David Dimbleby has suggested Emily Maitlis’s Newsnight monologue about Dominic Cummings was more of a “polemic” and her remarks should have been phrased as questions.
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, said in the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival this week that the BBC had “pacified” the Tory government after her coverage of Dominic Cummings’s conduct during lockdown in 2020 by issuing a swift apology.
She also raised concerns about the BBC’s relationship with the Conservative government, saying a BBC board member was an “active agent of the Conservative party” who is shaping the broadcaster’s news output by acting “as the arbiter of BBC impartiality”.
During her speech, Maitlis accused the BBC of adopting a strategy of “both-sides-ism” by “giving platforms to individuals that did not deserve airtime”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, 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.”
Quoting Maitlis, he continued: “‘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.”
Referring to Maitlis’s 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.”
Maitlis, who left the BBC earlier this year to make a podcast for commercial broadcaster LBC, highlighted the role of Sir Robbie Gibb, who previously worked as Theresa May’s director of communications and helped to found the rightwing GB News channel, in her speech.
She said: “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.”
But Dimbleby rejected the idea a Tory agenda was running the decision-making processes at the BBC: “I don’t think it’s true that there’s a cabal of Tory supporters at the BBC.”
However, he added that the “jury is out on how the BBC handles the hostility from the Tory government”, in relation to ending the licence fee and Nadine Dorries’ public “dislike” for the BBC.
“There will always be collisions with government, and indeed with opposition because they’re always trying to lean on the BBC and on occasion the BBC gets it wrong,” said Dimbleby. “It is a political football, the BBC. We have to believe that.”
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 No 10 or government and to suggest otherwise is wrong. The BBC found the programme breached its editorial standards and that decision still stands.”