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Blair-BBC row deepens in Britain

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

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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.

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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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