Maitlis recalls BBC complaint from Downing Street
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Ms Maitlis, who left the BBC this year for rival Global, claimed the broadcaster “sought to pacify” Number 10 by issuing a swift apology for her Newsnight monologue about Dominic Cummings. But veteran BBC foreign correspondent took to Twitter to disagree with his former colleague as he defended the corporation.
Mr Simpson said: “The BBC’s job is not to tell people what to think about the complex political issues of the day.
“It is to lay the arguments in front of them honestly and let them make up their own minds.
“This isn’t timidity, Emily Maitlis — it’s the essence of public service broadcasting.”
In her lecture, entitled Boiling Frog: Why We Have To Stop Normalising The Absurd, Ms Maitlis criticised the BBC’s response to the row over her controversial Newsnight monologue in 2020.
She opened the instalment by fuming that Boris Johnson’s then chief adviser had “broken the rules” with a lockdown trip to Durham, saying: “The country can see that, and it’s shocked the Government cannot.”
The broadcaster was inundated with more than 20,000 complaints and ruled that Ms Maitlis breached impartiality rules.
Speaking in her lecture, Ms Maitlis said the programme initially “passed off with a few pleasant texts from BBC editors and frankly little else”.
She said: “It was only the next morning that the wheels fell off. A phone call of complaint was made from Downing Street to the BBC News management.
“This – for context – is not unusual. It wasn’t unusual in the Blair days – far from it – in the Brown days, in the Cameron days.
“What I’m saying is it’s normal for government spin doctors to vocalise their displeasure to journalists.
“What was not foreseen was the speed with which the BBC sought to pacify the complainant.
“Within hours, a very public apology was made, the programme was accused of a failure of impartiality, the recording disappeared from the iPlayer, and there were paparazzi outside my front door.”
Ms Maitlis said the media shows its impartiality when it reports “without fear or favour” and “when we are not scared to hold power to account, even when it feels uncomfortable to do so”.
She added: “When we understand that if we’ve covered rule-breaking by a Scottish chief medical officer or an English government scientist then journalistic rigour should be applied to those who make policy within Number 10.
“The one person – ironically – who understood this was Dominic Cummings himself, who texted me that very evening to offer his wry support.
“So, back to the speed of response. Why had the BBC immediately and publicly sought to confirm the Government spokesman’s opinion, without any kind of due process?
“It makes no sense for an organisation that is, admirably, famously rigorous about procedure – unless it was perhaps sending a message of reassurance directly to the Government itself?”
In an apparent reference to Theresa May’s former communications director Sir Robbie Gib, Ms Maitlis added: “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.”
Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival on Thursday, the BBC’s chief content officer has that “in no way was there any influence from the Government or the board” on the BBC over its decision to rebuke Ms Maitlis over her Newsnight monologue.
Charlotte Moore said that everybody at the BBC was held to standards of “due impartiality”.
The BBC said: “As we have made clear previously in relation to Newsnight we did not take action as a result of any pressure from Number 10 or Government and to suggest otherwise is wrong.”
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