Hard News by Russell Brown

Listener up

The Listener has a new website this morning. I'm pleased and proud to be able to say that it has been constructed by CactusLab, the small but perfectly formed firm that built Public Address.

It's a nice, clean site with plenty of copy online - including my column
- and a 95bFM banner ad. Online editor is Mark Revington. Go and have a look.

TVNZ will finally announce Bill Ralston's new job as head of news and current affairs in a briefing to news staff at 2.15pm today. I'll comment on that tomorrow.

The rugby: well, we won. And for about 20 minutes, with Joe Rockocoko running in a hat-trick, the All Blacks looked like world-beaters. On the other hand, the second-string French forward pack dished out a drubbing in the scrums and lineouts, and the prospect of yet another distressing French comeback loomed for quite a while in the second half. In some ways, I'm less happy with this win than I was with the narrow win in the test against England.

Andre Watson controlled the game pretty well, with the exception of a handful of moments when he appeared to be refereeing a game being played in a parallel universe. He ruled a forward pass to disallow what would have been a decisive fourth try to the All Blacks. The reply showed the pass travelled a good metre or two behind the advantage line. It wasn't even near forward.

Then, minutes later, Watson whistled up a penalty in front of the All Black posts, alleging that Steve Devine had punched one of the French players. No such thing was evident in the replay. The French slotted the penalty, adding insult to the injury of the disallowed try at the other end of the field.

Rugby is a very difficult game to referee - its most important laws are basically open to interpretation. Offences are committed almost constantly. But it's still hard to understand how professional referees can whistle up infringements they plainly cannot have seen, because they didn't actually take place.

Anyway, the war between Downing Street and the BBC is getting more intense by the day. Tony Blair's spin maestro, Alastair Campbell, who was accused in a BBC report of "sexing up" the first Iraq weapons dossier. The second "dodgy dossier" has already been acknowledged by Downing Street to have been plagiarised rubbish - but not before Blair described it in Parliament as "factually accurate" and containing "fresh intelligence", and Colin Powell commended its "exquisite detail" to the United Nations Security Council.

Campbell is committing the fundamental offence for a spin doctor of actually becoming the story, and there is already a move from within Labour ranks to get rid of him and damn his special relationship with the Prime Minister. On Friday night, he turned up unannounced at Channel 4, just as the evening news was beginning, and demanded to be interviewed immediately (after refusing an interview request earlier in the day. Jon Snow did a remarkably good job of conducting the impromptu interview.

Campbell, it must be said, is acting very strangely. In testifying before a select committee this week, he repeatedly pricked his hand with a pin to prevent himself losing his temper, leaving his papers covered in blood spots.

Meanwhile, the BBC is resisting what is clearly an attempt at intimidation, and Andrew Gilligan, the reporter at the centre of the crisis, is threatening to sue the Labour Leader of the House unless he receives an apology for allegations that he lied to a select committee.

The British Foreign Affairs select committee is poised to accept Campbell's contention that he was not responsible, as the BBC claimed for "sexing up" the first Iraq dossier - but only after Campbell and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had said quite different things about when and how the "45 minutes" claim was inserted into the document, and Campbell was passed a panicky note from Downing Street while he was actually giving his evidence. It was not a very convincing look.

Nonetheless, most of Britain's newspapers - even the pro-war, anti-BBC Daily Mail - are siding with the BBC journalists on this one. The Sunday Times' lead editorial said this:

It is unlikely, as the BBC’s anonymous source alleged, that Mr Campbell inserted the now infamous claim that Saddam could activate his deadly weapons within 45 minutes. It is highly likely he exercised a degree of editorial control. Mr Blair certainly did when presenting the dossier to parliament. The prime minister left no room for doubt that Saddam’s weapons programme was “active, detailed and growing.” Anybody who disagreed was flying in the face of the evidence and the integrity of our security services.

In the Observer, Peter Beaumont said:

While Andrew Gilligan did get it wrong in the detail of his initial allegation that the Government had 'sexed up' its first dossier on Iraq's alleged retention of weapons of mass destruction in September to claim Iraq could launch those weapons in '45 minutes', the problem for Campbell is that a journalist who has followed this story knows that Gilligan still got it right.

He did so because he reported what was widely being briefed to journalists - including myself - by MI6 officers and the Foreign Office that Number 10 (Campbell in particular) had gone out of its way to overstate the threat posed by Iraq to make the case for war.

Meanwhile, The Independent has spoken to a high-ranking US official who, on behalf of the CIA, investigated claims that Iraq was seeking uranium to restart its nuclear programme - and believes his conclusion that the evidence was fraudulent (as we now know it to be) was deliberately ignored by both the US and British governments, who continued to use it in statements aimed at illustrating the danger posed by Iraq.

Look, I am actually surprised that no real evidence of banned weapons development has been discovered in Iraq. I never thought the more extravagant claims (especially the "45 minutes" nonsense) were true, but I expected there would be something. After all, a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, have some form of chemical weapons programme in place.

But what I object to very strongly is being lied to. It is beyond any doubt that both governments manipulated the evidence they gave to the public, made too much of information from self-interested actors (especially the demonstrably crooked Ahmed Chalabi) and, in a number of cases, said things they had been strongly and repeatedly advised were untrue. They lied and they knew it. Anyone who does not find cause for concern in that is well on the road to serfdom.