author of the 45-minute claim.

The death of Dr David Kelly

Blair says: 'It was never clear if Dr Kelly, who though he admitted talking to Gilligan denied making the allegation, really did brief him in terms that justify the story.

'But what followed set the pattern for the interaction between ourselves and the media in the years that followed. Relations between myself and the BBC never really recovered; and parts of the media were pretty off limits after it.'

Blair says that the public naming of government advisor Dr David Kelly as Gilligan's source was 'the subject of brutal media allegations, particularly against Alastair'.

'It was suggested that he had leaked the name in breach of instructions from the Ministry of Defence. He hadn't. It was simply that once we knew it was Dr Kelly, and since the Foreign Affairs Committee was engaged in investigating the 45-minutes claim and broadcast, we would have been at risk of a charge of concealment from them had we known the source of the leak and refused to say.'

Blair said the 'whole thing was handled by Dr Kelly's line management'leading to the release of Kelly's name on 10 July.

Noting that the BBC then refused to say whether Kelly was their source, Blair writes: 'It was all very well for them to hold to the traditional journalistic practice of not revealing their source, but this was patently an exceptional case. Here was someone being described as the source. They could confirm or deny his involvement.'

Blair describes being woken in the middle of the night after addressing Congress in the United States 17 July to be told the news that Dr Kelly had apparently taken his own life.

'Of course in the rational world, it would be a personal tragedy. It would be explained by the pressure on him. It would be treated as an isolated event. I knew there was not the slightest chance of that happening in our media climate.

'It would be treated as a Watergate-style killing. It would provoke every manner of conspiracy theory. It would give permission for any and every fabrication of context, background and narrative. The media would declare it was a scandal. They were absolutely capable of ensuring there was one.'

Talking in general about the reporting of the Dr Kelly affair and the subsequent Hutton Report, Blair says: 'The Gilligan broadcast led the news because it alleged misconduct, a lie, in effect. He thought he had a source, but an allegation that serious should at least, you would have thought, be put to the people against whom it was made.

'We were never even contacted before it was broadcast. In any event, a mere mistake was never going to lead the news.

'Now, in actual fact, it should do. The intelligence was wrong and we should have, and I have, apologised for it. So the real story is a story and a true one. But in today's environment, it doesn't have that sensational, outrage-producing 'wow' factor of scandal. Hence the error is made into a deception.

'And is this relationship between politics and media which then defines the political debate.'