Entries from August 2003

Scandalous

David Frum August 11th, 2003 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Everybody
seems to agree that the suicide of Dr. David Kelly, the British defense
analyst, is a prelude to a scandal — but nobody can quite seem to decide whose
scandal it is. The Blair government’s? The BBC’s? That of Kelly himself?

For
an American audience, the scandal is especially hard to understand, because it
originated in a British media culture that is unlike anything that exists on
this continent. There’s no American equivalent of the BBC, which created the
scandal. The BBC is like CBS, CNN, NPR, Comedy Central, Time magazine,
and every local market’s top news station all rolled into one gigantic
bureaucracy, paid for out of taxes and tilting to the far left.

The
scandal was then sustained by the Daily Mail newspaper. There’s no
equivalent of it either — a right-leaning national tabloid famous for its
hatred of the Blair government, its accusatory style, and its very British
assumption that every grief or woe that occurs anywhere in the British Isles is
the national government’s fault and responsibility.

That’s
the background. Now the foreground:

Last
September, the Blair government released a dossier that argued that Iraq
possessed weapons of mass destruction already and was vigorously seeking to
obtain more.

On
May 29 of this year, BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan reported on the Today
program — a morning radio broadcast that is one of the most important
public-affairs shows in Britain — that a British intelligence official
"involved in the preparation of the dossier" was accusing Prime
Minister Tony Blair’s chief communications aide, Alistair Campbell, of
"sexing up" the dossier. Campbell promptly denounced the report as a
lie — and launched an internal investigation of the charge.

As
the investigation proceeded, suspicion alighted on Dr. Kelly. Kelly was an
occasional adviser to the British Ministry of Defense and a former U.N. arms
inspector in Iraq.

This
discovery was very damaging to the BBC’s case, for three reasons: 1) Kelly was
not a British intelligence official, as the broadcaster had suggested; 2)
Kelly’s involvement in the preparation of the dossier had been only very
glancing — he was in no position to know what Campbell had done or not done;
3) while Kelly was an expert on biological weapons, he was in no position to
know Iraq’s overall military capabilities. Moreover, in private conversations
with the government, Kelly insisted that he had never impugned Campbell’s
handling of the dossier. So Campbell took his case public.

The
Blair government released a new document detailing Kelly’s refutation of the
Gilligan report. On background, government briefers provided details that soon
identified Kelly to the media. Kelly was hauled before a House of Commons
committee. There he denied that he had ever questioned the accuracy of the
dossier: "I had no doubt that the veracity of it was absolute."

At
the same time, though, Kelly revealed some uncomfortable truths about himself.
He acknowledged that he had spoken to Gilligan and probably other BBC
reporters. Most observers of his testimony became convinced that Kelly had
indeed criticized the dossier to the press, without knowing what he was talking
about. This revelation must have been deeply humiliating to a man who by all
accounts prided himself on his professionalism. Two days after he concluded his
testimony, Kelly killed himself.

The
BBC then confirmed that Kelly was the sole source of Gilligan’s story — and
Kelly’s family and the Daily Mail accused the government of hounding Kelly to
death: "Proud of Yourselves?" asked the Daily Mail’s headline
over photographs of Prime Minister Blair and defense secretary Geoffrey Hoon.

But
what exactly is it that the Blair government is supposed to have done wrong
here? Dr. Kelly’s family and antiwar newspapers like the Guardian are insisting
that the Blair government somehow betrayed Kelly by failing to protect his
privacy and by "bullying" him before a House of Commons committee.
Even by the standards of Britain’s culture of entitlement, this is some
stretch.

Dr.
Kelly believed that the Blair government falsified the case for war. Instead of
forthrightly declaring his beliefs to the public, he whispered them anonymously
to a reporter. Then, when the reporter "sexed up" (to borrow a
phrase) the anonymous allegations by presenting Dr. Kelly as a much more
important person than he really was, Kelly kept quiet. His silence was a form
of complicity in Gilligan’s untrue story — and in all the damage that the
story did to the credibility of the Blair government and public confidence in
the Iraq war.

Now
the same antiwar British media that (wrongly) attacked the Blair government for
broadcasting untruths is savagely attacking it for catching the media in an
untruth. The media that falsely presented themselves as the champions of truth
are now the champions of the right to lie anonymously.

The
Blair government had no obligation to protect the confidentiality of anybody
involved in the Kelly/Gilligan story. As a consultant to the Ministry of
Defense, it was Dr. Kelly who owed a duty of secrecy to the government, not the
other way around.

If
Dr. Kelly’s own mental state was too fragile to bear the glare of publicity
triggered by the pseudo-scandal he himself set in motion, that is very sad. But
journalists who hurl the most appalling abuse at officials of the government
are not well placed to act pious when that abuse redounds upon their sources.
How can it be acceptable journalistic practice to call a prime minister a liar
– and then call him a bully when he seeks to prove that he is not? How can it
be acceptable to charge a government with falsifying the case for war — and
then to wax indignant when the actual falsifers are exposed?

If
there’s a scandal here, it is not Blair’s. If there is blood on anybody’s
hands, it is on those of the BBC — and its abettors elsewhere.