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September 6, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:14am

BBC chairman says Emily Maitlis ‘completely wrong’ on Newsnight monologue complaint

By Charlotte Tobitt

The chairman of the BBC has said Emily Maitlis was “completely wrong” in her complaints over how the broadcaster acted following her monologue about Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham.

In her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last month, former Newsnight presenter Maitlis claimed the BBC was “perhaps sending a message of reassurance directly to the government itself” by censuring her quickly after the May 2020 broadcast in which she said Cummings had “broken the rules” and “the country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot”.

Addressing the DCMS Committee on Tuesday morning, BBC chairman Richard Sharp (pictured, left) said: “While I thought the issues she raised were worthwhile and very good, she was completely wrong on saying due process wasn’t followed.”

Sharp, who was not chairman at the time of the BBC’s ruling against Maitlis, added: “I disagree with her view of impartiality, which may mean that she can lead with her own opinions and follow with the facts… [Why] it was found, both by us and Ofcom subsequently, that we had appropriately addressed the issue was because she had led with her opinions.

“As a great journalist it wasn’t that her instincts were wrong, the issue is how the BBC does what it does, which is we have to provide the facts in an impartial way to the audience and allow them to draw their own opinions.”

BBC director general Tim Davie (pictured, centre), who was also not in post at the time of the incident, equally stood by the broadcaster’s decision.

He said: “Our view is impartiality is not just to be able to speak truth to power, but it’s to do it in a way where you… [are] showing a balance of opinion. You don’t offer categoric opinion in that way at the top of an item. In my view, we were in the wrong place. Emily’s an outstanding journalist. I respect her opinion, but we disagree on this.”

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Davie added that it is wrong to think that after taking a call from Downing Street or another senior political office that the BBC will “run in a panic going ‘we need to change something'”. Maitlis had suggested the BBC sought to “pacify” No 10 when it called the day after her monologue, and that was why a public apology was made swiftly.

In her speech, Maitlis also claimed the BBC board had as a member an “active agent of the Conservative party”, seemingly referring to the broadcaster’s former head of political programming and Downing Street’s ex-head of communications Robbie Gibb without naming him.

She said: “Put this in the context of the BBC board, where another active agent of the Conservative party – former Downing Street spin doctor, and former adviser to BBC rival GB News – now sits, acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality.”

Asked at the DCMS Committee whether Gibb is impartial, Davie said: “I think everyone coming to the BBC on the board that I deal with puts the BBC first, and absolutely understands and supports me personally and the executive team to deliver impartiality, yes.

“I don’t think anyone personally comes in any walk of life with total impartiality. That’s one of the joys of the challenge. When you come to the BBC you focus wholly – it sounds very worthy – on a higher purpose and that is to deliver impartial journalism and that is critical.”

Sharp earlier said the BBC strives to “operate entirely free of inappropriate political influence” using mechanisms led by the director general, standards committee and the board.

Davie and Sharp were also asked about the first episode of new political programme Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, during which comedian Joe Lycett mocked the new prime minister Liz Truss following her interview.

Davie said Lycett’s contribution had been “slightly bemusing” but that the BBC had only received 66 complaints to date about the programme as the audience “saw it for what it was”.

He said that such an episode, which prompted the Daily Mail splash on Monday to complain “Now BBC comic mocks Liz Truss”, “doesn’t affect the world-class job that Laura does”. “You’re not going to get everything right when you select guests,” he added.

Davie said it was “more than healthy” in a democracy for programmes to mock the powerful at times: “It’s essential.”

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