Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Speech to Press Intergroup, European Parliament, Strasbourg, 27.9.2006

British newspaper front pages for the 19th of July 2003 tell the story of the tragic suicide of Dr David Kelly, who at the time of his death was Britain’s leading authority on biological warfare. I believe Dr Kelly was perhaps the most significant confidential source of information in British journalism in recent times, at least in the years I have been a reporter. But behind the front-age headlines, there is another untold story, of a black day in British journalism.

What we witnessed in just a few weeks was a collective failure by the British news media to protect a source of information whose importance I suggest stands alongside that of Mark Felt, the former deputy director of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, who a year ago finally admitted he was the celebrated "deep throat" in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Remember, that affair brought down President Nixon. And, yes, with the hindsight of recent political history, I am seeking to make out the case that if the journalists of the BBC had adopted that same considered, step-by-step approach which was followed by the reporters of the Washington Post, then who knows, Dr Kelly’s insights during the early months of 2003 might well have been enough to have triggered the downfall of Tony Blair. Yes, a British Prime Minister might also have suffered the same fate as an American President.

In sharing with you my reflections on the lead-up to the death of one of Britain’s most eminent weapons inspectors, I am not trying to imply that my own standards of work, if I had been involved in the story, would necessarily have been any different from the journalists about whom I intend to speak. I readily concede my own reporting might equally have been a cause for discussion. Nor am I in the blame game when it comes to commenting on the role of journalists whom I have known and worked with over the years. What I am seeking to do is draw some lessons for the future, to consider what more can be done to protect confidential sources.

Believe me this issue of how and why secret and confidential information reaches the news media is of the highest importance. Next month a former civil servant and a political researcher go on trial in Britain under our Official Secrets Act. They are accused of leaking the transcript of a conversation with the Prime Minister which revealed that President Bush had talked of bombing the headquarters of the Arabic television channel, Aljazeera. As you might expect, we fear what the outcome might be of the government’s prosecution. There is also the strong expectation that a tightening of the law on protecting official secrets will be one of the measures included in the Queen’s Speech in November which sets out the new legislation for the next session of Parliament.

But let me begin by returning to the newspaper front pages. Perhaps I should start with The Guardian’s headline, "The Vendetta’s victim". Dr Kelly was, as The Times says, the victim at "the heart of a struggle" between the office of the British Prime Minister and the BBC. The Daily Telegraph could not have put it better: "The death of the dossier fall guy". But as we look back at those headlines should others be hanging their heads in shame? What should have been the correct response of my own former colleagues in the BBC; of the BBC’s editors and executives; and of the many newspaper reporters who allowed themselves to get caught up in a disgraceful witch hunt to identify, expose and then hound Dr Kelly?

Yes, it was the Prime Minister and his ministers who stood idly by as the government left a distinguished expert and his wife floundering on their own in the middle of a media feeding frenzy. But collectively we, the journalists of Britain, cannot close our eyes to our own possible culpability. Perhaps we should also be reflecting on our role in what happened. What we should remember was that Dr Kelly was an authoritative and confidential source on biological weapons for leading journalists around the world. Before leaving home for the last time and committing suicide, he spent the final hours of his life preparing a list of all the journalists with whom he had been in contact. This is what he had been required to do by the Ministry of Defence.

Evidence given subsequently to the Hutton Inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death revealed that his list of contacts read like a Who’s Who of the international news media. There was a seemingly endless roll call of journalists whom he had helped, not just in the BBC, but British independent television, Reuters, the Canadian and Australian Broadcasting Corporations, Sunday Times, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and so on.

I would suggest there could have been no doubt in the minds of many of the journalists who relied on Dr Kelly’s guidance that he must often have gone the extra mile in briefing them. It must have been obvious to them that he was going way beyond what he was authorised to say; that he was giving them inside information, sometimes his own opinions; and he was not limiting himself simply to explaining technical matters, as had been stipulated in the instructions which he had been given by the British government. Dr Kelly was rarely if ever identified by name. Journalists played by the rules and did agree with his request that he could not be named, that he had to be quoted anonymously. But I wonder: did any of those journalists ever realise the danger that Dr Kelly might have faced if he had been exposed?

Because of his expertise in biological warfare, he was allowed -- and encouraged -- to brief journalists on technical matters but only on an off-the-record basis. Under civil service guidelines he was ordered to avoid referring to "politically controversial issues". In my opinion the reason why Dr Kelly regularly broke those guidelines was because of his genuine desire to encourage an informed discussion about the need to curb the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons; he believed that he was serving the public good in giving journalists the insights which only he could supply because of his knowledge and wide experience.

Now let us consider for a moment what happened at the BBC. When Andrew Gilligan, the defence correspondent for the Today programme, first approached Dr Kelly, he was in fact contacting a confidential source who had been used over the years by other senior correspondents at the BBC. We know that the Newsnight correspondent Susan Watts had also spoken regularly to Dr Kelly. It emerged that she had a shorthand note of one conversation and a tape recording of another so as to ensure that any quotes she used were accurate. It was her tape which provided the proof which later convinced government officials that he had been exceeding the guidelines and who knows, in different circumstances, might well have been charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act. A third BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt -- who reported for the Ten O’Clock News -- spoke to Dr Kelly once Gilligan broke the story with his report on Today programme based on what he had been told about the preparation of the dossier. Hewitt was given Kelly’s telephone number by another BBC reporter, Tom Mangold of Panorama.

As I am sure you will recall the central allegation in Andrew Gilligan’s report was that Tony Blair and his staff in Downing Street had "sexed up" the British dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and included the claim that missiles could be fired within 45 minutes when the government "probably knew" it was wrong. In effect, the Prime Minister had taken Britain to war on the basis of a lie. Having listened to the evidence given to Lord Hutton in the summer of 2003 and then having read the judge’s report in 2004, what so alarmed me was the clinical way in which the inquiry exposed grave deficiencies in the editorial processes of the BBC.

How was it that three BBC correspondents had spoken separately to David Kelly but never alerted each other to what they were doing; nor had they co-operated with each other in any way when it came to working out how the BBC should report the story? One of the inherent weaknesses in the BBC’s editorial structures and its practice of requiring news bulletins and programmes to compete with one another is that each editorial team tries to beat the other in being the first to broadcast exclusive stories. And here we saw a gave danger in this rivalry: there was no early warning system within the BBC to alert senior editorial executives to Dr Kelly’s significance.

By any objective test of journalistic sources, Britain’s foremost authority on biological warfare was a much-prized contact, well placed strategically. He was by far the most reliable and confidential informant the BBC could ever have hoped for when it came to the difficult task of trying to disentangle the mixture and claim and counter-claim surrounding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. If ever there was a "deep throat" who needed to be nurtured and protected it was Kelly and if the three BBC journalists had pooled their information it might have been possible, through their co-operation, to have done much more to safeguard his identity. More importantly if the BBC had been far more methodical in researching and reporting the background to Dr Kelly’s doubts about the dossier, and if the coverage of the story had been properly co-ordinated, then the outcome might well have been different.

If the doubts which Kelly had about the truthfulness of the dossier had been reported in a systematic way, say over a period of weeks or months, then Tony Blair might easily have faced such a sustained challenge in Parliament in the summer of 2003 that his position as Prime Minister could well have become untenable. What cannot be denied in hindsight is that the BBC had access to an exceptional source of information, a contact whose insights and expertise were squandered in a hastily delivered live broadcast rather than the considered journalism which the story cried out for -- and which, as we saw in the case of the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, did have devastating consequences for an American president.

So there was no early warning system in the BBC and no competent editorial control. Finally let me give you my reflections on how it came about that British newspaper journalists ended up competing with each other in such an unseemly fashion to be the first to identify Dr Kelly. There was no doubt they had to a degree been goaded into this by Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell. He was convinced that if Dr Kelly was publicly exposed it would put the BBC at a disadvantage. You have to remember how out of control Campbell had become in his Rambo-like onslaught on the BBC and its journalists for their alleged anti-war reporting. Andrew Gilligan’s broadcast undoubtedly provoked a crisis in the relationship between the BBC and the government.

Throughout this period Campbell was determined to manipulate newspaper coverage to keep up the pressure on the BBC. He was addicted to the practice of taking selected journalists into his confidence. After all Campbell was a powerful information trader and, as we saw subsequently, the name "Kelly" became the currency for a fateful information transaction between certain journalists and the Ministry of Defence. Campbell was explicit in his personal diary about the need to "get it out through the newspapers" that Kelly was the source. Campbell was in no doubt as to the impact of Kelly being identified: "Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and I agreed it would fuck Gilligan if that was his source".

In his evidence to the inquiry, one of the official government spokesmen revealed, that Campbell had "floated the idea" to the Defence Secretary that the news that a possible source had come forward should "be given that evening to one paper". What eventually happened was that when five newspapers -- the Financial Times, Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Times -- put Kelly’s name to the Ministry of Defence his identity was confirmed by the director of news within the department. My complaint -- and this was the only note of criticism in Lord Hutton’s report -- was that the Prime Minister’s office and Ministry of Defence had paid scant regard to the moral obligation to act responsibly when briefing the media and more importantly to have some thought for Kelly’s welfare.

As the Hutton Inquiry report confirmed, at no point did Campbell consider releasing the information to all media outlets at the same time and in a controlled manner once Dr Kelly was in a place of safety. Again with hindsight perhaps those journalists who competed with each other to expose Dr Kelly should have realised that dirty work was afoot, that the government had an ulterior motive in seeking to publicise his name. Certainly the lesson that must be drawn is that reporters should always proceed with great caution when under pressure to identify another journalist’s source of information. We must think through what we are doing.

We must understand and accept that we probably have no real insight into the reason why the information might have been leaked in the first place. Nor are we likely to have even any inkling as to the hidden pressures which there may have been on a leaker or whistleblower. Indeed Dr Kelly’s suicide should be a constant reminder to every journalist of the dangers which an informant can face when there is a collective failure within the news media to protect a confidential source.

I will end with just one footnote: earlier this month the British Committee on Standards in Public Life issued a report which pinpointed the death of Dr Kelly as the turning point in the fortunes of Tony Blair. Ever since that suicide and the Hutton Inquiry, the Blair government had failed to recover from a loss of public trust. In his report the judge exonerated Blair and Campbell but his findings were ridiculed. Campbell had already resigned, months before the report was published, and his ignominious departure finally pulled down the curtain on the bully-boy tactics of Blair’s spin doctors. The judge’s conclusions had no effect when it came to saving the Prime Minister. The verdict of public opinion was that Britain had been taken into the war against Iraq on the basis of lie and Blair has found it impossible to remove that stain on his Premiership.

Nicholas Jones is the author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs. Published by Politico’s July 2006.