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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Matthew Weaver

BBC chief denies Emily Maitlis’s ‘Tory agent’ claims

The BBC’s chairman has rejected claims by the former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis that a former Downing Street director of communications is acting as an agent of the Conservative party inside the corporation.

Richard Sharp told MPs that Maitlis was “completely wrong” in categorising Robbie Gibb as an “active agent of the Conservative party” on the BBC’s board.

Appearing before the digital, culture, media and sport committee, Sharp, himself a former Tory party donor, insisted the BBC was insulated from political influence. “We cherish the editorial independence of the BBC,” he said.

Sharp added: “Just to be categorical. He [Gibb] does not operate on the board as an agent of the Conservative party. That was completely wrong. It was one of the errors that Emily Maitlis made [in her MacTaggart lecture] and I’m very disappointed that she made that particular point.”

The BBC director general, Tim Davie, confirmed that the BBC got “almost daily” feedback from government on its output. He said calls from ministers led to reflection at the BBC, not panic.

He also defended the corporation’s decision to issue a swift apology after Maitlis’s critical Newnight monologue about Dominic Cummings’ lockdown journeys to Durham and Barnard Castle.

Davie said: “In terms of Newsnight, the BBC is clear, it stands by the decision it made by the way. I was not director general at the time, but I think it’s absolutely the right decision, unequivocally. Emily is an outstanding journalist, I respect her opinion but we disagree on this.”

Davie said Gibb had not complained about the comedian Joe Lycett hijacking the BBC’s new Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme when he mocked an interview with Liz Truss.

He said there had been only 66 complaints about the programme and none were internal. Davie suggested reported outrage about Lycett had been confected by the press.

He brushed off an MP’s question about the Daily Mail “going tonto” over Lycett on its front page on Monday, by saying: “If I started reacting to every news item, I’d be half dead by now.”

He added: “The audience saw it for what it was. By yesterday with a front page and headlines we had 28 complaints, and they were up to 66 complaints [today].”

Davie described Lycett’s performance as “bemusing” but denied it showed the corporation was left-leaning. He said: “We can debate the merits of that particular booking. I don’t think it displays BBC bias in the slightest.”

Asked if it was helpful to democracy to mock the powerful, Davie said: “More than quite helpful. It’s essential.”

Davie showed irritation when he was asked by the Labour MP Rupa Huq whether he would stand again as a Conservative councillor as he did in the 1990s.

He said: “There’s no danger of that. It was quite a few decades. It [Huq’s question] tells you about the voodoo of this. I’m glad others are active in the area.”

Davie also defended the BBC’s highest paid presenter, Gary Lineker, against charges that he uses his Twitter account to criticise the government.

Last month, Lineker tweeted: “As a politician how could you ever, under any circumstances, bring yourself to vote for pumping sewage into our seas? Unfathomable!”

The Conservative MP Steve Brine said: “We’re paying him £1.3m and he’s a brilliant pundit. I don’t care what he thinks about water quality.”

Davie said he talked to Lineker about his use of Twitter and that his use of the platform had improved “in terms of his entry into party politics”.

He added: “I think it is work in progress in terms of where he draws the line, but we’ve had a good conversation. I think he understands the guidelines.”

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