EXCLUSIVE: A BBC insider has told us the decision to reprimand Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis on Wednesday over her comments about Dominic Cummings was “weak and embarrassing.”
In a blistering attack, the well-placed BBC news source, who works on one of the corporation’s flagship shows, said: “BBC bosses couldn’t have handled this situation any worse. Rushing to judgment in order to hang one of its prized assets out to dry is frankly weak and embarrassing.“
They added that the decision has caused “dismay and anger” within the Newsnight ranks: “The mood among the team is of dismay and anger at this decision. We stand behind Emily and the editor Esmé [Wren] in support of them on this. The decision by BBC management will only act to undermine Newsnight’s award-winning journalism during a crucial time when it’s needed most.”
Maitlis clarified last night that, contrary to reports, she hadn’t been removed from Wednesday’s edition of the news and current affairs show but instead “asked for the night off.”
She is next due to host the program on Monday, we understand.
The BBC had issued a statement earlier in the day saying that Maitlis’s introduction to Tuesday night’s show “did not meet our standards of due impartiality.” The searing intro addressed the controversial lockdown trips taken by government aide Cummings, a story which has dominated UK media and generated significant public anger over the past week.
In the monologue, she said that Cummings “broke the rules”: “The country can see that, and it’s shocking the government cannot. The longer ministers and the Prime Minister tell us he worked within them, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be,” she said.
Clips of the sequence went viral and attracted millions of views, prompting both support and criticism on Twitter. There was outrage from some Conservative politicians and commentators, and concern among some within the BBC.
The decision to reprimand Maitlis has led to a flood of support from celebrities, including Jonathan Ross, Rob Delaney, Caitlin Moran, Stacey Dooley, Stephen Mangan, Minnie Driver, Susanna Reid and Duncan Jones.
Former BBC star Jonathan Ross tweeted, “She was speaking the truth so why did BBC bosses react this way? Impartial reporting does not mean you need to lie just because that’s the Governments current MO…”
The Split and Episodes actor Stephen Mangan called the decision “wrong and craven.”
A number of commentators online have questioned whether the BBC has displayed the same concern for impartiality when it comes to its top male news presenters. Last year, the BBC had to row back a reprimand of BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, who the broadcaster initially said had breached impartiality guidelines when she criticised Donald Trump’s motives in saying four female Democrats should “go back” to “places from which they came”. The optics aren’t great considering that earlier this year, BBC presenter Samira Ahmed won an employment tribunal she brought against the BBC in a dispute over equal pay. And this follows the 2017-18 gender pay gap controversy.
However, this week’s incident isn’t the first BBC clash with star presenter Maitlis. Last year, the broadcaster upheld a complaint that the journalist was “sneering and bullying” towards columnist Rod Liddle during a Newsnight discussion. The BBC’s internal executive complaints unit found that the presenter was too “persistent and personal” in her criticism of Liddle, leaving her open to claims she had “failed to be even-handed”.
This week’s reprimand has stirred up plenty of well-worn discussion online and within the BBC about bias and impartiality. The broadcaster offers a broad church of news programs and some think there should be room for more editorializing within news reviews such as Newsnight, compared to straight news bulletins. Sources tell us that, in the age of Twitter and viral takedowns, there is a fair degree of generational push and pull within the organization over the approach to news presentation.
The incident has also highlighted concerns over the precarious position of the BBC in the face of Conservative Government hostility towards the organization. One BBC worker told me it was “a classic case of the BBC buckling under pressure to the people who want to break you up.”
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