| BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan in London. (Reuters)
London, Sept. 17 (Reuters): Britain’s government and state broadcaster clashed today in a showdown over an explosive BBC news report about the Iraq war that apparently drove a weapons scientist to his death.
The government’s counsel accused BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan of lying in his evidence to the inquiry and of “disreputable journalism” over his Iraq radio report in May.
In that report, Gilligan cited an anonymous source as saying the government had “sexed up” evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to justify the war to a sceptical public.
Government scientist David Kelly killed himself two months ago, shortly after being named by the government as the source for Gilligan’s story, which sparked a furious row between the government and the BBC.
Jonathan Sumption, counsel for the government, sought to rip to shreds Gilligan’s Iraq report and his evidence to the inquiry on the third day of the inquiry's second phase, when lawyers for the BBC, the government and Kelly’s family can cross-examine witnesses.
Sumption challenged Gilligan over his initial radio broadcast on Iraq’s weapons, in which the source was quoted as saying the government probably knew that one claim in its pre-war dossier on Iraq’s weapons was wrong. The claim — that Iraq’s banned weapons could be fired within 45-minutes — has exacerbated Blair’s crisis after a number of intelligence officials told the inquiry that they were unhappy with how it was presented in the Iraq dossier.
Under cross-examination, Gilligan admitted that his first radio broadcast had been incorrect. He said he had made a “slip of the tongue” in attributing the statement that the government probably knew the 45-minute claim to be wrong to his source, Kelly. But he stood by the general gist of his report, sourced to Kelly, that some intelligence officials knew the 45-minute claim to be wrong.
He said he had not intended to accuse the government of dishonesty, but rather he was making“an allegation of spin and exaggeration”.
Sumption also accused Gilligan of deliberately misrepresenting Kelly's status by calling him a member of Britain's intelligence services because it made his report ”more exciting and more credible”.
”You sought to mislead,” Sumption said to Gilligan.
Gilligan admitted making an unintentional mistake in describing Kelly as an intelligence service source in one of his broadcasts.
But Sumption challenged him as to why he never sought to correct the status of his source in subsequent BBC reports and statements by BBC chiefs and governors.
Jeremy Gompertz, counsel for Kelly's family, raised questions about the quality of Gilligan's notetaking and reporting of his interview with Kelly.
But Gompertz, who attacked a Ministry of Defence official on Tuesday for treating Kelly“shabbily,” was brief and polite in his cross-examination of Gilligan.
Opening his questioning, he said“the Kelly family does not want anyone to be subjected at their hands to an ordeal comparable to that endured by Dr. Kelly.”