Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson and the Iraq dossier

When Pamela Geller hailed Andrew Gilligan as a “superb investigative journalist” for his exposure of “Islamic supremacism” in Tower Hamlets, this was much what you would expect from a raving anti-Muslim bigot who led a hysterical campaign against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in New York. But I’ve always been puzzled that anyone with a basic respect for journalistic integrity could regard Gilligan as anything other than the charlatan that he clearly is.

Yet at the 2008 British Press Awards Gilligan was named Journalist of the Year, with the judges describing his work for the Evening Standard – which for months had consisted primarily of an endless witch-hunt of Ken Livingstone’s then equalities adviser Lee Jasper – as “relentless investigative journalism at its best”. In 2010 Gilligan was longlisted for the Paul Foot Award for investigative campaigning journalism, and although he failed to make the shortlist he was “highly commended” for his reporting on “the fundamentalist infiltration of Tower Hamlets”.

You might think it says a lot about the state of journalism today that a malicious stitch-up artist like Gilligan could be accorded such recognition within his profession. However, sympathy for Gilligan among his fellow journalists (and among the wider public too) probably arises mainly from what is seen as his persecution by the Blair government over his reporting of the notorious September 2002 dossier Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government, the purpose of which was to rally public opinion behind the Iraq war.

As I shall try to show in this article, such admiration for Gilligan over his “exposure” of the Blair government’s role in preparing the ground for the invasion of Iraq is seriously misplaced. Rather, Gilligan’s reporting of the Iraq dossier set a pattern for the unscrupulous and inaccurate journalism that since has become his stock in trade.

Gilligan and the September dossier

In his reporting of the 2002 dossier on Iraq’s WMD, Gilligan’s evident aim was to cause the maximum damage to the Labour government and to Tony Blair’s director of communications Alastair Campbell in particular – not, it has been suggested, because of any principled opposition to the Iraq war, or even to the false claims about WMD used to justify it, but in order to pursue a personal vendetta against Campbell.

In a report broadcast on the Radio 4 Today programme in May 2003, and later in an article for the Mail on Sunday (headlined “I asked my intelligence source why Blair misled us all over Saddam’s weapons. His reply? One word … CAMPBELL”) Gilligan claimed:

(1) that a week before publication Alastair Campbell had decided that the dossier should be “sexed up” by adding the now notorious claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime could deploy WMD within 45 minutes; (2) that the intelligence agencies had been opposed to the inclusion of the 45-minutes claim but had been overruled by Downing Street; and (3) that the government had insisted on the claim appearing in the dossier even though it “probably knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in”.

The only evidence Gilligan had to back up his charges about Downing Street’s role in preparing the dossier was an off-the-record interview with Ministry of Defence scientist and weapons inspector David Kelly. But Kelly was by no means “one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier”, as Gilligan described him to Today listeners. Kelly himself later stated that while he had made some technical contributions to the dossier he was “not involved in the intelligence component in any way nor in the process of the dossier’s compilation”. Kelly’s information about the intelligence component of the dossier came from his contacts in the MoD’s Defence Intelligence Staff and he had no first-hand knowledge of Campbell’s role in the inclusion of the 45-minutes claim.

Even if you accept that all of Gilligan’s claims about what Kelly told him were true – and that is quite an assumption to make – Kelly’s allegations were an entirely inadequate basis on which to make such explosive accusations against the government. When Alastair Campbell famously wrote in his diary, in response to initial reports that Gilligan’s information came from Kelly, that he and defence secretary Geoff Hoon had agreed “it would fuck Gilligan if that was his source”, this was the point he was making.

The most Kelly had provided Gilligan with was a lead that needed to be followed up, to see whether the story checked out. If Gilligan did try to find confirmation of the accusations he wanted to make against Downing Street he certainly didn’t come up with anything. But he decided to go ahead with the story anyway, based solely on his talk with Kelly. He was evidently more interested in settling scores with Campbell and basking in the public attention he expected to receive as the author of a dramatic scoop than in ensuring his charges were well founded.

Although the BBC publicly stood by Gilligan in the face of Campbell’s furious reaction to the accusations against him, in private they were under no illusions about Gilligan’s methods. In an email to the head of Radio News a few weeks after Today broke the story, the programme editor Kevin Marsh had some harsh words to say about his reporter. Marsh recognised Gilligan’s talents as an investigator but said that his Today piece had been marred by “flawed reporting” and that, in the BBC’s efforts to counter government attacks on its objectivity and credibility, “our biggest millstone has been his loose use of language and lack of judgement in some of his phraseology”.

Among the solutions proposed by Marsh was that in future Gilligan should discuss all stories with him before they were broadcast, that Gilligan’s anonymous sources should be subjected to “an explicit credibility test”, that Gilligan’s material should be assembled in time to be vetted by Marsh or a senior assistant editor, and that the script should be agreed in advance, with Gilligan under instructions not to vary it. Marsh also proposed that either Gilligan should be banned from writing for publications outside the BBC – or, if he was permitted to do so, the rule should be that “all writing for non-BBC outlets is seen 24 hours in advance of copy time and before it is filed by two editors/managers – if changes are necessary, the changed copy is seen, again before being filed”.

It would be difficult to find a statement by any editor displaying such a complete lack of confidence in the reliability of one of their own journalists.

When Gilligan’s accusations came under detailed scrutiny at the Hutton Inquiry his case against Blair and Campbell fell apart. Gilligan himself admitted that Kelly had not told him that the government knew the 45-minutes claim was false – he had just inferred this from Kelly’s remarks – and he conceded that the reason for the claim being added in the final stages of the dossier’s compilation was that the intelligence on which it was based had not been available earlier. The inquiry also found there was no basis to Gilligan’s charge that the 45-minutes claim had been inserted on Campbell’s insistence against the wishes of the intelligence agencies – some critics in the Defence Intelligence Staff had wanted the claim to be worded less strongly but nobody had objected to its inclusion. The Hutton Inquiry pronounced that Gilligan’s accusations were “unfounded”.

The real story of the September dossier was that the intelligence community – with some honourable, though partial, exceptions – had happily colluded with the Blair government in presenting the public with a misleading picture of Saddam Hussein’s (completely non-existent, it later turned out) WMD, in order to provide a justification for the invasion of Iraq. If Gilligan had stuck to investigating and exposing that, he would have been on firm ground, but he was more interested in attacking Campbell. By making accusations against the government that he could not substantiate, and which were shown by Hutton to be inaccurate, Gilligan allowed Blair and Campbell to divert attention from their own role in the drive to war by loudly proclaiming that they had been the victims of slander.

Rather than acting as a courageous campaigning journalist, Gilligan revealed himself in the course of this controversy to be a cynical hack devoid of any real principles. The storm unleashed by his hyped-up claims about government manipulation of the September dossier not only led to David Kelly’s suicide, but Gilligan made a further contribution to the hounding of Kelly by helping to expose him as his source – a despicable breach of journalistic ethics which understandably remains a cause of anger among Kelly’s friends.

Forced to resign from the BBC after the Hutton report was published in January 2004, Gilligan left in a defiant mood. In a characteristically pompous and self-serving statement he asserted that Hutton’s findings had “cast a chill over all journalism”, by seeking to “hold reporters, with all the difficulties they face, to a standard that it does not appear to demand of, for instance, government dossiers”. If the government could publish misleading claims based on dubious evidence, Gilligan seemed to be saying, then he had the right to do the same. That is certainly the policy he has consistently pursued during his subsequent work as an “investigative reporter”.

Boris Johnson to the rescue

You might have thought that after this debacle, involving the public exposure of his shoddy and unprofessional methods as a reporter and resulting in his effective sacking by the BBC, Gilligan’s career in journalism would be over. Fortunately for him, however, salvation was at hand in the person of the then Tory MP and Spectator editor Boris Johnson.

Throughout Gilligan’s conflict with the government, Johnson had been one of his most enthusiastic and uncritical supporters. After all, Johnson must have reasoned, Gilligan was going after Blair and Campbell, and his accusations had the potential to seriously damage the Labour government, so what was not to like? Writing in the Daily Telegraph in July 2003 Johnson poured scorn on Campbell’s angry denials that he had forced the intelligence agencies to include in the September dossier material that he knew was untrue. “There is only one point we need to understand”, Johnson declared, “which is that he did at many times and places, manipulate intelligence material for political purposes. In the words of the great Gilligan, he ‘sexed it up’, and he, and his master, have been caught.”

In the following week’s column Johnson took issue with colleagues at the Telegraph who had criticised Gilligan on the assumption that, because he worked for “the anti-war BBC”, he must have opposed the invasion of Iraq and was therefore “not to be trusted in his reporting of David Kelly’s views”. Not so, Johnson assured them. He knew for a fact that, while there may have been BBC reporters who opposed the Iraq war, “Andrew Gilligan was not among them”. According to Johnson, the “diligent Gilligan” had done everyone a favour by unmasking Campbell. As for David Kelly, he was “an unimprovable source” for Gilligan’s accusations.

Even as proceedings at the Hutton Inquiry blew large holes in Gilligan’s reporting, Johnson stood by his man. In a leader for the Spectator in September 2003 he suggested, bizarrely, that “one name will live on in British political myth, just as Dreyfus lives on in France. That name is Gilligan”. The Spectator, Johnson announced, was “resolutely Gilliganiste”. The most he would concede was that Gilligan’s story about the September dossier was “perhaps sloppily phrased” and the BBC should have apologised for the “small errors” he had made. Although the Spectator had supported the Iraq war, Johnson wrote, it also stood for “the freedom of journalists to bring new and important facts into the public domain. That was what Gilligan did”.

In December 2003 the Spectator hosted a “Save Andrew Gilligan” dinner at Luigi’s restaurant in Covent Garden. Nick Cohen reported that among the predominantly Tory diners it was tacitly accepted that evidence from the intelligence chiefs at the Hutton hearings had demolished Gilligan’s charges against Campbell over the 45-minutes claim. The Tory party’s best tactic now, it was agreed, would be to denounce Blair for authorising the release of David Kelly’s name to the media, as the Hutton Inquiry revealed he had done, and then denying it when questioned by the press after Kelly’s death.

Sure enough, in January 2004 Johnson devoted an entire Telegraph column to that issue, headlined “The totality is – the Prime Minister lied”. Not only had Blair misled the British people about the government’s role in exposing Kelly, Johnson declared indignantly, but Kelly’s name had been “released with no thought to the effects this action might have on him or his family, and it was done by Blair, Blair, Blair”. Needless to say, Johnson didn’t have a word of criticism for another individual who had helped to reveal Kelly as the source for the Today and Mail on Sunday reports, without any regard for the consequences – namely Gilligan, Gilligan, Gilligan.

Unlike his fellow diners at Luigi’s, though, Johnson was not prepared to accept that the Hutton Inquiry had refuted Gilligan’s accusations against Campbell, and he continued to maintain that “the BBC story was essentially accurate”. For Johnson, the point of the exercise was to undermine the Labour government and Gilligan had to be defended whether he was right or wrong. It wouldn’t be the last time that the gaping holes in Gilligan’s journalism were overlooked by his admirers because he was telling them what they wanted to hear.

In January 2004, the day after the Hutton report was released, Johnson’s Telegraph column appeared under the headline “The BBC was doing its job – bring back Gilligan”, a call repeated by Johnson in a leader for that week’s Spectator. Batting away the findings of the inquiry, Johnson insisted that Gilligan’s Today broadcast of May 2003 had been “justified reporting”. Gilligan ought to be given credit for “an important, accurate and exclusive story” and should be “reinstated forthwith to his job on Today”. When the BBC failed to follow his advice, and demanded Gilligan’s resignation instead, Johnson stepped in and offered him a job at the Spectator as its defence and diplomatic editor.

When Gilligan was later asked who in the media had been most helpful at the time of Hutton, the name he immediately came up with was, unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson: “He was very supportive over the whole thing and I’ve made no secret that I’m very grateful for that.” His unwavering support for Gilligan during 2003-4 was later to yield real political dividends for Johnson. By the time Johnson was selected as the Tory candidate for the 2008 London mayoral election, Gilligan had moved on from the Spectator and was working for the Evening Standard. There Gilligan was able to repay his debt to Johnson by placing his journalistic talents – for hyping up flimsy evidence and making false and malicious accusations – in the service of Johnson’s campaign to defeat Ken Livingstone. It is a service that Gilligan continues to perform for Johnson to this day.

Conclusion

In light of the above, it is not difficult to understand either Gilligan’s fierce commitment to ensuring Boris Johnson’s election to the London mayoralty or the unscrupulous approach towards evidence that he has employed in pursuing that objective.

True, these days Gilligan doesn’t have the clout he did in 2008, when his witch-hunt of Lee Jasper produced shock-horror headlines on Evening Standard billboards across London and determined much of the news coverage by the BBC and other media outlets who should have known better. Today, Gilligan’s bosses at the Telegraph – no doubt anxious about his lightminded attitude towards the facts and refusal to learn from or even acknowledge his mistakes – have shunted most of his London reporting onto a blog on the paper’s website and relatively little of his “investigative journalism” makes it into the paper’s print edition. Also the glaring failure of Gilligan’s accusations against Lee Jasper to stand up under subsequent investigation has probably made fellow journalists rather more wary of accepting his charges at face value.

But that hasn’t stopped Gilligan producing a barrage of anti-Livingstone blog posts that grow ever more obsessive and unbalanced. Hopefully the analysis presented here will help to demolish any residual admiration for Gilligan among opponents of the Iraq war and give pause to anyone who might be inclined to take his attacks on Livingstone seriously.

Published by Socialist Unity in April 2012