Blair-BBC row deepens in Britain

This week, Prime Minister Blair continued to deny that he inflated claims on Iraq's banned weapons.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The fighting crackles on in Iraq, but it's in London that the truly bitter hostilities have broken out.

A poisonous row over claims by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that the British government overstated the case for disarming in Iraq has degenerated into open warfare.

The furor, which has lasted longer than the Iraq war itself, is the most antagonistic between a British government and the state-owned broadcaster for a generation, and is beginning to threaten both the reputation of the BBC and the popularity of the government.

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More important, it has raised fundamental questions about Prime Minister Tony Blair's justification for going to war. Mr. Blair has always insisted the war was about disarming Iraq. But the BBC report, combined with the fact that no significant illicit weapons have yet been found in Iraq, has caused the public to question the government's case.

In April, 64 percent of Britons supported involvement in Iraq. That number is now down to 47 percent. Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at Essex University, says that the decline in public opinion, coupled with the fact the BBC is generally seen by Britons as more trustworthy than the government, suggests that the government made a mistake in taking on the broadcaster.

"If it's a straight-out fight between government and the BBC, the electorate is going to trust the BBC," he says.

Details 'sexed up'

The dispute centers on allegations made at the end of May by a BBC correspondent that the government doctored intelligence to beef up the case for war. The correspondent cited a senior intelligence official involved in preparing a dossier last fall on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, who said that details of Baghdad's WMD program had been "sexed up" by the government's communications chief, Alastair Campbell.

Specifically, the intelligence official said, a thinly sourced piece of intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein could mobilize chemical weapons within 45 minutes was inserted into the document against the advice of the intelligence community.

In the US, President Bush has come under fire for relying on faulty intelligence - also British - to bolster his case for disarming Iraq. The White House said earlier this week that claims by Mr. Bush in his January State of the Union speech that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Africa were based on forged documents. Congressional Democrats want a full investigation into the administration's case for war.

Because of this admission, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, another key coalition ally, has come under verbal attacks from opposition lawmakers who were opposed to Australia's involvement in the war.

The British government has responded furiously to the BBC's claim, accusing it of basing its report on a single unnamed, uncorroborated source. Mr. Campbell, a pugnacious gatekeeper with a withering contempt for some journalists, has been grilled by members of Parliament and TV interviewers, thundering his innocence and repeatedly demanding retractions and apologies.

A parliamentary inquiry into the affair reported back earlier this week with an inconclusive verdict, saying the "jury is still out" on whether the government exaggerated Iraq's WMD threat.

That brought an impassioned defense from Blair himself on Tuesday, who told a committee of Parliament members: "I'm afraid that in that regard, for me the jury is not out. It's not out at all. On that central allegation - that myself or anyone else inserted information into last September's dossier against the wishes of the intelligence agencies - that allegation was totally false," Blair said. "And I don't know anyone who now believes that allegation to be true."

But the BBC has stuck to its guns, accusing the government of bullying tactics. The "Beeb" defends its correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, and his reporting of the story. With no chance of a retraction, each is looking at a damaging, drawn-out stalemate.

"Both sides have got themselves into entrenched positions," says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University in Coventry, England, adding that the BBC could lose out as heavily as the government. "The BBC realizes that this episode has done its relations with government some damage and its reputation some damage, too."

It's not the first time the BBC has taken on the government of the day. Indeed, this latest row highlights the strange, symbiotic relationship between the state-owned broadcaster and the British government.

The BBC is dependent on the state for its funding, which is drummed up through a £120 ($200) annual license fee that every citizen with a color TV must pay; and for its charter, which comes up for renewal again in three years. But a succession of spats over the years show that the BBC, while dependent on the state, is determined not to be subservient to it.

'Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation'

The general strike against the government in 1926, the 1956 Suez crisis between Britain and Egypt, and the 1986 bombing of Libya by the US and Britain, all provoked criticism from the BBC that the government thought unwarranted. During the 1999 Kosovo bombing, the government took a dim view of the corporation's reporting on civilian casualties, while dispatches from Iraq earlier this year prompted some hawks in the Blair administration to dub the BBC the "Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation."

But the latest row is as damaging as anything in 50 years. Analysts say that it shows the government is desperate to knock down anyone who suggests that the case for war was overstated.

"The government feels quite vulnerable on this issue...." says Professor Grant. "The prime minister feels that his own integrity has been questioned over the reasons for committing British troops to war."

And yet any suggestion of cowing the BBC into submission would also be hugely damaging to the BBC, which has a long tradition of impartiality and speaking as it finds. "You are really calling into question fundamental normals of the BBC by saying a journalist fiddled this report," says Professor Whitely. "I don't believe it, and I don't think many people believe it either."

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