A programme that reaffirmed the unique importance of the BBC

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The Independent Online

As might be expected of any large organisation, the BBC has its faults. Next week, one collection of faults will be dwelt on at some length by Lord Hutton's report on the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, the Government scientist.

Lord Hutton may criticise the corporation and its journalists for the way in which they reported the anonymous views of Dr Kelly on the dossier that made the case for war against Iraq. If the judge reaches the same conclusions from the evidence before his inquiry as this newspaper, however, he will recognise that Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter, performed a valuable public service.

Although he made mistakes - notably his e-mail to David Chidgey on the Foreign Affairs Committee - Mr Gilligan reported the essentials of Dr Kelly's views fairly. And Dr Kelly's opinion that the dossier stretched the evidence of the threat from WMD beyond what the intelligence would bear, for political reasons, was broadly borne out by the hearings of the inquiry.

Lord Hutton may take a sterner view of the early reaction of the BBC to the Government's counter-attack. If the BBC had simply checked the discrepancies between Mr Gilligan's unscripted comments and his more careful pre-recorded report, it could easily have taken some of the heat out of the dispute by "clarifying" its reports.

There does seem to have been a misguided view, right up the BBC hierarchy, that to have yielded to government pressure, whether justified or not, would have been fatally to compromise the corporation's independence. It seems the top brass simply did not want to know what was true and what was not. This was a serious mistake, not just in itself but - in hindsight - because it contributed to the witch-hunting atmosphere in which the Government and media tried to establish the identity of the BBC's source in order to test the allegations.

We will have to wait until Wednesday to find out what the judge thinks of that, and how he weighs it against the culpability of the Ministry of Defence, Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister and Dr Kelly himself.

What is extraordinary in the meantime is that a sharp attack on the BBC's conduct was broadcast by the corporation itself. It is difficult to imagine any other journalistic organisation broadcasting the equivalent of Wednesday night's Panorama programme which bluntly criticised the blanket refusal of Greg Dyke, the BBC's director general, and Gavyn Davies, the chairman of its governors, to admit to any mistakes in the corporation's reporting that triggered the sequence of events that led to Dr Kelly's suicide.

Not only that, but it was a well-made, serious programme, dealing with important issues in a clear way that seems almost old-fashioned now. It deployed none of the patronising gimmicks that so often pass for current affairs television these days.

It speaks volumes for the BBC's confidence in the values of free speech that it was prepared not only to tolerate but to promote such internal pluralism on such a sensitive issue.

Not everyone is happy, needless to say. Mr Gilligan is reported to be furious that he was not given the chance to defend himself, but nor was anyone else. It was fair that the BBC did not give its own actors in the drama privileged treatment.

Cynics also see the programme as an attempt to pre-empt whatever Lord Hutton has in store for the BBC next week. No matter; whatever the motives of managers, the fact remains that the programme was made, broadcast in a peak viewing slot and even trailed heavily across the BBC's output.

Whatever mistakes the BBC may have made in the Kelly affair, by this act of openness it has gone a long way to redeem itself. At a time when the BBC's future as a public service broadcaster is under predictable attack from commercial rivals, it has restaked its claim to remain at the core of British broadcasting for years to come.