Emily Maitlis was replaced as host of Wednesday night’s episode of Newsnight by another member of the programme’s team after BBC bosses reprimanded her over a monologue, in which she attacked the Government’s handling of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham during the peak of lockdown. Corporation bosses said the BBC 2 programme’s presenter had breached impartiality rules with her opening remarks on Tuesday night. She was due to host the show on Wednesday, but Newsnight’s UK Editor Katie Razzall presented it instead.
Ms Maitlis later tweeted she had “asked for the night off” and Newsnight’s editor, Esme Wren, explained she had not been replaced in response to the BBC statement.
In the monologue, Ms Maitlis told viewers: “Dominic Cummings broke the rules – the country can see that and it’s shocked the Government cannot.
“The longer ministers and the Prime Minister insist he worked within them, the more likely the angry response to the scandal is likely to be … He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can flout them.”
Clips of the sequence went viral on social media, attracting millions of views, but it also caused fury among Conservative politicians and some journalists in and outside the public broadcaster, who felt she went against the corporation’s approach to journalism.
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BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis
BBC News bosses agreed with the criticism of its own show, swiftly issuing a statement distancing themselves from the monologue.
It is not the first time a prominent BBC presenter has been accused of bias, though, particularly when it comes to now Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In 2013, the then Mayor of London was interviewed by Scottish broadcaster Eddie Mair on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
The encounter was described as a ”car crash”, and according to many at the time, had dented Mr Johnson’s hopes of becoming Conservative Party leader.
Mr Mair subjected the former Mayor of London to awkward questions and intense scrutiny, ending the interview asking him: “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”
Mr Johnson looked surprised and distinctly uncomfortable as Mr Mair asked him about his being sacked by The Times newspaper for making up a quotation and for being sacked from the Tory frontbench for telling “a bare-faced lie” to party leader Michael Howard about his affair with the journalist Petronella Wyatt.
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson’s father, Stanely Johnson
Mr Johnson’s father, Stanley, hit out at Mr Mair’s interview, labelling it a “disgusting” piece of journalism.
He told London talk radio station LBC at the time: “I thought Eddie Mair’s interview was one of the most disgusting pieces of journalism I’ve listened to for a very long time.
“The BBC sank about as low as it could.
“His grilling people about their personal lives, accusing them of guilt by association, openly abusing them in a legitimate interview. Frankly, I don’t know where we are coming to.
“I have no idea who Eddie Mair is or what he does. But frankly, there is such a thing as respecting the office, even if you don’t respect the man and that did not come through.”
Mr Johnson, a former Tory MEP, described Mr Mair’s interview as a “travesty” and suggested he would not have “openly abused” former Labour leader Ed Miliband in the same way.
He added: “As for saying he thought Boris was a nasty piece of work, well, honestly.
“I don’t know where Eddie Mair’s politics come from but I suspect he would not have treated the leader of the Labour Party in that way.”
He said he felt “great anger” watching the interview.
On the issue of his son’s misquote when he was a journalist at the Times, Mr Johnson said: “I know about that quote.
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“This was Boris 25 years, 30 years ago, ringing up actually his godfather, a historian, and he got it wrong. He got what his godfather said wrong. Later on various things happened as a result of that, good heavens …
“If that’s the worst you can dig up, something 30 years ago, most journalists I know make up quotes all the time and I don’t think they go down the drain for it.”
Asked why his son had looked uncomfortable during the interview, he said: “He was told he was coming on to talk about issues which really matter to London. There are quite a lot of them he could have talked about … instead he dug up totally irrelevant things which have been dealt with ages and ages ago.”
Mr Johnson said he believed the BBC had overstepped the mark, and added: “One of the issues Eddie Mair totally failed to address was the Leveson thing. The more I think about it, the more I think what a travesty that interview was, not of Boris but of good broadcasting standards.”
Despite his father’s comments, the then Mayor of London later said about the interview: “Eddie Mair did a splendid job. There is no doubt that is what the BBC is for – holding us to account.
“I fully concede it wasn’t my most blistering performance, but that was basically because I was set to talk about the Olympics and housing in London and he wanted to talk about other things, some of them – my private life and so on – of quite some antiquity, the details of which I wasn’t brilliant on.
“He was perfectly within his rights to have a bash at me – in fact it would have been shocking if he hadn’t. If a BBC presenter can’t attack a nasty Tory politician what’s the world coming to?”
The BBC said it had received 384 complaints about the interview, which was watched by about 1.7 million viewers.
A spokesman for BBC News said at the time: “We believe this was a fair interview which took in issues facing London and the wider political landscape as well as looking towards tonight’s TV portrait programme [Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise by film-maker Michael Cockerell, which will air on BBC2 on Monday at 9pm].
“As the documentary is biographical, exploring controversial episodes in the mayor’s life was considered appropriate. Eddie’s line of questioning attempted to elicit responses to direct questions that were not being answered.”