A messy draw

The Guardian’s latest report from the Hutton inquiry shows how high the stakes were at the height of the Gilligan/Kelly affair.

An excerpt from Alastair Campbell’s diary has the spin miester writing that “It would fuck Gilligan” if David Kelly proved to be the BBC journalist’s source for his controversial WMD dossier story.

The tussle between the BBC and No 10 was definitely a fuck me/fuck you battle, which in spite of both sides protestations to the contrary was never about truth. It was all about political and journalistic performance.

Campbell also admitted under cross-examination that he wanted the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the affair to be “a clear win, not a messy draw.”

Both sides are again desperate to win the Hutton inquiry. But there will be no clear winners.

Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan calls the Independent’s recent tally of evidence a “devastating analysis of the BBC’s fabrications against the Blair government”.

That’s not the way I read the same article. Sure Gilligan was guilty of exaggeration for effect in his live radio spots.

But the Independent concludes that Gilligan’s assertion that the 45 minute claim was unreliable, and included in the dossier against Kelly and his colleague’s wishes, was sound.

This, the guts of the Gilligan claim, has been vindicated by the inquiry evidence. The inquiry heard this week that a memo was written on behalf of the DIS by Dr Brian Jones, head of its WMD section, objecting to the claim as it appeared in the dossier. Dr Jones and his chemical expert wrote further formal complaints.

This is surely the nub of the matter, not whether Gilligan should have called his source an “intelligence source” when Kelly actually worked for the Ministry of Defense.

The transcripts of the Hutton inquiry make fascinating reading.

I am left wondering who’s reporting would be left undamaged after hours and hours of cross-examination by ruthless barristers who also want a “clear win not a messy draw”.

The whole affair is a fiasco that in one sense tells us a lot about the state of journalism and at another level tells us nothing at all. Gilligan has been described as a hot shot brought onto the Today program to make it more controversial and hard hitting – he certainly did that. But as Today program editor Kevin Marsh said very early on:

“This story was a good piece of investigative journalism marred by flawed reporting. The biggest millstone has been the loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of the phraseology.”

This was of course a very important story – a leader misleading the people about reasons for war – so more care than usual was required. Gilligan’s sloppiness will no doubt confirm many people’s worst fears about the state of journalism. But in effect he did his job: he raised important questions and began to unravel some of the answers.

Could he have done this more carefully and more thoroughly? Probably. But the source game, the fair comment game, the checks and balances game, is precisely that and no more: a game. As Gaye Tuchman described it 30 years ago: objectivity is a “strategic ritual” that journalists engage in largely to protect themselves.

And as Ariel Hart recently pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review all journalists make mistakes all of the time. As a freelance fact checker she says she’s never checked an article that didn’t contain some errors. She says journalists should get over their “delusions of accuracy”.

The myth of objectivity has been the corner stone of the liberal democratic model of journalism but as the world changes, and journalism changes to keep pace, it has the potential to become a millstone around our neck. In the public mind it holds us to a level of accuracy that we can never deliver.

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