Blair in Trouble

Tony Blair
Tony Blair; drawing by David Levine

The political day begins, in Britain, at six in the morning, when BBC Radio 4’s Today program goes on the air. This is a three-hour news magazine with reportage and political interviews. During the first hour, before the politicians are ready to talk, much of the information tends to be disseminated in the form of “two-ways”—unscripted conversations between the presenters and the correspondents. Later, after the seven and eight o’clock news bulletins, come the key topical political interviews, which successive governments have both craved and feared, for the presenters are mostly first-rate and refuse to let the politicians get away with propaganda.

When relations are bad between the government and the BBC, as during the last years of the last Conservative administration, and as they have been particularly during the last few months, one has to get one’s news through the medium of a quarrel, and this is sometimes tiresome. One therefore values the relative calm and efficiency of the early-morning broadcast, when presenter and reporter, in their professional way, let the listener in on what they expect will be the major developments ahead.

So it was that, on May 29 this year, just after the 6 AM bulletin, I was listening as usual when the following item came up. I reproduce the transcript in full, because the report has cast a long shadow on British politics, leading to warfare between the Blair government and the BBC, the death of an eminent scientist, two parliamentary reports, an official inquiry still sitting, one resignation, and perhaps more to follow. The reporter in this item, Andrew Gilligan, was, on the morning in question, audibly excited, as if he had just come into the studio on receipt of the news (although he had known this new intelligence for some days), and he was having uncharacteristic difficulty in choosing the correct words. It made for startling listening at the time, even if it is hard now to read.

John Humphrys: The government is facing more questions this morning over its claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Our defense correspondent is Andrew Gilligan. This in particular Andy is Tony Blair saying, they’d be ready to go within forty-five minutes.

Andrew Gilligan: That’s right, that was the central claim in his dossier which he published in September, the main er, case if you like against er, against Iraq and the main statement of the British Government’s belief of what it thought Iraq was up to and what we’ve been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the dossier was that actually the government erm, probably knew that that forty-five-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in. What this person says, is that a week before the publication date of the dossier, it was actually rather erm, a bland production. It didn’t, the, the draft prepared…

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