Former BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis has said a member of the BBC board is an “active Tory agent” who is skewing the broadcaster’s news output by “acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality”.
It seems she was referring to Sir Robbie Gibb, previously Theresa May’s director of communications and a founder of right-wing channel GB News. Before those jobs, he had a successful 25-year career at the BBC, ending up as head of BBC Westminster.
Last year he was appointed to the BBC’s board by Boris Johnson’s government and has since influenced a series of ongoing reviews of the broadcaster’s editorial output.
Delivering the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Maitlis told an audience of industry insiders that she had been rebuked after she told Newsnight viewers that Boris Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings had breached Covid-19 lockdown rules in 2020, by taking his family to Barnard Castle.
She said: “A phone call of complaint was made from Downing Street to the BBC News management. This, for context, is not unusual.
“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 iPlayer, and there were paparazzi outside my front door.
“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?
“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.”
She added that issues like Brexit had led to journalists self-censoring and trying to “sidestep”.
“sections of both the BBC and government-supporting newspapers appear to go into an automatic crouch position whenever the Brexit issue looms large,” she said.
And they are still reluctant to discuss the impact of Brexit “in case they get labelled pessimistic, anti-populist, or worse still, as above: unpatriotic”.
She added: “And yet every day that we sidestep these issues with glaring omissions feels like a conspiracy against the British people; we are pushing the public further away. Why should our viewers, our listeners, come to us to interpret and explain what is going on when they can see our own reluctance to do so?”
Worse still, perhaps, is the fact that it allows Tory representatives to criticise the BBC – like leadership candidate Liz Truss, who recently sidestepped a question about her own activities.
Asked on GB News about a report she had written suggesting that doctors’ pay should be slashed by 10 per cent, she corrected presenter Alistair Stewart, who had said it was written in 2019 when in fact the year was 2009.
Truss corrected him, then said: “I always thought you had high-quality standards at GB News… It’s not the BBC, you actually get your facts right.”
In response to Maitlis’s speech, it seems the BBC told Sky News: “The BBC Board has collective responsibility in protecting the BBC’s independence and ensuring it delivers on its mission and public purposes. It is made up of executive and non-executive members from a range of backgrounds.”
The corporation called Maitlis’s comment over a Financial Times journalist’s assertion that a BBC board member has played a part in selecting journalists “totally incorrect”.
The role of the board is to ensure the BBC delivers its mission and public purpose.
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