BBC says Emily Maitlis's 'Newsnight' comments 'overstepped the mark'

Emily Maitlis at a premiere
Emily Maitlis at a premiere

The BBC has said Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis “overstepped the mark” with her comments about the way the government handled Dominic Cummings’ controversial lockdown trip.

Maitlis was accused of not being impartial after an instalment of the BBC show this week, when she said the prime minister’s adviser’s trip to Durham had "broken the rules" and that "the country can see that, and it's shocked the government cannot”.

Read more: Vicar puts government on spot over lockdown fines

The BBC swiftly ruled that the programme breached impartiality rules, which has divided opinion, with some people agreeing and others saying Maitlis was right.

The following day, Maitlis, 49, took a night off from the programme and was replaced by Katie Razzall.

The BBC has now clarified its stance in a longer statement.

It said: “We would like to make absolutely clear that Emily Maitlis was not ‘removed’ or ‘suspended’ from last night’s programme, despite much speculation to the contrary. She herself has tweeted that she ‘asked for the night off’.

“The BBC must uphold the highest standards of due impartiality in its news output. We reviewed the entirety of Newsnight on Tuesday May 26th, including the opening section, and while we believe the programme contained fair, reasonable and rigorous journalism, we feel that we should have done more to make clear the introduction was a summary of the questions we would examine, with all the accompanying evidence, in the rest of the programme.

“As it was, we believe the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality. Our staff have been reminded of the guidelines.

“Newsnight has a long-established and recognised reputation for excellent journalism, for scrutinising arguments and for holding power to account, which it does on a daily basis, including the night in question.”

Emily Maitlis at the Arqiva British Academy Television Awards BAFTA in London, May 12th, 2013. (Photo by Jon Furniss/Invision/AP)
Emily Maitlis at the Arqiva British Academy Television Awards BAFTA in London, May 12th, 2013. (Photo by Jon Furniss/Invision/AP)

The statement went on: “Our editorial guidelines allow us to make professional judgments but not to express opinion.

“The dividing line can be fine, but we aim to say so if we think we have overstepped the mark.

“The introduction to Newsnight was intended as a summary of the issues that would be explored, with all the supporting facts and evidence, in the programme. But as broadcast, it risked giving the perception that the BBC was taking sides, and expressing an opinion, rather than being impartial.

Dominic Cummings, un importante asesor del primer ministro británico Boris Johnson, sale de su residencia en Londres el jueves, 28 de mayo del 2020.  (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)
Dominic Cummings (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

“It said that ‘the country’ was ‘shocked the government cannot see’ Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules; that he ‘made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools’.

“But there are some who do not share this opinion, nor think that the issue is a ‘scandal’ or the prime pinister has displayed ‘blind loyalty’.

“By presenting a matter of public and political debate as if the country was unanimous in its view, we consider Newsnight risked giving the perception that the BBC was taking sides - or that the introduction constituted the presenter’s opinions, rather than a summary of the journalism which would follow, which explored these issues rigorously and fairly and, crucially, with the supporting evidence.”

The statement said it was “not a question of apportioning blame to anyone” but a “question of accountability to our audiences”.

Read more: Gary Lineker thinks Dominic Cummings should just say sorry

“Our audiences hold the BBC in high trust, not least because we hold ourselves to exacting standards, and we do not want to forfeit this by ignoring our own rules,” it said.

Broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has confirmed that it has received 366 complaints about the episode of Newsnight.

The Telegraph reported that the BBC has received at least 20,000 complaints. It is thought they relate both to Maitlis’s monologue and to the way it was handled.