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Reporter hits BBC from within

London, Aug. 13 (Reuters): The BBC was in the dock today after surprise testimony revealed rifts within Britain’s public broadcaster over an Iraq weapons expert whose suicide has sparked a crisis for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The unexpected and outspoken testimony from a BBC reporter will put pressure on the world-respected news organisation and could strengthen Blair’s hand amid questions over whether the government made an honest case for war in Iraq.

Reporter Susan Watts told an inquiry into David Kelly’s death the scientist did not tell her in a telephone call that Blair’s top adviser Alastair Campbell transformed a dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons to justify a war most Britons opposed.

She also accused BBC bosses of pressuring her to make her report tally with that of her colleague, defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan. The BBC’s director of news rejected that remark in his evidence to the inquiry. Kelly slashed his wrist last month after being named as the source for Gilligan’s report that a government dossier on Iraq’s lethal weapons was “sexed up” by Campbell, Blair’s communications chief — playing up a dubious claim that Baghdad could unleash banned weapons at 45 minutes’ notice.

The apparent clash of BBC journalists’ stories could take some heat off Blair, whose public trust ratings have plunged, as nearly five months after US and British forces invaded Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

A poll this week showed 41 per cent of the public blamed the government for Iraq expert Kelly’s death and 68 per cent thought the government was dishonest over the Iraq war.

“(Kelly) didn’t say the dossier was transformed in the last week and he certainly didn’t say that the 45-minute claim was inserted either by Alastair Campbell or by anyone else in government,” Watts told senior judge Lord Hutton’s inquiry.

Gilligan, whose May 29 report undermined Blair’s government, told the inquiry yesterday that Kelly did point the finger at Campbell for pushing the key 45-minute claim in comments to him. Watts insisted there were “significant differences” between Gilligan’s reports and hers.

But in extracts from a tape of her interview with the dead scientist — eerily played to the inquiry — Kelly did say that Blair’s press office had seized on the 45-minute statement, saying: “It just got out of all proportion”.

Watts said she had hired her own lawyer because of pressure imposed by BBC bosses to make her report corroborate Gilligan’s. In an earlier interview, Kelly told Watts that President George W. Bush and British foreign secretary Jack Straw fudged the crucial difference about Iraq’s weapons programmes and the existence of actual missiles, she told the inquiry. Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, denied trying to mould Watts’ story to stand up Gilligan’s.

Sambrook accepted that part of one of Gilligan’s reports could not be backed up by his notes of his talks with Kelly. Gilligan had initially reported the government “probably knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong”.

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