Day the Ripples Began

Article excerpt

Byline: By KIRSTY BUCHANAN Western Mail

It was a slip of the tongue in an interview which hardly anyone heard. But the 'Today' programme's infamous Andrew Gilligan interview proved one of the most explosive in broadcasting history. Political Editor

ONLY milkmen, shift workers and mothers of young babies were probably awake to hear it. At 6.07am on May 29, 2003, Defence Correspondent Andrew Gilligan offered some partly inaccurate insights into the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In a two-way with Today presenter John Humprhys, Gilligan revealed how a source had told him that Downing Street had 'sexed up' the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in its dossier.

It was a damning accusation and, crucially, some of Gilligan's comments were totally wrong.

Downing Street's then director of communications, Alastair Campbell, called for an apology but the BBC dug in.

The subsequent tragic events are well documented - Campbell's battle with the BBC, the Whitehall mole hunt, the exposure, grilling and suicide of weapons expert David Kelly.

The controversial conclusions of the Hutton Inquiry into the Kelly affair exonerated the Government and savaged the BBC.

In the fallout, chairman Gavyn Davies, chief executive Greg Dyke and Gilligan all left and the corporation offered a craven apology.

However, one year on, the top jobs have been filled, Gilligan is proving a success in a new job and the BBC is off its knees and regaining its confidence.

There is a sense the BBC has paid the price, learned the lessons and moved on.

This was underpinned this week when the BBC's own internal inquiry drew to a discreet close without feeling the need to spill any more blood on the corporation's carpet.

Americans would call this 'closure'. The same hideous term could not be applied to the Government, which continues to stumble in the shadow of Iraq.

Although Lord Hutton's inquiry cleared the Government of any wrong-doing it has never quite managed to shake off the stain of Gilligan's smear.

History writers may care to look back on the Gilligan interview, for all its faults, as the moment when the Baghdad bounce fell flat and the Iraq adventure became Labour's election albatross.

At the Prime Minister's most recent Downing Street press conference all but four questions were about Iraq.

Terrorists targeting civilian contractors, American troops torturing Iraqi detainees and question marks over who runs what after the June 30 hand over of power are issues which continue to dominate Prime Minister's Question Time.

And even the premier seems resigned to taking a beating at the ballot box on June 10 because of an issue far removed from the world of European and local government elections.

The dominance of Iraq at the top of the political agenda is fuelled by a public sense of being somewhat cheated in the post-Gilligan fallout. …