Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is a smooth politician who relies on nuance to do his dirty work. He did not say, in plain terms, that he disbelieves The Independent's accounts of civilian casualties sustained in Iraq. He did not say that Robert Fisk, our award-winning reporter, is a willing dupe of Saddam Hussein's regime. He simply allowed those suggestions to hang, unspoken, in the House of Commons chamber yesterday.
"A piece of a cruise missile was handed to the journalist," he said, to explain how we were able to publish the serial number of the missile likely to have been responsible for the second Baghdad marketplace explosion last Friday, which killed about 62 civilians.
Robert Fisk has a proud record of reporting what he sees. He has travelled to dangerous places and described unflinchingly what is happening. He prefers to speak to the people caught up in conflicts rather than report what the generals, politicians and spokesmen are saying.
Any careful reader of his reports from Iraq would know that he holds no brief for the Saddam regime. Indeed, he was among the first journalists to report Saddam's use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. Anyone who read his reporting of the Kosovo war will remember that, when Nato headquarters denied that its aircraft had hit civilian convoys, he went to the spot on the ground where the missiles fell and found the markings on casings of US munitions. Nato spokesmen later admitted responsibility.
Mr Hoon's handling of the news from this war has been characterised by exaggeration, half-truth and backtracking. It was Mr Hoon who claimed on BBC Radio that local people had "certainly" risen up in Basra. When asked how he knew, he blustered. It does not seem to have been wholly true. It was Mr Hoon who claimed that chemical suits found by advancing coalition troops showed "categorically" that Saddam was preparing to use chemical weapons, to be contradicted by Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff, who warned against jumping to conclusions. Last night, the MoD was forced to concede that an estimate of PoW numbers given only hours earlier by Mr Hoon was wildly inaccurate.
Yesterday's innuendo against this newspaper and our correspondent was a miserable attempt to brush aside unwelcome truths. This is no way to reassure a doubtful British public that the Government genuinely wants to minimise civilian casualties, rather than simply the reporting of them.