Emily Maitlis is a true professional of broadcasting. Her place as a national treasure (how she would hate that expression!) was assured even before her famous and ground breaking interview with Prince Andrew. That, like the Frost-Nixon interviews, will enter the annals of TV history and, like them, will soon be the subject of a film. So Maitlis really has nothing left to prove. For some 16 years she has been Newsnight’s anchor, and for much of that time she has been what made the programme worth watching.
So was it a surprise when six months ago she announced that she was leaving the BBC? Sadly not. She has joined a roll call of the BBC’s best and brightest who have decided they have had enough, and many, like her, made the decision to move across to LBC Radio: people like James O’Brien, Eddie Mair, Andrew Marr, Lewis Goodall and John Sopel.
Some have been quite restrained, speaking only in general terms of wanting to express their opinions freely. Not so in the case of Maitlis. She waited for a suitable opportunity, and when it came she took it. What she had to say about the BBC will not be easily forgotten. She is after all, even if Canadian-born, a plain-speaking Yorkshirewoman.
Her platform was the James MacTaggart lecture, which is held annually as part of the Edinburgh International Television Festival. This has been running since 1976, and the list of previous speakers reads like a Who’s Who of the movers and shakers of broadcasting, to name but a few: Jeremy Isaacs, John Mortimer, Ted Turner, Jonathan Miller, Michael Grade, Dennis Potter, Greg Dyke, Mark Thompson, Jon Snow, Jeremy Paxman, Jonathan Miller and Armando Ianucci. And, it must be confessed, also John Birt (twice), and Rupert, James and Elizabeth Murdoch. So this was a prestigious and high-profile occasion, at which she could feel assured she would not be ignored.
She took as her title ‘Boiling frog: why we have to stop normalising the absurd’. Her belief is that the BBC – despite the best intentions of many of those who work there – has lost its right to be treated as the broadcaster of record, but rather that it is on a course to become an instrument of government. And she gives a thoughtful analysis of why.
Journalists taken by surprise
She started with her emotions on the night of 9 November 2016.
“To the names of Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Adams, we can now add Trump. Taste it. Roll it around your tongue – America’s president-elect is Donald J Trump. We did not yet understand that it wasn’t replacing one man with another, but one set of rules with another. We didn’t realise we would have to change too.”
Yes, she is free to say that now, and she savours that freedom. She is disarmingly honest discussing her voyage of discovery about the relationship between politics and the media. Her main thesis is that politics on both sides of the Atlantic has been evolving in an unexpected and unhealthy way, and journalists, including those at the BBC, have not been keeping up. She makes a comparison with the famous phenomenon of the boiled frog. As the poor frog sits insouciantly in the increasingly hot water it fails to realise what is going on around, it treats it as normal. Her principal plea is to stop normalising what is dangerous and harmful.
She quotes her editor’s advice when she was shellshocked watching Trump’s election victory, telling her “do not normalise this moment”. She confesses that despite her many years as a broadcaster, she too got sucked into the culture which treats the blatantly unacceptable as valid. An example was her own wish to engage in what she referred to as “both sideism” over Trump’s advice to swallow disinfectants. When interviewing Robert de Niro, who told nothing but the truth about this, she was taken with the urge to give airtime to ‘the other side’ of the argument. She urged her audience to learn the lesson she had learned, that when something is wrong the media should not be afraid to say so. False balance is a disservice to the viewers and listeners.
Telling the truth about Brexit
“We are seeing politicians move in directions that are deeply and clearly deleterious to basic democratic governance.”
Of course, most of what she had to talk about was closer to home. After years of trying – not always successfully – to keep us guessing about her true views on Brexit, she was open and honest about what a dishonest project it had been. She talked about how the BBC would be inundated with eminent economists who could speak out against it, and in contrast would have to spend ages searching for just one who would put the arguments in favour. And yet when the show went out both were given equal airtime and treated as equally valid and authoritative – ‘the Patrick Minford paradigm’:
“Here in the UK we spent early summer watching the havoc at Dover customs meet with a wall of silence around Brexit. Those who promised to get Brexit done can’t mention it – because it clearly isn’t. Their insistence on third nation status has meant passport checks and horrendous waiting times. Labour avoids talking about Brexit because it’s decided – rightly or wrongly –to distance itself from Remainer tags. And large sections of both the BBC and government-supporting newspapers appear to go into an automatic crouch position whenever the Brexit issue looms large.”
But Brexit was only one of the many examples she gave of egregious breaches of trust by this government. She took us through a formidable list, hinting that there were many more: ministerial code violations, the prorogation, the FactCheckUK scandal, the ‘limited and specific’ breach of law, limits on judicial review etc. The main issue for her was the challenge this raised for journalists, and the difficulty they have in retaining the appearance of balance when reporting such matters. She quoted the scholar Ayala Panievsky:
“The way populist rhetoric is used to discredit journalists turns into a sophisticated form of ‘soft censorship’. [Panievsky] uses a term I had not come across before – ‘strategic bias’ to explain the way we may be inclined to respond to accusations made against us. Unlike other targets of populist criticism, journalists find themselves required to mediate that criticism to the public, which puts them in a particularly awkward position.”
All the time journalists are trying to cope with politicians who work to divide them from their public whenever they question the populist narrative. She instances Andrea Leadsom’s reproach to her when challenged: “It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic. The country took a decision.” This is of course an effective way of not answering the question.
Cummings – a surprising ally
Her recollection of the Cummings affair was perhaps the most strikingly personal part of what she had to say. The famous Newsnight introduction went out in 2020 with the knowledge and agreement of the entire editorial team. She was not surprised that there was pushback next morning from Downing Street, but she was very definitely extremely surprised when BBC management threw her under the bus and apologised for an alleged breach of BBC standards without, as would have been normal practice, discussing it with her.
Ironically, she got a supportive text from Dominic Cummings himself that same evening. Certainly a new and astonishing revelation. Many organisations condemned the BBC management’s behaviour over the affair. Such events lead to a culture of self-censorship in which journalists go through agonies of discomfort but keep their jobs.
The BBC as hostage
Another swipe was at the appointment of Sir Robbie Gibb as to the BBC board with responsibility for ensuring ‘balance’ – both a symptom and a cause of its current malaise:
“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. According to the Financial Times, he’s attempted to block the appointments of journalists he considers damaging to government relations, provoking Labour’s deputy leader (among others) to call it ‘Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC’.”
And that is without even mentioning Tim Davie, a political appointee and prominent Conservative Party supporter, now sitting in the director-general’s chair, or Richard Sharp, BBC chairman, formerly an adviser to Mayor Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The BBC was established with a charter giving it nominal independence from government, but with such leadership, and with a culture secretary who is committed to defunding it, that independence is very nominal indeed and becoming more so. What would the BBC’s founder, the stern but idealistic Scot, Lord Reith, whose motto was to ‘inform, educate, and entertain’ make of this? Although he too had his share of spats with government, I can only imagine he would be rotating in his grave at what has become of the BBC.
“We – journalists, management teams, organisations – are primed to back down, even apologise, to prove how journalistically fair we are being. That can be exploited by those crying ‘bias’. If it suits those in power to shut us up – or down – they can. Critically, it’s lose-lose for the audience. And there’s the rub. Because whatever our journalism does, it must earn the trust of our listeners, our audiences, our readers. Otherwise we are mouthpieces, mere clients of those in authority – cosy with those in command, disconnected from the very people we are trying to serve.”
Populism and social media
A particular worry for her is the openings created for populists by the new social media. Populist politicians are unencumbered by ideology, all they need to do is tell the audience of the day what it wants to hear, and amplify and exploit discontents.
“Social media creates an arena that is exceptionally favourable to the language of populism because it benefits simplistic, emotional messages that suits the elevation of grievance. And ours is an industry that rewards speed, amplification and the intimacy of the anonymous ‘off record’ briefing.”
A predictable response
The lecture has since received glowing tributes: “Emily Maitlis for PM” as Liam O’Dell put it. Of course the BBC had to report it in some way, however reluctantly. The initial report on the BBC website omitted any mention of Robbie Gibb, although this was eventually corrected. The right-wing press of course spluttered bile. And naturally word of the speech travelled widely abroad.
German TV channel ARD’s excellent London correspondent Annette Dittert, whom Maitlis had herself name checked in the speech, wrote a very fulsome tribute. She pointed out that a government media power grab of the kind we are witnessing here could not happen in Germany, thanks to the checks and balances put in place by, of all people, the British (and US) occupying forces after the Second World War. In Germany the government of the day cannot threaten to freeze or even take away the licence fee if it does not see its bidding being done.
Complain – really?
For myself, I can identify strongly with what Maitlis has said. When I see examples of bad behaviour by the BBC I always take the opportunity to complain, and my complaint folder has now reached 60 – my main reasons being bias and false balance. The BBC’s responses tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern, indeed I have reached the point where I could write down almost precisely what I’m going to read. And it continues.
The institutional culture of the BBC is such that its officials believe that if they receive an equal number of complaints from both sides of the argument then that is evidence of balance. What that logic fails to consider is that there is a distinct difference between fact and opinion. Whenever the BBC states the simple facts about Brexit, for example, it will be inundated with complaints from people who are in denial or who have something to gain by propagating lies – no doubt some come from troll factories in Saint Petersburg. To count such complaints as equally valid with complaints about factual errors is quite simply to collude with lying.
Even in the few days since the lecture was given, BBC has given us ample examples of its inability effectively to challenge government, not least, Laura Kuenssberg’s effort to handle Liz Truss and her critics on her first Sunday morning outing.
Alice in Wonderland world
So we live in an Alice in Wonderland world, and we need people like Maitlis to hold up the mirror. It is, as she reminds us, a world in which a man like Johnson, after his long-overdue defenestration, can still claim to be the victim of the “deep state”, in which he undoubtedly includes the BBC. Even more astonishing, a world in which his successor accused the BBC of being less trustworthy than the GB News channel. And not of course because it is turning into an instrument of government, no, rather because it has allegedly not gone far enough in that direction. And most astonishing of all, a world in which both are listened to in all seriousness by a large part of the voting population. Have we learned nothing?
But to conclude, all is not lost. Like any other good speaker, Maitlis ended with a few practical things that might possibly still happen to bring us back nearer to normality. But there is no time to be lost.
“Whilst we do not have to be campaigners, nor should we be complacent – complicit – onlookers. Our job is to make sense of what we are seeing and anticipate the next move. It’s the moment, in other words, the frog should be leaping out of the boiling water and phoning all its friends to warn them. But by then we are so far along the path of passivity, we’re cooked.”
She deserves to be listened to, let’s hope she is.
Mailtis’ five pieces of advice for journalists of the future:
- ‘Show our workings more’ – be honest about the pressure for self-censorship.
- Call out people who use ‘free speech’ as an excuse for blatant lying.
- Lift the curtain on why things happen, eg why people continue to hold beliefs they know to be indefensible.
- Don’t be fooled by tweets: they should be subject to equal scrutiny as any other publication, even if they come from a head of government.
- Living up to the responsibility of being mediators between the rulers and the ruled – in a way that is fair and robust.
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