Sir John Tusa spoke out after the corporation was forced issue a statement making it clear comments by presenter Emily Maitlis did not meet its standards of impartiality. Sir John, a founding presenter of the flasgship news programme, said he would never have waded into the row which erupted when the Prime Minister backed Mr Cummings over his trip to Co Durham at the height of the coronavirus lockdown.
No editor of Newsnight that I worked with would have allowed that to go through
Ms Maitlis opened the programme with a monologue which fell foul of the broadcaster’s own standards.
She 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 tell us he worked within the rules, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be.”
She then said Mr Cummings “was the man, remember, who always got the public mood, he tagged the lazy label of ‘elite’ on those who disagreed”.
Emily Maitlis and Dominic Cummings
But Sir John, 84, who joined the programme in 1980, was unimpressed by the Ms Maitlis’s remarks.
He told the Sunday Times: “No editor of Newsnight that I worked with would have allowed that to go through.
“No presenter would have written anything like that. It is self-indulgence and it does no service to viewers.
“You can either choose to be a celebrity or you can choose to be a journalist. You can’t be both.
“You can reflect the state of opinion in the nation perfectly well without larding it with your own personal feeling.”
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Sir John Tusa has criticised Emily Maitlis
Emily Maitlis broke BBC impartiality rules
Tuesday night’s broadcast came after Mr Cummings gave a controversial press conference from the rose garden of Dowing Street to explain his movements during lockdown.
The following day the broadcaster issued a statement it said: “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.”
It said staff had been “reminded of the guidelines” around impartiality, adding that the corporation must “uphold the highest standards of due impartiality in its news output”.
The programme “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.
The statement said: “As it was, we believe the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality.”
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The BBC issued a further statement on Thursday, saying “our editorial guidelines allow us to make professional judgments but not to express opinion”.
It added: “The dividing line can be fine, but we aim to say so if we think we have overstepped the mark.”
The statement said the introduction presented the issue “as if the country was unanimous in its view” and gave the perception “that the BBC was taking sides”.
It said it was not “a question of apportioning blame to anyone” and reiterated Ms Maitlis’ claim that it was her decision to not appear on the show.
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The broadcaster’s decision sparked criticism.
Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan branded the BBC statement “utterly disgraceful”, saying the corporation was “chucking one of its best journalists under the bus for telling the truth”.
His words were echoed by journalist and former Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason, who said the decision made him “sick”.
National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “At a time of national crisis, frank and fearless journalism that scrutinises and holds this Government to account is more necessary than ever.”
She said it was “clear as day” that Mr Cummings breached lockdown rules, adding: “Journalists should be congratulated for holding policymakers to account for actions that risk a monumental breach of trust during a public health crisis.”
Dominic Cummings drove from London to Co Durham during lockdown
Conservative MP Julian Knight, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said the broadcaster had responded rapidly to the incident.
He tweeted: “For the BBC to come out, in such terms, so quickly is really something, no circling of the wagons – issuing what is effectively a written warning.”
The programme’s introduction was criticised by Chris Green, Conservative MP for Bolton West, who said on Twitter that it “had a clear bias and had nothing to do with the BBC’s mission to inform and educate”.
He added: “We do not need Newsnight to behave as poor quality entertainment.”