Emily Maitlis has reflected on the controversy surrounding her Newsnight monologue two years ago, and revealed the most shocking aspect of it to her was how quickly the BBC moved to apologise to Downing Street.
The TV presenter received immense backlash for her opening monologue during an episode of Newsnight in 2020, in which she said Dominic Cummings, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, had ‘broken the rules’ with a lockdown trip to Durham and ‘the country can see that, and it’s shocked the Government cannot’.
Maitlis’ comments attracted over 20,000 complaints and the BBC later decided that the presenter breached impartiality rules, saying in a statement: ‘We believe the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality.’
The journalist revealed that it was only the morning after the episode aired, ‘that the wheels fell off’.
Speaking at the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival on Wednesday, Maitlis said: ‘A phone call of complaint was made from Downing Street to the BBC News management.
‘This – for context – is not unusual. It wasn’t unusual in the Blair days – far from it – in the Brown days, in the Cameron days. What I’m saying is it’s normal for government spin doctors to vocalise their displeasure to journalists.
‘What was not foreseen was the speed with which the BBC sought to pacify the complainant. Within hours, a very public apology was made, the programme was accused of a failure of impartiality, the recording disappeared from the iPlayer, and there were paparazzi outside my front door.’
Maitlis found it ironic that the one person who understood the situation was Mr Cummings, who ‘texted [her] that very evening to offer his wry support’.
She continued: ‘So, back to the speed of response. 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?’
Elsewhere in her lecture, the broadcaster recalled feeling conflicted over an interview she conducted that same year with Hollywood icon Robert De Niro, in which he ‘raged’ about Mr Trump’s ‘mishandling of the pandemic’.
Maitlis told a Newsnight editor that they couldn’t air the interview as it was ‘too anti-Trump’.
‘Adam [Cumiskey] looks at me to see if I’m joking, and I’m not. I am terrified that by putting out the interview as it stands we will be seen as biased,’ she explained.
‘De Niro is a world-famous actor, and a New Yorker, and has chosen our programme, Newsnight, as the place to land his thoughts quite carefully.
‘So why do I feel unable to let him say it without trying to find an equally world-famous actor who that same night is miraculously going to tell us the opposite?
‘And wouldn’t I be tumbling into both-sideism – false equivalence – even if we had?’
Maitlis joined the BBC in 2001 and presented Newsnight from 2006 until earlier this year when she announced her departure, before joining rival media group Global where she hosts a new podcast, The News Agents, and a radio show with former BBC journalist Jon Sopel.
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