The BBC has done the honourable thing: would Tony Blair have done the same?

PITY the BBC. An institution prided for its integrity, its impartiality, its journalistic standards, dragged through the mud, with the likes of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson putting the boot in from the sidelines. It hasn’t been a pretty sight. It hasn’t been a happy 48 hours for a broadcasting institution that has set the standard for the world.

What was to be Tony Blair’s week from hell has turned into a triumph, at the end of which he can even afford the luxury of appearing magnanimous by saying it’s time for a line to be drawn in his government’s row with the BBC.

No doubt about it, the BBC was wrong. Andrew Gilligan’s reporting was flawed. The Hutton inquiry has proved conclusively that his allegation that the government knew the ‘45-minute claim’ was false was simply unsubstantiated. And the BBC has done the honourable thing, with its two most senior executives falling on their swords.

“I’ve been brought up to believe that you cannot choose your own referee and that the referee’s decision is final,” the Chairman of the Governors, Gavyn Davies, said in tendering his resignation. “There is an honourable tradition in British public life that those charged with authority at the top of an organisation should accept responsibility for what happens in that organisation.”

One wonders whether the Prime Minister would have acted in line with that honourable tradition if the Hutton report had been different. Or would he simply have presented his Defence Secretary as a sacrificial lamb?

Indeed, while the BBC has come under all the scrutiny, the British government has escaped any hard questioning. By narrowing the remit of the inquiry to the specifics of the events leading to Dr Kelly’s death, it has masterfully diverted attention from the very issue that the BBC was – quite rightly – raising in the Gilligan report: the issue of why Britain went to war.

It’s been a useful coincidence that the Hutton report has overshadowed the testimony in the US of former weapons inspector David Kay, which points to serious intelligence failures in the run-up to the war and concludes that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

If we accept that there was no deliberate ‘sexing up’ of the intelligence – as Hutton suggested – is it not possible that there was a climate emanating from Downing Street and the White House that directed intelligence operatives from both sides of the Atlantic to looking for the things their masters were looking for, even if the evidence did not support it?

This remains a serious question for which British and American governments need to be called to account. Tony Blair may be hoping the BBC and others will now be cowed from pushing the question too far. Anyone remotely concerned about accountability in a democratic society will be hoping that a wounded media will bite back, precisely to prove that it still has teeth.

At best, Blair has won a reprieve. The question will re-emerge. Even the Bush White House is now admitting the intelligence that laid the ground for justifying the war was faulty. Tony Blair has yet to follow suit. When he does, will he take responsibility for those under his authority as top BBC executives have done?