The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Blair angered by BBC reports on looting

London, April 12: Prime Minister Tony Blair has authorised a personal attack on Andrew Gilligan, one of BBC’s correspondents in Baghdad, for failing to report the good news from Iraq and concentrating instead on the bad news about looting.

The government went into the war by claiming it needed to strip Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. Since none have so far been found, the reliance on pictures of Iraqis, happy over the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, has become all the greater.

What upset 10, Downing Street, most was the “astonishing” suggestion from Gilligan that in some respects, the residents of Baghdad were now worse off than they had been under Saddam Hussein.

On BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, which politicians believe sets the news agenda for the day, Gilligan, who has been reporting from Baghdad through the war, said: “Baghdad may. in theory, be free but its people are passing their first days of liberty in a greater fear than they have ever before known. The old fear of the regime was habitual, low-level. This fear is sharp and immediate. The fear that your house will be invaded, your property will be taken and your daughters will be raped.”

An enraged spokesman for Blair responded: “Try telling that to people whose relatives had been dropped head first into shredders or people who had been tied to a post and had their tongues cut out or been beaten to death in the main square.”

The spokesman urged the media to give itself a “reality check” and accused Gilligan of doing more to distort the truth than the regime”s spokesmen. “I doubt if even the Iraqi information minister would try to justify that,” the spokesman commented witheringly. It became clear that this was not an off the cuff briefing by Downing Street but a coordinated offensive by Blair. Adam Ingram, an armed forces minister whose existence was previously unknown to most of the British public, also questioned Gilligan’s comparison with life under Saddam.

Ingram said: “This isn’t the first time that the euphoria of liberation is mixed with anger and revenge. We have seen looting, much of it directed at regime figures,” he said.

It does seem that that the British government is very perturbed that the “euphoria” reports which accompanied the toppling of Saddam’s statue in central Baghdad has now been replaced by stories about a complete breakdown of law and order in Baghdad, Basra and other parts of Iraq.

The government has accused the BBC of trying to “make the news” rather than report it. Many people in government and in the pro-war lobby argue that the media should be supportive and not do anything that would encourage the Saddam regime.

A spokesman for the BBC said: “We stand by the integrity of Gilligan’s reporting.” He added that Gilligan had merely been reporting “heightened fears of immediate violence” caused by gangs running amok. Other media had reached similar conclusions. This may be just a coincidence but Gilligan was less in evidence today than he has been on other days.

Gilligan’s credentials are impeccably establishment. Before joining the BBC, he was defence correspondent of a Tory newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph. Yesterday, Gilligan answered the charges against him on the World at One, another BBC programme, when he said: “The reality is that half the shopping district has been looted. People are starting to lose confidence in the American liberation of Baghdad because they do feel worse off, they feel less safe than they did before.”

He was dismissive of the suggestion from Blair’s aides that only hospitals used by Baath party members were being looted. Gilligan insisted: “We’re also told that looters have started opening fire on each other. Right in front of my eyes a 16-year-old boy was beaten to death simply because he didn’t come from that area. They thought he might be a looter and they said they’d do the same to us if we didn't get out.”

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