By Max Goldbart
International TV Co-Editor
BBC Chair Richard Sharp has said MacTaggart lecturer Emily Maitlis was “completely wrong” to say due process was not followed after her now-infamous Dominic Cummings Newsnight rant, and rubbished her claim that a Conservative Party agent sits on the BBC Board.
Maitlis, who has now left the BBC and is fronting a Global podcast, made the comments during last month’s Edinburgh TV Festival address, stating that the BBC had “sought to pacify the complaint” immediately, which she disagreed with.
Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) this morning, Sharp said Maitlis was “completely wrong” to say due process was not followed.
“While I thought the issues raised were worthwhile, I disagree with her view of impartiality which may mean she led with opinions, not facts. We found Newsnight had not appropriately addressed the issue because she led with her opinions.”
The now-infamous opening segment led with Maitlis stating “Dominic Cummings broke the rules” after Boris Johnson’s former adviser was accused of breaking lockdown rules and traveling to Barnard Castle in the midst of the first lockdown.
Maitlis and her Newsnight team were reprimanded quickly for what was deemed an impartiality breach.
Sitting alongside Sharp during a lengthy and wide-ranging DCMSC hearing, Director General Tim Davie said the BBC made “the right decision unequivocally.”
“I can categorically tell you that taking a call from a politician doesn’t make us say ‘we need to change something,’” he added. “I’ve looked in detail at this. There was a proper discussion and a call was made. I’m sorry we’re in a different position to Emily but that’s what happens.”
Sharp also pushed back on Prince Andrew interviewer Maitlis’ MacTaggart claim that an “agent of the Conservative Party” is currently sitting on the BBC Board, namely Sir Robbie Gibb, who reportedly pushed the Board to block the appointment of a news journalist he believed to be overly critical of the government last year.
Sharp called Maitlis’ claim “categorically wrong” and said he was “very disappointed that she made that particular comment.”
“You can’t characterize our most recent appointments as one type,” Sharp added when pressed on the political backgrounds of other recent board members.
Davie dismissed criticism of the BBC’s decision to book comedian and Conservative Party critic Joe Lycett on Sunday morning political format The Laura Kuenssberg Show over the weekend, a move that was slammed by the right-wing press on the day that Liz Truss became Prime Minister.
Davie said booking Lycett was “slightly bemusing” but praised Kuenssberg for doing a “world class job” on her debut show.
“If I reacted to every news item, then I’d be half dead,” he added, when pushed on how the story ended up on the front of the right-wing Daily Mail. Booking Lycett has so far elicited around 60 complaints to the BBC’s Complaints Unit, said Davie.
“Under significant pressure”
The price of the annual £159.50 ($184.74)BBC license fee was frozen for two years by outgoing Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Davie reiterated that the corporation is under “very significant [financial] pressure,” while also awaiting a review into the very future of the funding model – another Dorries move.
The corporation recently published its financial plan to deal with the loss of funds, which will amount to around £250M ($289M) per year for the next five years, with Davie stating the BBC keeps asking “how do you get costs down as far as you can without affecting the audience?”
“You have to make some painful decisions,” he added. “I don’t know what will happen [with the new Culture Secretary and license fee] but the BBC needs to be very clear that the [financial] stakes are high.”
Commercial arm BBC Studios recently had a record year and Davie said this can be taken advantage of without comprising public service values, pointing to the success of the public service-driven Natural History Unit around the world.
“The things that work commercially are often in line with BBC values and we have focused on ensuring commercial activity doesn’t pollute the quality of the brand, what we stand for and our editorial values,” he said. “[BBC Studios] is hugely material to our finances. The commercial arm has real potential both on the production side and the direct-to-consumer side.”
The BBC bosses were also pushed on changes in the News teams that have seen hundreds of job losses and the merging of the domestic and global 24/7 news channels. BBC journalists are understood to be considering strike action over the move.
Following an exodus of top on-screen talent such as Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo to commercial rivals, Davie said “investing in the best talent” is a top priority due to their connection with the audience, while he is also conscious of bringing through the next generation.
The BBC remains “restrained” on paying on-screen talent, he added.
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