The BBC has defended its impartiality “on every subject” after the broadcaster came under fire from Emily Maitlis, the former Newsnight presenter, for “both sides-ism” over Brexit and self-censorship to “pacify” government.
BBC chief content officer Charlotte Moore on Thursday rejected Maitlis’s claim that the broadcaster too often found a “superficial balance” in news coverage that pulled punches, normalised populist ideas and succumbed to government influence.
Maitlis, who left the BBC this year for commercial rival LBC, also alleged her former employer had sought to appease Downing Street by issuing a hasty apology for her 2020 monologue about Dominic Cummings’s lockdown trip to Durham while he was an adviser to the prime minister.
While acknowledging that Maitlis had raised an “incredibly important subject” in her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Moore dismissed the claim that the ex-Newsnight presenter had been unfairly rebuked to placate Downing Street.
“We did not take action as a result of any pressure from Number 10 or government and to suggest otherwise is wrong,” said Moore. “I think due process was followed and there was a breach of editorial standards.”
Maitlis’s speech on Wednesday brought into the open uncomfortable debates over editorial standards that have riven the BBC since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the installation of Boris Johnson’s government, which has attacked the broadcaster’s purpose and funding.
BBC director-general Tim Davie has made reinforcing impartiality a top priority since his appointment in 2020, curbing the freedom of the broadcaster’s top journalists to air views on social media.
Some veteran staffers have bristled at the tighter restrictions, which they see as partly designed to calm relations with a hostile government that has repeatedly chided the BBC for bias and threatened its funding.
Maitlis was particularly biting about the BBC’s botched attempts to provide balance during the Brexit referendum, which she said merely gave false equivalence between arguments.
“It might take our producers five minutes to find 60 economists who feared Brexit and five hours to find a sole voice who espoused it,” she said. “But by the time we went on air we simply had one of each; we presented this unequal effort to our audience as balance. It wasn’t.”
As well as questioning the BBC’s application of its editorial standards, Maitlis claimed the broadcaster had appointed “an active agent of the Conservative party” to its board, whose responsibilities made them an “arbiter of BBC impartiality”.
While not naming Sir Robbie Gibb, the former Downing Street communications director who was last year appointed as a BBC non-executive director, Maitlis referred to Financial Times reports of how he has sought to influence appointments at the broadcaster.
The BBC has denied that there has been any improper influence on editorial personnel decisions.
Moore said impartiality was a “cornerstone” of the BBC’s output, stressing the broadcaster expected its “journalists to leave . . . personal opinions at the door”.
“‘Both-sides-ism’ is an interesting way of describing it,” she said, adding that the broadcaster’s mission must be “due impartiality on every subject”.