Emily Maitlis has said it is “quite patronising” to assume BBC Newsnight viewers “couldn’t handle” interviews with controversial figures, such as Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Her 26-minute interview with the former head of so-called “alt-right” website Breitbart News, which aired in May last year, drew criticism online, with some claiming it served to promote Bannon’s ideology.
“People can make up their own minds,” Maitlis told the Observer. “They’re smart and thoughtful and if they want to be critical of it, that’s fine.
“But [Bannon] was part of one of the biggest electoral revolutions we have seen. To say: ‘You haven’t earned a place on BBC Newsnight’ would be ridiculous.”
Maitlis was speaking to the Sunday paper ahead of the release of her new memoir, Airhead, which gives her side of the story behind the camera while reporting the major news and political events of the day.
She was also recently confirmed as Newsnight’s main presenter, aged 48, heading up an all-female line-up that includes presenters Kirsty Wark and Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett, with Esmé Wren as editor.
Defending air time for the likes of English Defence League founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, Maitlis added: “We have to take every single person on merit – it’s to do with the context, it’s to do with timing, it’s to do with balance, it’s to do with how much we challenge them.
“I think some of the films that [Newsnight foreign correspondent] Gabriel Gatehouse and [Newsnight special correspondent] Katie Razzall have done on the far right for Newsnight have taught me stuff about my country I never knew.
“Why on earth wouldn’t we bring that to the viewers? Of course we would, or we’d be saying: ‘This is too scary, don’t worry about it, make your cocoa and go to bed.’ It’s really important that we do that and if we’re not doing that, bloody hell, who is?”
Maitlis, who read English at Cambridge and revealed she toyed with becoming a director, said there were parallels between news and theatre in that timing is everything.
“If you interrupt somebody too early, if you miss it and don’t interrupt at all – that’s the difference between a good interview and a bad interview. It’s about the absolute moment.”
Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News, published by Michael Joseph (Penguin), is out now.