JOHN Humphrys may come to regret deciding to publish his memoirs. Is lining his pockets worth what’s beginning to look like a masochistic endeavour to trash his own reputation?
The first extracts in the Daily Mail, revealing his full appreciation of the BBC’s entrenched bias against Brexit, groupthink and its pandering to political interest groups, were bad enough. (Though as David Keighley writes elsewhere on TCW today, he has made similar claims before without feeling the need to resign.) Then yesterday I found myself reading another startling confession: ‘How I knew the “sexed up” Iraq dossier story was true’ and once more, with mounting disbelief.
What a crying shame – and how shameful – that it’s taken Humphrys so long to admit to this. What a coward. I will explain why I am so shocked at his revelation, but first you need to read the excerpt:
The graveyard slot on Today is at about 6.10am. It’s for stories considered just about worthy of squeezing in when the audience is at its smallest.
So when I talked to reporter Andrew Gilligan early on May 29, 2003, no one expected that what he had to say might create a fuss. We were wrong. Spectacularly wrong.
The subject of our very brief chat was a dossier that the government had published six months before the Iraq war, which claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that could be ready to use in 45 minutes.
Blair had desperately needed a justification to take Britain into the war, which had just ended. This dossier – compiled from intelligence sources – provided it.
Gilligan, however, had just had a secret meeting with one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier. And his source had told him that the government ‘probably knew’ that the 45-minute figure was wrong.
Indeed, Gilligan said, a week before publication, Downing Street had asked for the dossier to be ‘sexed up’. In other words, it had been deliberately altered to make Saddam appear a far greater threat.
That was a sensational allegation. And Downing Street almost immediately claimed it was completely untrue.
Later in the programme, I interviewed Cabinet minister John Reid, who poured scorn on Gilligan’s allegations.
At that point, I could have delivered a killer punch. But I didn’t – and to this day, I wonder whether it was a mistake to hold back.
Some weeks earlier, I’d had a call from a rather posh-sounding man who said he’d like to invite me to lunch with a Very Senior Person.
There was a condition attached. I was not to reveal anything that was said at the lunch, and he wouldn’t reveal the name of the VSP unless I was prepared to agree that the lunch had never happened.
I replied as you would expect: ‘How can I agree to have lunch with someone if I don’t know who he is?’ So he told me.
It was Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The most powerful spy in the land.
My editor came with me to MI6 headquarters. During the ensuing lunch, I asked Dearlove where he’d place Iraq in the list of countries posing a danger to our security. His answer was immensely revealing: ‘I’m not sure we would regard them as being at the top of our list.’
Indeed, he went further and suggested they were very far from the top and certainly below Syria and Iran. But what about those WMDs, I asked. Where were they, and why hadn’t they been found yet?
He didn’t give a direct answer. What if they were never found, I was asked? What if Saddam had ordered, as the allied troops were closing in on Baghdad, that the WMDs should be destroyed?
And how did I think the media would react to such an announcement from the British government?
There was only one answer to that. The first response would be total incredulity and the second would be hilarity.
We would reach the obvious conclusion in about ten seconds. It was this. In spite of everything we’d been told, the fabled WMDs had not been found for the very simple reason that they’d never existed. I think it’s fair to say this was the answer our hosts had been expecting.
Now here I was, several weeks after that lunch, facing a senior Cabinet minister live across the Today microphones.
And I knew that if I told him about that conversation, it would be impossible for him to deny it – because I had witnesses.
It really would have been a killer punch. I knew that Tony Blair had exaggerated the threat from WMDs. And I knew that they had posed no serious threat to our security because the most senior intelligence figure in the land had told me so.
But I also knew that I couldn’t say so – because I’d be betraying a source to whom I’d promised anonymity.
So I did my best to convey the information without breaking that promise.
‘Let me tell you,’ I said to Reid, ‘I myself have spoken to one or two senior people in the intelligence services who said things that suggest the government exaggerated the threat from Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction.’
I wasn’t surprised, when I came off the air, to be told there was a call awaiting me.
Even less surprised that it was from MI6. They’d listened to the interview with some interest, said my caller, and wondered if, when I used the phrase ‘senior people’, it had been a coded reference to my lunch with the chief.
I had visions of my name being entered in whatever little black book the spooks use to list those who’ve incurred their displeasure.
But I protested my innocence, pointing out that Dearlove wasn’t the only senior spook who did a little private briefing.
I could have been referring to almost anyone, couldn’t I?
He seemed happy enough with that, so I tried to get a sense of how MI6 were reacting to the Gilligan disclosures.
Did they think there’d been a certain amount of cherry-picking with the intelligence in the dossier?
His reply? ‘Inevitably.’
A year ago or so I interviewed Miles Goslett, the author of An Inconvenient Death, about the curious and to date unsatisfactorily explained death of the government scientist, Dr David Kelly; later I decided to review this disturbing account for TCW ‘s recommended summer reading. It had got to me. Nothing smelt right about the death that Miles had so diligently researched. There were too many direct contradictions in the evidence and too many unanswered questions.
Now I find myself reading Mr Humphrys revealing information that was directly pertinent to the case at the time – and since, years later. I cannot be the only person to realise its relevance. In the context of the suspicious death of the man that most people accept was Gilligan’s source of information it seems to me morally reprehensible that he has waited to reveal his story so casually like this, for a cheap headline to promote a book.
It also raises serious questions that need answering, firstly why did Humphrys keep this important information to himself for so long? Since he is prepared to name Dearlove now, why not earlier?
Has it not occurred to him that his revelation throws up new questions about whether David Kelly was the only source Gilligan relied on or whether, as many suspect, Gilligan had a very senior prime source who was somebody other than Dr Kelly?
It is even harder to comprehend given that Humphrys’s story makes the Hutton Inquiry’s decision to clear the government of wrongdoing and to blame the BBC look even more like an establishment cover-up.
All of which makes that all-important question of why Blair and Falconer went out of their way not to hold a full coroner’s inquest into Kelly’s death, as described in the Goslett book, even more legitimate.
This is clearly unfinished business. It is a pity Humphrys was not prepared to play the brave journalist at the time. Only now when it is lucrative.