The BBC’s chairman has said he believes Emily Maitlis was “wrong” in her Newsnight coverage of Dominic Cummings’ visit to Barnard Castle in 2020, as he set out his blueprint for improving the broadcaster.
Richard Sharp criticised Maitlis, who has since left the broadcaster, for starting the programme by saying “the country” could see that Cummings had broken lockdown rules “and is shocked the government cannot”.
Sharp, who in September rejected claims by Maitlis that a former Downing Street director of communications is acting as an agent of the Conservative party inside the corporation, told the Sunday Times that “we’re not a campaigning institution. Our approach is to present the facts and not to lead with a broadcaster’s opinion.”
The chairman also acknowledged that “the BBC does have a liberal bias” but insists “the institution is fighting against it”.
On the issue of impartiality in its news coverage compared with its rivals, Sharp told the newspaper: “We can expose the brutal repression of the Uyghurs in China without having to worry that our business in China will suffer. At a time when some commercial news networks avoid some issues, air conspiracy theories and fake news or misrepresent history, we must continue to lead the world in trusted news.”
The former Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan banker also highlighted areas where he acknowledged that the broadcaster needs to improve.
On its business coverage, he said: “I’ve got Bloomberg TV on in here for a reason. It’s excellent. We have to raise our game.”
He added that the BBC’s correspondents and editors are “first rate”, but across the institution business and finance “are not as well understood as they should be”. “We need to do a better job of explaining them, especially when inflation is forcing the government and the opposition to make very difficult choices,” he said.
The corporation’s chairman and director general, Tim Davie, has initiated a review of coverage beginning with taxation and public spending.
Sharp, who worked as economic adviser for Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, also believes the BBC “needs more of an accountability culture”. “People have felt disadvantaged here, whether it’s minority groups or women,” he said.
In 2018, the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie won her battle over gender pay inequality, receiving an apology and a payout from the corporation. In 2020, Samira Ahmed won an employment tribunal for equal pay against the broadcaster. Hundreds of female staff were awarded pay rises.
In 2017, the BBC’s gender pay gap was 9.3%. The broadcaster says it is now 5.9%. The UK average is 15.4%.
Another area that Sharp has critiqued is audience data analysis, which he believes “has been poor”. “Instead of expecting audiences to come where we are, we should be alpha-focused on finding out where they are and go there,” he said.
Citing Newsnight as an example, he added: “In an analogue world half past 10 was a very important time slot that people would turn up for. In a digital world people consume Newsnight-type information when they want to, where they want to.”
He believes Newsnight analysis should be “repackaged and distributed in different ways in new formats on new platforms” and praised social media platform TikTok for its “amazing user experience”.