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BBC said no to truce on dossier row
Offer made before Kelly was named
Matt Wells, Michael White and Richard Norton-Taylor
Monday July 21, 2003
BBC bosses blocked a compromise which might have prevented the suicide of David Kelly, the weapons expert confirmed by the corporation yesterday as its source for the story of the "sexed-up' dossier.
The Guardian can reveal that the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director general, Greg Dyke, were made an offer in the days before Dr Kelly was identified, but turned it down because they were determined to give no ground in their battle with Alastair Campbell, director of communications at No 10.
Last night Andrew Gilligan, the journalist at the centre of the controversy, claimed that he had not misquoted Dr Kelly, a clear implication that the 59-year-old weapons specialist had not given the full story about their conversations to the foreign affairs select committee.
Dr Kelly, who admitted talking to Gilligan, was found dead near his Oxfordshire home on Friday morning after apparently taking painkillers and cutting his wrist the previous afternoon. Friends suggested yesterday that he was concerned that he would be prevented from returning to Iraq to hunt for evidence of chemical and biological weapons.
The BBC's admission of his role triggered a partisan scalp-hunt that was almost as ferocious as the demands for Tony Blair, Mr Campbell and the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, to step down for their part in his "outing". Labour's Gerald Kaufman led the pack, accusing the BBC of "tabloid" journalism and urging a review of the corporation's status. Dr Kelly's Tory MP, Robert Jackson, blamed the BBC for his death.
The news that the BBC had turned down a possible compromise will only add to the pressure on the corporation. Challenged about the deal on the day before Dr Kelly's name appeared in the press, Mr Dyke said: "It was last week." He refused to comment further.
A senior BBC executive said on the same day: "Greg and Gavyn were told that if they wanted to have a conversation about it, there were people in No 10 who would be ready to have a conversation about it."
Mr Dyke and Mr Davies decided not to the pursue the opportunity because the strategy, at the time, was one of all-out defence against the onslaught from Mr Campbell.
Informed sources said that Mr Davies and Mr Dyke - both past Labour donors - had felt the need to prove their independence. "Greg had a rush of blood to the head and sexed up Richard Sambrook's letters," a senior MP said.
Later Mr Davies blocked Mr Dyke seeking to seize peace feelers. "If it emerged he'd found some accommodation with the government it would have destroyed his credibility within the organisation. He'd have been dismissed as a Labour patsy," the MP said.
However, there are signs that BBC executives feel the pugnacious strategy was ill-judged, with hindsight at least.
One well-placed source said last night: "The question that is being looked at very seriously is whether it was right to mount an all-out defence, or whether it required more moderation: an admission perhaps that there were some aspects of the story that we cannot be entirely sure about."
Mr Blair visibly relaxed when he was tipped off in Seoul that the BBC was about to give ground, appealing for "a period of reflection" while Lord Hutton's inquiry into the tragedy takes evidence. No one in government is expected to quit at this stage - if at all.
In a significant show of support, the chancellor, Gordon Brown, whose allies have been calling for him to take over the premiership, let it be known that he is backing Mr Blair's call for a "period of restraint, reflection and respect".
In a speech in New York today he will conspicuously support the Blair line on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons arsenal.
Mr Blair rejected Iain Duncan Smith's demand for a recall of parliament, saying it would "generate more heat than light" when Dr Kelly's family should be left to grieve.
The New York Times reported that Dr Kelly had told of "many dark actors playing games", in an email to one of its writers hours before his suicide. It said he appeared to be referring to defence and intelligence officials with whom he had sparred over interpretations of weapons reports.
But there was renewed speculation at Westminster that he may not have been wholly frank with the foreign affairs committee about his dealings with Gilligan, and that this triggered anxiety in a morally scrupulous man.