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BBC Reporter Threatens to Sue British Minister for Libel

BY Admin  June 30, 2003 at 12:00 PM EDT

Gilligan – the British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent who last month sparked a battle for his reporting the British government relied on exaggerated intelligence on Iraq — announced on Saturday night he would take legal action against Woolas, unless he received a public apology and retraction for the allegations made against the reporter.

Gilligan, the diplomatic and defense correspondent for the influential Radio 4 Today program, had the BBC’s full support to take the unprecedented step to seek legal action against the government, if necessary.

The lawsuit is based on a letter Woolas sent to Gilligan, which accused the reporter of “misleading” the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which is investigating Prime Minister Tony Blair’s intelligence that led to the country’s participation in the Iraq war.

Woolas’s letter was released to the media on Thursday before Gilligan ever received it.

“Your claims against me are wholly false and are based on the blatant misrepresentation and selective quotation of my evidence,” Gilligan wrote to Woolas in letter posted on the BBC’s Web site.

“I regard the allegation in your letter, which was released to the Press Association long before it reached me, as defamatory, casting grave doubt on my professional integrity and honesty.”

“I now require a full apology and retraction of your claims, which were widely reported on Friday morning, are entirely unsupported by evidence and were clearly intended to blacken my character. In the absence of this, I will have no option but to put the matter in the hands of my lawyers,” Gilligan wrote.

According to Woolas, Gilligan misled the parliamentary committee by repeating the charges made by an unidentified source, which he first cited in his report on Britain’s prewar intelligence on Iraq that aired on BBC’s Today program late last month.

Gilligan reported that the dossier had been “sexed up” with the unreliable intelligence that Saddam Hussein could deploy biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes. Gilligan cited the unnamed source as saying the information was added under political pressure from Blair’s government.

Gilligan also drew fire for specifically repeating his “source’s charge about [Prime Minister Blair's Communication director] Alastair Campbell’s involvement” in pressuring intelligence officials to beef up the dossier against Iraq.

Woolas on Monday said he had no intention of retracting his statements against Gilligan, much less apologizing for attacking Gilligan’s report and journalistic methods.

In an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, Woolas said it was “exasperating” that the allegation in Gilligan’s original story — which last month reported an intelligence source claiming the government had “sexed up” last September’s dossier on the threat from Iraq — had been repeated hundreds of times by BBC news outlets.

“Nobody from the BBC has apologized. But the allegation that the government misled parliament and sexed up the dossier has been repeated hundreds of times on the BBC. It’s exasperating,” Woolas said.

Woolas also questioned that the story equated a single unnamed source with intelligence from MI6 — Britain’s intelligence agency, which originally provided the intelligence that Iraq could be ready to launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

“I find it obscene that comparisons are being made between an assessment by MI6 and some journalist having a gin and tonic, or a pint, with some malcontent in a bar,” he said.

Woolas stressed that Gilligan should have consulted with other sources and the government first to corroborate the story before broadcasting his report.

“The reason why all of us in the government are completely fed up with BBC political journalism is that they don’t check their facts,” Woolas said.

BBC news director Richard Sambrook firmly defended Gilligan and the BBC’s reporting of the anonymous source’s charges involving the “sexed up” intelligence dossier.

Sambrook described the anonymous source as someone close to the intelligence community and “a senior, credible and reliable.”

Gilligan said he plans to file a libel suit against Woolas sometime soon this week.