David Dimbleby has said Emily Maitlis’ mistake was to deliver her Newsnight monologue as a “polemic”.
The former Question Time host, 83, also dismissed the suggestion there is a “cabal” of Conservative supporters in the governorship of the BBC.
Maitlis, who left the BBC this year, used the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival this week to claim the corporation had “sought to pacify” No 10 by issuing a swift apology following her 2020 segment about Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham.
The broadcaster received more than 20,000 complaints and ruled Maitlis and the Newsnight team breached impartiality rules, saying in a statement: “We believe the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today, Dimbleby said: “First of all, the words she spoke had she said been approved by the editorial team at Newsnight so it wasn’t just Emily that was rebuked by the BBC. It was the team. The second thing I would say is that the things she said I think should have been questions not statements.
“‘The country can see that Cummings broke the rule, it is shocked the Government cannot’. Well, not everybody may have been shocked. ‘The public mood is one of fury, contempt and anguish’. Well, maybe but that is a question to put. It was a polemic. I think that was the mistake.”
Dimbleby said he personally did not feel like a fool, as the monologue claimed many in the country did, but instead felt “very cross” with Mr Cummings, who was then Boris Johnson’s chief adviser.
Referring to Maitlis’ claim the BBC had rebuked the Newsnight team in response to a complaint from the Government, he added: “I don’t actually think that the call from No 10 the next morning (had any effect). There is a call from No 10 every bloody morning of the week.
“Whoever is in power, there always are. Look at Alastair Campbell – never ever gave up on the BBC when Labour was in office.”
In a reference to Theresa May’s former communications director Sir Robbie Gibb, Maitlis said during her lecture: “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.”
Jess Brammar, former editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK and acting editor of Newsnight, was confirmed as the BBC’s executive news editor of news channels last year.
However, her impartiality was questioned after old tweets emerged in which she was critical of Brexit and Mr Johnson.
Labour then called for Sir Robbie to be sacked from the board of the BBC after claims he tried to block her hiring on political grounds.
Dimbleby said: “It is up to the chairman of the BBC – who admittedly is a Conservative supporter – to monitor what that board does, and Robbie Gibb, who is the person you are talking about, clearly I think did put it about that he didn’t think a particular appointment to the news division was right because of tweets that Jess Brammar had written.
“The interesting point about this is that Jess Brammar was appointed. Robbie Gibb may have said this is unwise or this will get the backs up at No 10 or something. I don’t know what he did actually say. I have talked to him about it. He won’t say what he actually said.
“They say in return that Muriel Gray is there, who is a Labour supporter, so it is tricky. I don’t think it is true that there is a kind of cabal in the governorship of the BBC of Tory supporters.”
A BBC spokesperson previously 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.”
Charlotte Moore, BBC’s chief content officer, also addressed the issue, saying: “It’s important to put on the record that no way was there any influence from the Government or from the board. We follow due editorial process and if editorial standards are breached, then it’s very important to be able to call that out. But that’s part of upholding an impartial news service.”