Thursday, January 29, 2004

Some criticisms of the Report

A few points I jotted on in the dark watches of the Night after the Whitewash...for a start, Lord Hutton argues that the 0607 broadcast was "unfounded" on the grounds that Andrew Gilligan could not know that the government had included the 45 minutes claim knowing it to be false. Now, the content of this deserves close examination. The claim that Iraq was capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes' notice - that Iraqi nuclear, biological or chemical forces were on 45 minutes' readiness - is demonstrably false. Even if a bomb was finally discovered, we now know that it would not have been ready for use at short tactical notice - none of the operational preparations, infrastructure or people have been found. The claim is false. Enough already! This was, if not as obvious as now, still pretty clear when the report went out in the small hours. Gilligan has so far been vindicated by the final test of reality.

What about the question of intent? The only way either Gilligan or anyone else can know if the government knew this statement was false at the time is if one of those involved was to tell us, or if documentation to that effect was to be discovered. So far, so Hutton. But it is also true that we, and Mr. Gilligan, could certainly know who might have a motive to issue a dodgy dossier, and what the motive might be. We could also know the context, and what the consequences might have been. There were certainly grounds to suspect the government of intent. That would not have been enough, though. To make any statement that was not heavily qualified, some corroboration was needed. And Gilligan had a source who could provide just that. What passed between the two men in the Charing Cross Hotel is between Gilligan and his God, and even Lord Hutton accepted that he could not determine the content of their conversation. But despite having declared his ignorance, Lord Hutton stated that he was satisfied that Dr. Kelly did not corroborate Gilligan's suspicions. How does he presume to judge a conversation of whose content he is ignorant? It would appear that, in the absence of evidence as to the interview with Dr. Kelly, my lord has presumed that the account the most favourable to the government is true - or in other words, that as there is no evidence proving Mr. Gilligan's innocence he must be guilty!

Further, his lordship seems to draw a double standard between the agents of the State and the BBC. Mr. Gilligan's report is unfounded and therefore dishonest because its author could not provide absolute proof of its validity. But the government's use of the 45-minutes claim is entirely proper, hurrah hurrah and Rule Britannia, because the State in the person of John Scarlett believed it to be true. I think Andrew Gilligan believed his report to be true. The State may base its allegations merely on the belief that an uncorroborated statement is true - but for a journalist to do likewise is evil and dishonest! Lord Hutton seems to believe that it is utterly unacceptable to print or broadcast anything of which one is not utterly certain - but this would rule out practically all investigative reporting. He clearly does not understand journalism, and seems not to have fully internalised the realities of the news media. Andrew Gilligan, Kevin Marsh, and Richard Sambrook did not have eight leisurely months to ruminate over the nicest nuances of proof - they had to get out the news. Journalism, especially broadcast journalism, is an operational process subject to the constant pressure of time and determined by its technology. Sometimes the imperatives of publication and the critical function of the media in an open society mean (to take a perfect example) that mistakes are made. In this case they should be corrected as soon as possible. The BBC did in fact correct the wording of the report made at 0607 on the fateful day, which was not in fact a report but a discussion (a two-way). Perhaps they ought to have issued an official, explicit mea culpa. But I don't believe that this would have prevented the affair. The Government was gagging to bash a reporter and I suspect the point of no return had already been passed.

The seminal distinction of facts and comment is at the heart of this case; I suppose the suspicion of falsehood was comment, and should have been flagged as such, but what if the reporter in question believed it to be factual? The distinction of language would have been only noticed by the trade anyway.

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