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July 22, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:28am

Emily Maitlis hits back after BBC impartiality rebukes: ‘We are not a public announcement tannoy’

By William Turvill

In some ways, Emily Maitlis has had a fairly typical British lockdown experience.

The lead presenter of Newsnight has travelled less (a “relief” for someone who ordinarily has a “grab bag” ready for emergency work trips).

She’s had time to motor through boxsets with her husband and two sons (the US Office, Money Heist and Arrested Development).

And she’s become something of a podcast aficionado (both as a co-host of the BBC’s Americast, launched in early 2020, and as a listener – her current favourite is Death In Ice Valley).

In other ways, Maitlis has had a bit of a rough ride. Notably, she has twice been rebuked by her own employer, the BBC, for perceived breaches of impartiality rules. 

In both cases, Maitlis was effectively accused of showing bias against Boris Johnson’s government. Also in both cases, she has something to say about the judgements against her.

Her first ‘offence’ was committed on 26 May last year, shortly after reports emerged that Dominic Cummings – then the prime minister’s chief adviser – had travelled between London, Durham and Barnard Castle during lockdown.

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Maitlis introduced the programme by telling viewers: “Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot.”

Less than 24 hours later, the BBC issued an apologetic statement saying that the Maitlis introduction “did not meet our standards of due impartiality”.

Does Maitlis regret the incident?

“No, I don’t,” she says firmly over a phone interview from her Newsnight office. “It hasn’t ever been explained to me what was journalistically inaccurate about that.”

Her second rebuke came after she retweeted Piers Morgan, a friend of hers. The offending tweet said: “If failing to quarantine properly is punishable by 10yrs in prison, what is the punishment for failing to properly protect the country from a pandemic?”

Maitlis actually deleted her retweet after ten minutes. Not because she thought there was anything wrong with it, but because “I just didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a load of @PiersMorgan tweets”.

Regardless, the BBC Executive Complaints Unit found that the “retweeted material was clearly controversial, implying sharp criticism of the Government, and there was nothing in the surrounding context to make clear that Ms Maitlis was not endorsing it or to draw attention to alternative views”.

Any regrets on that one?

“The tweet said nothing I haven’t actually asked on air,” she says. “These are questions that we ask all the time as journalists on the programme. And if we stop doing that, then I think we’re in trouble. Because our audience can say to us: What are you about? What are you for?”

Maitlis suggests that the BBC’s complaint-handling “priorities” are misplaced, pointing to the Martin Bashir scandal. Earlier this year, following an external investigation, the BBC apologised for the deception that led to Bashir’s 1995 interview with Princess Diana.

“It’s funny to see something like [the Cummings apology statement] happen so quickly when a corporation can take up to three decades to investigate serious journalistic malfeasance and critical management failings in the Bashir investigation. So I think it’s all a question of priority, really, isn’t it?”

When I ask her later in our conversation about the Morgan retweet, she returns to her Bashir argument. “As I say, when a corporation takes three decades to investigate whether journalistic misdemeanour is going to then point to serious critical management failings, and then it spends another four months investigating the retweet of a question, then we have to ask ourselves about priorities.”

The call from No 10 that preceded Cummings apology statement

Maitlis – speaking last week before the broadcast of Cummings’ interview with BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg – seems particularly disappointed by the 26 May introduction saga. She believes Newsnight’s Cummings programme was well received on the night it was broadcast.

The BBC, she says, tweeted out its apologetic statement shortly after a call from Downing Street. She won’t say who made the decision to apologise, nor will she say who made the call from No 10 (only that it wasn’t Cummings – “he sent me a very funny text separately which was supportive”).

Maitlis adds that, ultimately, the BBC received more complaints about its statement of apology (around 36,000) than it received about the programme itself (around 23,000).

She appears to believe her employer should have done more to defend Newsnight’s journalism – and the BBC’s “editorial independence” – against criticism from the prime minister’s office.

“The call from Downing Street came in, and within a four-hour window an apology was given,” she says.

“I think, whilst you always welcome critical friends or constructive criticism, one of the oldest journalistic questions is: Cui bono? Who stands to gain?

“And I think one of the most important things we can do is say, ‘Where are those accusations coming from?’

“If people shout ‘fake news’, or if they shout ‘no impartiality’, you look and you see if it’s coming from someone with the programme’s best [interests] at heart. Or, is it somebody who is driving their own agenda.

“And I think it pays to be particularly curious and particularly dispassionate about these things. Because otherwise we lose something really important. Which is editorial independence.

“If it’s coming from a spin doctor at No 10, or if it’s coming from a rival in the media, or if it’s coming from somewhere that perhaps wants to make its own point and shut down others, then I don’t think we’d call that impartiality. We’d call that agenda-driven points scoring.”

I ask Maitlis if she can appeal against the BBC’s ruling (Ofcom took no further action in the matter).

“I don’t need to,” she says. “Because I know what the audiences felt. I know when I meet people – including, I have to say, many senior Tories who say to me: ‘We know the rules were broken. I don’t understand what the fuss was about.’

“So I don’t feel I need to. I feel that’s kind of done and dusted, and I don’t think anyone looks back on that and says, ‘Oh my God – that was journalistically inaccurate and that was totally wrong.’

“I think they understand that when a call comes from No 10 into the BBC, and things happen very quickly, there’s probably a whole different story to that.”

Update: After this story was published, the BBC issued another statement rebuking Maitlis, this time – apparently – for speaking out to Press Gazette. 

A BBC spokesperson told Mail Online: “Nothing is more important than our impartiality. All BBC journalists must abide by the BBC’s editorial guidelines and social media rules. There are no exceptions. We will be taking this up with Emily.”

In reference to her suggestion that the BBC issued its apologetic Cummings statement because of Downing Street pressure, the spokesperson said: “This is false. Decisions about the BBC’s editorial standards are made by the BBC.”

Jess Brammar is a ‘terrific journalist’

Shortly before my interview with Maitlis, the BBC became the subject of a new political storm.

The Financial Times reported that Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member, attempted to block the employment of Jess Brammar, a former HuffPost UK editor and deputy editor of Newsnight, to oversee the corporation’s news channels.

According to the FT, Gibb – a former BBC journalist and PR chief for Theresa May – warned that the appointment of Brammar would harm relations with the government.

“I haven’t spoken to Robbie Gibb or to BBC management,” Maitlis says. “But I know that nothing will matter more to the BBC than its editorial independence – and making its decisions without fear or favour. So I’m sure they’ll do the right thing…

“I just think the whole country has a vested interest in the BBC being independent-minded and confident and operating without fear or favour. And I’m sure people within the BBC feel that just as strongly.”

Maitlis adds that Brammar is a “terrific journalist and she is an excellent manager. I think she cares very much about her staff.”

Current political rows about the BBC come at a time when director-general Tim Davie is in the process of agreeing a new funding deal with a government that has expressed concerns about the licence fee model.

Is Maitlis concerned about the future of the BBC?

“I think it’s incredibly important that the BBC is able to operate without fear or favour,” she says. “And as long as we have our independence, which I’m sure we do – I have huge faith in Tim Davie – I think that’s a good place to be.”

The rise of Maitlis

Born in Canada in 1970, Maitlis was brought up in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. She attended Cambridge University and started her broadcast career in Hong Kong with NBC before moving to Sky News in the UK as a business correspondent.

After joining the BBC in 2001 she initially worked as the main presenter on the BBC London News and was recruited by Newsnight in 2006.

Maitlis was appointed lead presenter – in an all-female lineup with Kirsty Wark and Emma Barnett – in 2019, around a year after Esme Wren, formerly of Sky News, joined as editor.

In the same year as her promotion, Maitlis published a book, Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News, which provides a glimpse behind the scenes of some of her most memorable Newsnight interviews and stories. The book is due to be turned into a TV series.

Airhead’s impressive cast of characters includes Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, David Attenborough, Theresa May, Simon Cowell, Emma Thompson and the Dalai Lama.

Who next for Maitlis?

She names Pope Benedict XVI, Mike Pence and Harvey Weinstein as her dream set of interviewees. “I’m never going to get those interviews, but it doesn’t stop you dreaming – doesn’t stop you putting the bids in.”

Emily Maitlis interviewing Prince Andrew

‘Did you have sex with blah blah blah, your highness?’ 

Even if Maitlis landed all three of her targets, it is difficult to imagine any of them beating her encounter with Prince Andrew (which led to her being named interviewer of the year at last year’s British Journalism Awards).

In November 2019, Maitlis was tasked with quizzing the Queen’s son on his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

“I remember saying to my editor, ‘How often do I have to say “your highness”?’ I was very nervous about how to balance the royal protocol with questions that we were asking…

“I think it would have sounded ridiculous if I’d said ‘your highness’ at the end of everything I was asking. You know, ‘Did you have sex with blah blah blah, your highness?’ I think it would have sounded just kind of bizarre.”

The encounter didn’t go particularly well for the Duke of York. He soon after stepped back from public duties and became the butt of jokes about “straightforward shooting weekends”, sweating disorders and Pizza Express in Woking.

Maitlis says the interview ended on amicable terms with the prince, who even suggested what they could talk about “next time”.

But would he really do another interview with Maitlis and Newsnight?

“I don’t suppose he would, no.”

Would he do an interview with anyone else?

“I don’t know. I can’t speculate.

“I don’t think we’re on a blacklist at all. I’d be happy to approach other members of the royal family and talk about a whole range of things. I don’t look back on and that think, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

We’re not a public announcement tannoy’

Newsnight, which is understood to have an average audience of just under half a million adults each night, has been kept on air by the BBC throughout the pandemic.

As such, Maitlis has regularly been in the office since last spring.

“We decided we couldn’t really broadcast from home,” she says. “I know some other places did, and it feels quite attractive. But I just think, actually, the collegiate atmosphere – having people and ideas and exchange of voices and things that need to be changed quickly – just wouldn’t have worked from a home atmosphere.

“So actually it was really good to be able to come in. It was our social life for about a year.”

The number of people working from Broadcasting House did have to be cut down. Maitlis says that, at times, there were as few as three or four people in the office – when there would be roughly ten times this number in normal times. 

Newsnight’s morning editorial meeting had to be moved on to Zoom. Maitlis says this was “particularly useful for people working from home. Also, people on their days off would come to those meetings because it’s quite nice to have a chat, and everyone’s bursting with things to say.”

Travelling into work, says Maitlis, had a “slight post-apocalypse feeling” to it.

“I remember driving home at 12, 12.30 at night, and actually that slight moment of terror where you realise if anything happened – if your car broke down – there are no pubs, there are no hotels, there are no people, there are no pedestrians, there’s literally no one on the street at all.

“It was that feeling of trying to go about the normality of your day with a sense of quietness.

“We’re used to an office that is really loud and buzzy and phones ringing and people coming in and doors slamming, and all that sort of stuff. And just that sense of being absolutely reduced to your core staff members.

“You’d come in and there’d be three or four of us. And so that was weird. And it was hard. Getting Newsnight on air each night felt like a triumph because we were completely reduced in terms of just hands-on people.”

Politicians have also been a problem, says Maitlis. And not just because of their accusations of bias.

“I think generally we see less of our government ministers on broadcast across the channels,” she says.

“I don’t feel that they want to come on to programmes as often as their predecessors. But that’s their choice, not ours. I hope they know that they’re always welcome, and we always enjoy having them on.”

And when they have made an appearance?

“I think one of the scariest things for me during the pandemic, if I’m honest, is when we had senior politicians of all stripes saying, ‘Now is not the time to ask this.’ Or, ‘Now is not the time to raise questions about this.’

“That’s what we do on Newsnight. We analyse. We interrogate. We investigate.

“We’re not a public announcement tannoy. That’s not our job.”

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