Instead of toppling the increasingly unpopular Blair government the apparent suicide of a discreet scientist has signalled open season on the BBC, writes Iason Athanasiadis in London
It is a classic political scandal that is already being compared to the 1986 Westland helicopter affair which brought down a senior cabinet minister in the Thatcher government and very nearly claimed the Iron Lady herself.
As with Westland, the story revolves around a government leak and questions of due procedure. In the case of Westland, a cabinet minister, Leon Brittan, copped the blame and resigned. Many suspected, but could not prove, that he was acting on behalf of Downing Street. This time the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon is being set up as fall guy, accused of effectively sacrificing the late Dr David Kelly by pushing him out into the full glare of the media.
What was just a battle in the ongoing seven-week war between the government and the BBC has mushroomed into one of the most engaging human interest stories surrounding the debate over the invasion of Iraq. The British version of "Saving Private Lynch" has in common with its American counterpart a whiff of intrigue and the suggestion of government impropriety in manipulating truth and the electorate.
But despite all the available evidence, it is the BBC which spent the past week on the defensive, under full frontal assault from wide sections of the British press. Largely to blame for engineering the savage attacks is media baron Rupert Murdoch, owner of three high-circulation, right-wing, populist papers: The Sun, The News of the World as well as The Times. His stable of newspapers mercilessly pummelled the corporation, turning the "sexing-up" charge on its head and accusing the corporation of manipulating its own coverage of the row. Mr Murdoch also owns Sky TV, a subscription television network whose greatest rival is the BBC.
"It is now the BBC that appears to have deliberately deceived viewers, listeners, its board of governors and parliament about the origins of this extraordinary battle with the government", The Times declared.
The tabloid Sun's splash headline was even more damning: "You Rat", it screamed out at Andrew Gilligan -- the BBC reporter Dr Kelly had spoken to -- from newsstands across the country. The Sun accused Gilligan of branding Dr Kelly "a liar" in a bid to save his job.
Commenting on the phenomenon, The Daily Telegraph mentioned on Wednesday that, "A source on The Times said yesterday there was 'unease' among its journalists about the paper's coverage."
"Speculation that someone above the level of editor had intervened was fuelled on Saturday when News of the World staff were surprised by a sudden switch in the paper's editorial line over the row.
"Journalists had spent the day working on a piece critical of the government, only to be told late in the afternoon they were now to write one that was sympathetic.
"Sources on the paper claim the turnaround was ordered 'straight from the top'."
Caught in a battle for survival, the BBC's top men have all reportedly cancelled their summer holidays -- BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies, Director-General Greg Dyke and News Editor Richard Sambrook will all roll up their shirt-sleeves and stay in London throughout August in a bid to save the corporation's reputation.
One of their first actions was to hit back at the government, accusing it of threatening the corporation's independence with its political bullying. Davies called government-backed attacks on the corporation an attempt to "bring the BBC to heel".
But even as the BBC was fending off attacks, new evidence was emerging that Dr Kelly -- in contrast to what a Blair government anxious to downplay his importance insisted -- was not a harmless, mid-level bureaucrat. As the senior adviser on biological warfare for the UN special commission, Kelly visited Iraq 37 times between 1991 and 1998. It is said that his doggedness in hunting down the truth behind Iraq's weapons programme was what lay behind Saddam's decision to expel UNSCOM.
Since leaving UNSCOM, the Oxford-educated Kelly had been the chief scientific adviser to the British Ministry of Defence's Proliferation and Arms Control Secretariat, and he was about to become Britain's key member of the international Iraq Survey Group, due to take up in Iraq where UNSCOM left off. He also had a high security clearance, sat in on MI6 interrogations of Iraqi defectors and was a member of a high-level committee reviewing all the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. His value was such that he had been appointed a "special deputy chief scientific officer", a rarely used civil service grade that allowed him to move in senior circles without having administrative responsibilities. The ultimate insider, Dr Kelly was clearly not a man the government wanted to have criticising it in the already hostile British media.
"When they put pressure on him, and they did so frequently, he would refuse to accept it but would insist that the discussion be returned to purely scientific matters", UNSCOM's former chief executive, Richard Butler, wrote in The Australian Financial Review this week. "For him the truth of any matter, especially in scientific truth, was irreducible."
It has also emerged that the Blair government may have threatened Dr Kelly with the loss of his pension and his job before making his identity public. The scientist committed the ultimate sin of meeting in the lounge of London's Charing Cross hotel a BBC reporter who is deeply unpopular with Blair's office for his penchant for breaking troublesome international stories.
Nine days after Dr Kelly was sacrificed by the government he had loyally served, ousted as the source behind several BBC reports suggesting that the government had "sexed-up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability, the disillusioned scientist closed behind him the door of his 18th-century farmhouse in the rolling Oxfordshire country and headed for a walk. That he was wearing nothing but his jeans and a cotton shirt, despite the chill weather, is the fact that has been seized upon, more than the presence of pills and a knife, as proof that his was a genuine suicide. Dr Kelly apparently swallowed a handful of prescription painkillers before cutting his left wrist with a knife. After he lay down to die, the rain came to wash his blood into the earth.
In England, it has become accepted wisdom that the reason behind Dr Kelly's suicide was the acute embarrassment he felt at being caught in the barrage between the Blair government and the world's most revered media institution. It was the revelation that Kelly was the source of the original Gilligan story that led to what the Kelly family described as "intolerable pressure" being applied to him.
"You don't call a man like him chaff", a former BBC journalist and long-standing friend of Kelly's, Tom Mangold, told reporters. "He's not a buffoon. He's a man who served the country and the UN brilliantly."
And it appears increasingly likely that the master government manipulator behind this unsavoury story is Prime Minister Tony Blair's master henchman, Alistair Campbell -- a former tabloid journalist who succeeded his sacked predecessor, Peter Mandelson, as one of the most unpopular men on the British political scene. Sources say that the BBC is increasingly confident of its claims that Campbell was behind the decision to make Dr Kelly's name known in a bid to deflect attention from Blair's role. Rumours that he has already taken the decision to resign have led to the appearance of speculative pieces on how Blair will cope now that his "crutch" is gone. Increasingly, it appears as if Blair's chance at redemption disappeared with Dr Kelly's death.