Hard News by Russell Brown

Standards of proof

Apparently, you need a higher standard of proof to make a radio broadcast than to take a nation to war. I'm not being flippant. That is the clear implication of the findings of the Hutton Inquiry.

We now know that the controversial "45 minutes" claim at the centre of the affair was plucked from a stack of single-sourced raw intelligence provided to MI6 by an Iraqi exile group which has since disowned it: "We were passing it on in good faith. It was for the intelligence services to verify it."

The claim arrived towards the end of the preparation of the Blair government's first Iraqi weapons dossier and was swiftly added to the dossier's final draft. It wasn't verified. It couldn't be verified.

It wasn't intelligence, it was a soundbite, from a source whose credibility could not be assessed. It ran counter to more robust intelligence. It proved to be farcically inaccurate. A journalist who had written a story based on that claim as a tip would have been the laughing stock of his colleagues. And yet it was considered fit to print in the most serious context imaginable.

Lord Hutton would presumably argue that an examination of the British government's presentation of the case for war was beyond his remit. This might be more sustainable if the law lord had not mused in his decision, as BBC chairman Gavyn Davies noted, about restricting the ability of British journalists to use unverifiable sources.

Investigative journalism, especially where it involves scrutiny of official actions, is frequently about the use of sources, about making decisions on their reliability and about occasionally getting it wrong.

By a journalistic measure, the BBC's defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan, had a vastly better source than the Joint Intelligence Committee did, and a more robust story. We now know that the JIC was coached by Alastair Campbell, that the dossier was sent back for its language to be toughened up, and that the "45 minutes" claim was added late in the piece (Hutton found it had been added late solely because it arrived late, rather than as an effort to beef up the case for war).

We know at least some defence and intelligence officials were unhappy with the claims made in the dossier. Kelly - a weapons expert, after all - clearly was, and two other officials said in evidence to the inquiry that they were too. Other journalists turned up much the same story from other sources. This March 9, 2003, story from The Observer is one example:

The intelligence professionals feel that they stand somewhat above the vagaries of politics,' said one close observer familiar with their work.

'But what has happened is that they have come into conflict with the politicians over Iraq. They feel that their long history is in danger of being undermined by the uses made of the intelligence product by Number 10, and that the way information has been spun has corroded the public's belief in what they do.'

This tension has been visible beneath the surface for months, as intelligence officials have briefed against the more outrageous claims made by the Government.

The tensions between the intelligence services and the Downing Street spin operation date back to last summer, when the first so-called secret dossier on Iraq, detailing Saddam's armoury of weapons of mass destruction, was being finalised in the autumn.

The team working on it - led by Tony Blair's director of communications Alastair Campbell, head of homeland security David Omand, Downing Street foreign policy adviser Sir David Manning, and representatives of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - began by deciding what messages derived from intelligence material should be put across, and then attempting to find publicly available information backing them up.

The September dossier went through two or three final drafts, with Campbell writing it off each time, and had already resulted in fairly serious rows between Campbell, Omand and Stephen Lander, then head of M15.

The essence of the disagreement is said to have been that intelligence material should be presented 'straight', rather than spiced up to make a political argument.

That this should have blown up into such a damaging and spiteful row between the BBC and the government, when very similar reports came and went, is a testament to the particularly sensitive nature of the relationship between Downing Street and the Beeb.

Gilligan, in an off-the-cuff broadcast at 6.07am one morning last May, used language he could not ultimately justify, most notably his claim that the government knew the "45 minutes" claim to be false (whether they ought to have known is another matter). He lost his original notes and over-egged his story. His bosses, with hindsight, picked the wrong issue on which to stand up to Campbell. But of the fact that Gilligan had a story, there is no doubt.

The Guardian traversed the issue in a masterly morning-after editorial that you really ought to read:

There is a certain sort of judge - thankfully rarer these days than in the past - who pays lip service to the principles of a free press without displaying much understanding of, or sympathy for, the circumstances in which much journalism is produced. Modern developments in the law of defamation take some account of the right to be wrong. In other words, judges are required to consider the chilling effect on free speech if every journalistic slip is punished as the gravest of civil offences. Courts now take into consideration whether the story was in the public interest, the nature of the source, the lengths to which the story was checked and so on.

Judged by these criteria, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan got more right than he got wrong in the 19 radio broadcasts concerning the government's dossier on weapons of mass destruction in which he was involved last May 29. This was a subject of the clearest possible public interest …

This was a legitimate, important story that no news organisation would, or should, have ignored. But it is also apparent that, in telling the story repeatedly - both on air and in print - Mr Gilligan made errors. He was at times sloppy in his use of language and made serious accusations that were simply mistaken. The BBC should have been much quicker to identify those errors, to correct them and to apologise.

The Daily Telegraph's legal editor Joshua Rozenberg - a former BBC radio journalist - offered sympathy, along with a harsher verdict on Gilligan, in a thoughtful opinion piece.

It appears now that the BBC's unreserved apology and the resignation of its chairman and director general may be a sufficient price. Blair probably doesn't want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who nobbled the BBC (with Greg Dyke's resignation he has already taken down a major Labour Party donor).

Hutton in every possible instance has given the government the benefit of the doubt. He has made statements (notably in his view that the MoD's guessing-game for journalists was not a strategy to out Kelly) that seem positively naïve. But would Blair and Campbell, with hindsight, have picked this particular fight? No. No way in the world.

Back home, and when Don Brash's Treaty speech was delivered, I found myself wondering what Wira Gardiner thought about it. Gardiner was in 1995 the chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri, which meant he was charged with overseeing a series of hui on the national government's ill-fated fiscal envelope proposal. Even though he had reservations about the policy, he did his duty through a difficult year that is recorded in his book Return to Sender.

He is a past Director of Civil Defence and of the Waitangi Tribunal. He is both a prominent New Zealander, and a prominent member of the National Party, of which he is a past Maori vice president. National's new policy was devised, and Brash's speech delivered, without Gardiner ever even being spoken to. As calculated insults go, it’s hard to imagine anything nastier.

Then, when Georgina Te Heuheu - whose family has delivered more service to the National Party than Don Brash ever has - dared to voice misgivings about the new policy, she was swiftly slapped down by Brash, who raised the prospect of removing all her portfolios. It appears that the new National Party has decided that if it's not to get any Maori votes it doesn't want any Maori members - except perhaps compliant carpetbaggers like Tau Henare, already onto his third (or fourth?) political party and plainly itching to save National the embarrassment of installing a Pakeha Maori Affairs spokesperson.

I did get an email from someone insisting that Brash's speech was a good thing in that it fostered a necessary debate. Debate is one thing - creepy year zero revisionism that appears to have been devised more in the back rooms of the Act Party than within the National Party itself is quite another.

There was also news about the culture this week: and it was interesting to watch. One News (ignoring for the moment that weird late-evening business) become tougher and more journalistic under Ralston. That's a good thing. But it's TV3's news that now does a better job of speaking to the heart of the nation.

When the Oscar nominees were announced this week, John Campbell ventured out to interview the lovely Ngila Dickson and Carol Hirschfeld spoke to Keisha Castle-Hughes (you half suspect that One's newsreaders would spontaneously combust if they got caught in direct sunlight). The interviews were warm, natural and authentic. When I switched over to see a promo featuring Paul Holmes standing next to a giant Oscar statuette in Castle-Hughes' garden, I decided I didn't really need that.

The story was the same with John Campbell's excellent interview with Janet Frame's biographer Michael King on the occasion of the great writer's death yesterday. You only need consider that for more than half of its history modern New Zealand functionally didn't have a culture, to know that it's as well now that there are people equipped to tell us about the one we do have.