The problem with the judgement in the BBC/Gilligan/Campbell/Hoon case is that the judge, Lord Hutton, has taken a forensic approach to the obvious and come up with a decision that belies common sense. He has applied far too tough a standard to the reporting of government action: aligning criticismof government that he believes unfair with libellous action (‘impugning the integrity of others’). There is no doubt that the Governments of Australia, the UK and the USA ‘sexed up’ the case for attacking Iraq by alarmist references to WMD that, even at the time, looked doubtful to many ordinary citizens (i.e. not to the ‘intelligence community’)because months of professional investigation by the UN weapons inspectorate had turned up not even a credible trail of WMD. Lord Hutton would have us believe that Gillgan’s report, although professionally sloppy because imprecise and made without editorial oversight, was somehow represensible. How can this be if, based on something a credible source told him (Lord Hutton makes no positive finding on what Kelly told Gilligan), Gilligan said that the Government was doing what it obviously did? bq. The term “sexed-up” is a slang expression, the meaning of which lacks clarity in the context of the discussion of the dossier. bq. It is capable of two different meanings. It could mean that the dossier was embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger, or it could mean that whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted. bq. If the term is used in this latter sense, then because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government “sexed-up” the dossier. However in the context of the broadcasts in which the “sexing-up” allegation was reported and having regard to the other allegations reported in those broadcasts, I consider that the allegation was unfounded as it would have been understood by those who heard the broadcasts to mean that the dossier had been embellished with intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable, which was not the case. (“Hutton report”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk/2003/david_kelly_inquiry/report_summary/default.stm) The logic of that final sentence is based on an almighty assumption about public apprehension (something on which judges are notoriously weak) and on a conclusion that the judge draws elsewhere from a forensic examination of the government’s statements that ignores their function as advocacy for its policies. This is not a solid foundation for denying Gilligan the benefit of doubt about which of the two suggested meanings of the term ‘sexed up’ should be adopted. Gilligan’s reporting was accurate in substance: every effort was being made by the UK bureaucracy to provide Blair, at his urging, with a report that made their case seem more credible than it was and more credible than it is now or ever will be. bq. … the right to communicate such information is subject to the qualification (which itself exists for the benefit of a democratic society) that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media. bq. Where a reporter is intending to broadcast or publish information impugning the integrity of others the management of his broadcasting company or newspaper should ensure that a system is in place whereby his editor or editors give careful consideration to the wording of the report and to whether it is right in all the circumstances to broadcast or publish it. bq. The allegations that Mr Gilligan was intending to broadcast in respect of the Government and the preparation of the dossier were very grave allegations in relation to a subject of great importance and I consider that the editorial system which the BBC permitted was defective in that Mr Gilligan was allowed to broadcast his report at 6.07am without editors having seen a script of what he was going to say and having considered whether it should be approved. (“Hutton report”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk/2003/david_kelly_inquiry/report_summary/default.stm) The demand for editorial control is not controversial: it’s an expected profiessional standard that the BBC seems to have let slip (badly) in this case. But statements about ‘impugning the integrity of others’ evoke a far tougher standard than should apply to criticism of governments. Governments are political creations that intepret reality, let alone “truth” through a political—that is a dialectical—prism. It did not “impugn the integrity of others” to suggest, as proved to be the case in the public campaign for support leading to the war in Iraq, that government in Australia, the UK and USA were being both economical and creative with small scraps of a carefully selected “truth” and using “truths” that were no more than innuendoes to support their claims. It is evident that this is precisely what they did. Although Lord Hutton finds that the UK ‘dossier’ contained no facts known to be false or unreliable by the UK intelligence services at the time, they were not facts known to be well founded either. It is clear from the evidence that the UK intelligence service officers involved realized that the “45-minute” claim was open to the mis-interpretation that it was widely given (that it was about strategic as well as theatre weapons) and that they knew that it was based on only one source whose credibilty only they bothered to defend.
Peter Gallagher is student of piano and photography. He was formerly a senior trade official of the Australian government. For some years after leaving government, he consulted to international organizations, governments and business groups on trade and public policy.
He teaches graduate classes at the University of Adelaide on trade research methods and the role of firms in trade and growth and tweets trade (and other) stuff from @pwgallagher