John Simpson hits back at ex-Newsnight host Emily Maitlis after she tore into her old bosses

BBC veteran John Simpson has defended the corporation after Emily Maitlis slammed her former employer for reprimanding her over a monologue about Dominic Cummings.

Maitlis was at the centre of a row after BBC chiefs decided she had breached impartiality rules in her broadcast about Boris Johnson’s then chief adviser in 2020.

She had introduced Newsnight’s coverage by saying that the public ‘feel like fools’ for following lockdown rules only for Mr Cummings to ‘flout’ them by driving 260 miles from his home to County Durham. 

Last night, Maitlis, 51, who left the BBC this year to join media group Global, told the Edinburgh TV Festival that the corporation had ‘sought to pacify’ No 10 by issuing an apology ‘within hours’.

She asked whether the BBC was ‘perhaps sending a message of reassurance directly to the Government’.

In response to her comments, BBC News World Affairs Editor John Simpson defended the corporation and its political coverage.

He said: ‘The BBC’s job isn’t to tell people what to think about the complex political issues of the day.

‘It’s to lay the arguments in front of them honestly and let them make up their own minds.

Former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis (pictured) accused the BBC of caving in too quickly to Government complaints over her controversial monologue about Dominic Cummings

John Simpson

Former adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Dominic Cummings

BBC veteran John Simpson (pictured left) said the corporation was not being ‘timid’ when it issued an apology over Maitlis’ comments on Dominic Cummings (pictured right)

‘This isn’t timidity, @maitlis – it’s the essence of public service broadcasting.’

Simpson’s comments echoed the defence issued by the BBC’s Chief Content Officer made in her own speech at the same event. 

A long history of impartiality rows  

Maitlis has been involved in a series of impartiality scandals during her time at the BBC. 

2020 – Maitlis introduced Newsnight’s coverage of the Cummings controversy with a highly-critical speech in which she said the public ‘feel like fools’ and accusing Boris Johnson of showing ‘blind loyalty’.

The BBC received more than 40,000 complaints in two days about the broadcast – both from those angry at her comments and those annoyed at the BBC’s decision to say it had broken rules. 

2021 –Maitlis was reprimanded by the broadcaster after she shared a Twitter post by Piers Morgan about the pandemic which it described as ‘clearly controversial’.

The post said: ‘If failing to quarantine properly is punishable by 10yrs in prison, what is the punishment for failing to properly protect the country from a pandemic?’

2022 – Maitlis apologised for retweeting a message criticising the ‘sheer tawdry Trumpian shabbiness’ of the Government’s response to the Downing Street parties. 

The Newsnight presenter, 51, retweeted a post by former Tory Cabinet minister Rory Stewart, in which he said ‘it is difficult to see how much more of this the party or our political system can survive’.

Charlotte Moore insisted that ‘in no way was there any influence from the Government or the board’ on the BBC over its decision to rebuke Maitlis. 

She added: ‘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.’ 

Ms Moore said impartiality is ‘particularly important for the BBC’, adding she feels viewers expect that from the broadcaster, especially when it comes to holding politicians to account.

Ms Moore also said she wishes all of the high-profile staff who have left the BBC in the past year well and said that the departures provide great opportunity for new talent to come up in their place.

She said she was ‘sorry to see them go’, but that is was the ‘natural course of things in a competitive landscape’ and that if other outlets did not want to poach BBC talent, then they would be ‘getting it wrong’.

The row erupted in 2020 after Maitlis introduced the programme’s coverage of the Cummings controversy with a highly-critical speech, in which she said the public ‘feel like fools’ and accusing Boris Johnson of showing ‘blind loyalty’.

The BBC received more than 40,000 complaints in two days about the broadcast – both from those angry at her comments and those annoyed at the BBC’s decision to say it had broken rules. 

The presenter said the row had ‘got way more attention than in truth it ever deserved’ and was neither the best or worst opening she had ever done.  

Focusing on the speed of the BBC’s response to Government, she said: ‘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?’

But she said Cummings had actually contacted her directly the same evening it aired apparently to offer his ‘wry support’. 

When Maitlis quit the BBC earlier this year insiders had said she had decided to leave because she was ‘frustrated’ at being repeatedly ‘ticked off’ by bosses. 

She took a swipe at the BBC board and singled out member Sir Robbie Gibb – Theresa May’s former director of communications – describing him as ‘another active agent of the Conservative party’.  

A BBC spokesman said: ‘The BBC places the highest value on due impartiality and accuracy and we apply these principles to our reporting on all issues. 

‘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. 

‘The BBC found the programme breached its editorial standards and that decision still stands.’   

Last night, Maitlis, 51, who left the BBC this year to join media group Global, told the Edinburgh TV Festival that the BBC had 'sought to pacify' No 10 by issuing an apology 'within hours'

Last night, Maitlis, 51, who left the BBC this year to join media group Global, told the Edinburgh TV Festival that the BBC had ‘sought to pacify’ No 10 by issuing an apology ‘within hours’

In her own speech at the event today, the BBC's Chief Content Officer Charlotte Moore insisted that 'in no way was there any influence from the Government or the board' on the BBC over its decision to rebuke Maitlis

In her own speech at the event today, the BBC’s Chief Content Officer Charlotte Moore insisted that ‘in no way was there any influence from the Government or the board’ on the BBC over its decision to rebuke Maitlis

Meanwhile, Channel 4 boss Ian Katz today praised Maitlis’s MacTaggart Lecture as ‘brilliant’ and said it serves as a powerful reminder that ‘due impartiality is the bedrock of journalism’.

The broadcaster’s chief content officer was editor of BBC current affairs show Newsnight between 2013 and 2017 when Maitlis was an anchor.

Mr Katz touched on the section of Maitlis’ speech in which she argued the media has failed to adapt to a change in politics and was guilty of ‘normalising’ populist ideas.

Mr Katz said: ‘Impartiality does not mean not calling out things that are simply untrue.’

He added that he thinks ‘the thing we have to obsess about as news organisations is trust’ and claimed that Channel 4 is the most trusted news outlet in the UK.

Reflecting on what the future may hold for Channel 4 as the Government seeks to privatise the channel, Mr Katz said: ‘I covered politics for a long time (and) I learnt it is a fool’s game to try to predict what politicians do.’

He added that the ‘whole industry’ made it clear that the contribution that Channel 4 makes to the economy, levelling up and TV is ‘best protected in public hands’.

He also admitted discussions around privatisation had been ‘quite energising’ for him and his colleagues to give them a ‘lazar-focus’ on their remit.

Maitlis introduced Newsnight's coverage of the Cummings controversy with a highly-critical speech in which she said the public 'feel like fools' and accusing Boris Johnson of showing 'blind loyalty'

Maitlis introduced Newsnight’s coverage of the Cummings controversy with a highly-critical speech in which she said the public ‘feel like fools’ and accusing Boris Johnson of showing ‘blind loyalty’

Mr Katz also suggested the number of shows and TV formats currently being rebooted by broadcasters is ‘depressing’.

His comments come after ITV announced it was reviving Big Brother, while Channel 4 has itself rebooted shows such as Changing Rooms and The Big Breakfast in recent years.

Mr Katz said Big Brother was a ‘wonderful show’ which did ‘wonderful things’ during its time on Channel 4 but feels the channel is focusing on commissioning new shows rather than reviving older models.

He said: ‘I’m sure it will bring an audience to ITV but I do think there is something depressing about this microwave moment of TV of shows being reheated.

‘If Channel 4 is about anything it is about finding that new dish’.

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