‘Enough political interference!’ Labour says it will protect BBC from ‘Tory cronyism’

Emily Maitlis says BBC's Brexit coverage 'wasn't' balanced

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Claims by Emily Maitlis that a Tory “agent” was “acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality” from his seat on the BBC’s board have exacerbated scrutiny over the corporation’s journalism. In face of the questions about the outlet’s ability to produce unbiased reporting, Labour’s Lucy Powell has said she will ensure BBC staff don’t feel obliged to follow the Government line.

Delivering the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, the former Newsnight anchor pointed out the “Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC”, as she spoke about her own perceived impartiality while working for the corporation.

Ms Maitlis was twice accused of showing bias against the Government – the first when she discussed ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Barnard Castle; the second after she retweeted Piers Morgan, who was questioning Downing Street’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking of the speed of the BBC response to a Downing St complaint over her comments on Mr Cummings, Ms Maitlis said: “Put this in the context of the BBC Board, where another active agent of the Conservative party — former Downing Street spin doctor, and former adviser to BBC rival GB News — now sits, acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality.”

Ms Maitlis did not explicitly name said “agent” but was referring to Theresa May’s former director of communications, Robbie Gibb, who has since denied the claims made by the ex-BBC presenter.

The Labour leadership, which eagerly portrays itself as a backer of the best-known traditions of the BBC while also being open to change, including about the precise form of the licence fee, has been outspoken in wake of Ms Maitlis’s lecture.

Ms Powell said reforms were needed to strengthen the BBC’s political independence and retain it as a publicly owned, public service broadcaster at the heart of British life.

Her pledge came amid expectations the Tory Government will soon be led by Liz Truss, who is thought to be ready to wage war on the corporation.

Ms Powell’s plans include ending “revolving door” appointments of people in politics to top posts in the BBC and extending the charter renewal period from 10 to 15 or 20 years.

The shadow culture secretary, who stressed the vital role of the BBC in the UK, highlighted the broadcaster’s reporting of the war in Ukraine, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the women’s Euro football as only some examples of its high-quality coverage.

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She warned, though: “But constant attacks from the Tories are tearing down the BBC by stealth.

“The BBC needs to change with the times, and shouldn’t be afraid of robust reporting and debate which reflects the views of the country.

“In the midst of a cost of living crisis, our fast-growing, world-renowned British film and TV industry will be vital to growing our economy. The BBC is critical to this unique ecosystem.”

Speaking to the Observer, she added: “Under Labour, the BBC would be free from political interference, and the BBC’s future as a universal, publicly owned, public service broadcaster would be safe.”

Labour’s stance opposes what is expected from a Truss-led Tory Government.

With the Foreign Secretary, who is the current frontrunner in the Conservative contest, there are signs the Tories will make radical changes to the BBC, including ending the licence fee in its current form.

Last week, Ms Truss even questioned the BBC’s accuracy. Speaking on GB News, she said she believed the broadcaster did not check its facts.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a vocal critic of the BBC and Channel 4 as well as a supporter of Ms Truss, has said the licence fee would be frozen for two years and suggested its end altogether, declaring in a tweet that “this licence fee announcement will be the last”.

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