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BBC determined not to be 'bullied' over Iraq report
( 2003-09-24 23:53) (Agencies)

The chairman of the BBC has told of his determination not to succumb to pressure from the British Government to retract a disputed report on Iraq during a titanic struggle that led to the suicide of a weapons expert.

Gavyn Davies, chairman of the BBC's governors, said he urged his fellow board members to stand by the report, which questioned the case Prime Minister Tony Blair made for the Iraq war, on the basis that BBC executives trusted their reporter's story to be correct.

Mr Davies' evidence, given to the inquiry into the expert's death, comes after the explicit diaries of Mr Blair's media chief Alastair Campbell revealed the Government's fury over the BBC report and its obsession with discrediting it by outing the source, Iraq weapons expert David Kelly.

Mr Kelly killed himself shortly after being named as the source for the report, which claimed the Government had "sexed up" evidence of Iraq's banned weapons to justify war to a sceptical public.

His death, the inquiry and the failure to find any such weapons in Iraq has plunged Mr Blair into the worst political crisis of his six-year tenure.

Chair of the inquiry, Lord Hutton, has said no-one will be immune from criticism in his final report.

The inquiry, to which Mr Blair has given evidence, has put the Government's case for war under intense scrutiny and raised questions over its handling of Mr Kelly.

Counsel for the inquiry, James Dingemans, hinted at a possible line of criticism Lord Hutton may take, accusing the BBC and the Government of taking their battle too far.

"Was this a case where both sides put commonsense and perspective on the side when they had engaged in this dispute," he asked Mr Davies.

The inquiry saw an email Mr Davies sent to BBC governors, saying it was the broadcaster's public duty not to let itself be "bullied" by the Government.

The BBC's first radio broadcast claimed the Government, in its pre-war dossier on Iraq, had included a statement that banned weapons could be fired within 45 minutes, despite knowing it to be wrong.

The Government has rejected the claim.

"Right or wrong on the 45 minutes, we must not buckle under Government pressure and give ground on the independence and impartiality of our news output," Mr Davies said.

"I stand by that," he added.

Jonathan Sumption, counsel for the Government, accused Mr Davies of standing by the story to save political face irrespective of the facts behind the BBC report.

"I do not, at any stage, ignore the facts," Mr Davies responded angrily.

Mr Davies said he trusted the judgement of BBC executives who had decided that the reporter's notes backed up the story and that the source was credible.

The inquiry also heard on Wednesday how Mr Kelly was alerted to the fact that his name had been confirmed to the press in a phone call from his line manager that lasted only 46 seconds.

Bryan Wells told the inquiry he made the call from a train and it was a bad line.

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