Reith Laying Ceremony
Emily Maitlis' MacTaggart Lecture was less about morals and more about marketing.
Delivering the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, Emily Maitlis told the audience that back in 2016 she didn’t know the term ‘bothsidesism’ (aka false balance) and had never heard it used as a criticism of BBC News:
I’d later learn that the ungainly name for this myopic style of journalism was ‘bothsides-ism’, which talks to the way it reaches a superficial balance while obscuring a deeper truth. At this stage, I’d never heard the term or indeed the criticism. I just thought we were doing our job.
Credulity didn’t just get stretched, it did a full hour of yoga after that.
Two years before the Brexit referendum, a year-long inquiry by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology concluded that BBC News teams consistently engaged in false balance when reporting on climate change. For a senior news journalist to claim they weren’t familiar with the concept before the Brexit debate and that they hadn’t even heard criticism of the BBC’s approach to achieving ‘balance’ before is either an admission of incompetence or a brazen lie.
How does one report the facts in an unbiased way when the facts themselves are biased? … from the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda.
But then Maitlis’ speech, despite the praise it’s received for stating the bleeding obvious about BBC board member Robbie Gibb (who still went unnamed), was a series of confessions about missing the elephant in the room despite being absolutely covered in pachyderm dung. She described it as a “way of owning my mistakes by sharing them” but that undersold the level of obliviousness she claimed to have been operating at while reporting on Trump, Brexit, and Boris Johnson.
Recounting the morning after Trump was elected President, Maitlis said:
We did not yet understand that it was not replacing one man with another, but one set of rules with another. We didn’t realise we would need to change too.
By election night, 509 days had passed since Trump had announced his run, a period during which he had fought the Republican primaries and spent months campaigning against Hillary Clinton. It feels like performative stupidity for a professional political journalist to claim that they “didn’t realise” that things would be very different.
But at the same time, the thesis, as outlined by Maitlis in the introduction to the LBC podcast version of her lecture, that “politics has massively changed [and] political actors have massively changed” is superficially compelling but disintegrates under close scrutiny. It’s narratively satisfying to pretend that Trump was a uniquely terrible historical occurrence, but that’s partly because the Obama-era put a veneer of civility over the foreign policy brutality and the ‘alternative facts’ and media distrust of the Clinton and Bush years had faded in the minds of goldfish-brained hacks.
Similarly, in the UK, there’s a good living to be made by seeing Boris Johnson as a unique monster rather than a product of a longstanding system. Another key premise of Maitlis’ speech is that government interference in the BBC has reached new and terrifying levels.
Tories have parachuted amenable figures into senior roles — in particular, Tory donor Richard Sharp as Chairman and ex-Tory council candidate Tim Davie as Director General — and Labour did the same; Greg Dyke was a Labour Party donor before he was anointed DG in 1999. In 2013, former Labour minister, James Purnell, became the BBC’s Head of Strategy. That Alastair Campbell, who famously went to war with the BBC over Iraq, is cheering the lecture adds an extra layer of irony.
Showing either terrifying naivety or tactical ignorance, Maitlis continued:
Things that for many decades were givens… a media free from interference or vilification, now appear vulnerable.
The idea that the British media, in particular, has ever been “free from interference or vilification” is another concept that turns to dust upon contact with reality. The BBC was still a toddler — not even four years old — when it first rolled over and showed its belly due to government pressure during the General Strike of 1926.
In an essay written 36 years after the fact (and 25 years after he left the corporation), Lord Reith — the BBC’s first Director General — wrote:
… if there had been broadcasting at the time of the French Revolution, there would have been no French Revolution; the Revolution came from Marseilles to Paris as rumour. The function of the BBC was fully as much to kill falsehood as to announce truth; and the former can derive automatically from the latter.
But the “truth” that Reith was announcing — literally, as he took over the reading of many of the new bulletins — was defined by the government as he had been flattered into accepting that it was “in the national interest”. Writing long after the fact, Reith admitted that the BBC had been “neither commandeered nor free”.
While there is self-analysis and self-criticism in Maitlis’ lecture it is — just as Reith’s admissions were — too little, too late, and too self-serving. Her reflections on her encounters with the Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka perhaps reveal more than she intended. She explains:
I remember, to my shame, interviewing the Trump acolyte, Sebastian Gorka, on Newsnight in the early days of the Trump victory. Gorka would use up most of the interview time by screaming abuse at the BBC. Now, he didn’t have any problem with the BBC, he quite liked the BBC, and he was always happy to say yes to the interview. But he used our time on air and that of many of our colleagues as an effective conduit to sell a key populist message: that the mainstream media could be dismissed as fake.
Once you understand how this works, it seems so obvious; you kick down belief in a trusted source of news, you make the audience doubt what they’re seeing and you step into the breach, a shameless play for power and dominance. But in those days, I didn’t, and as a journalist, I was mortified, and I would spend half of our allotted interview time trying to defend our objectivity and the rest bending over backwards to reconcile his strangled version of the truth, just to prove his criticism of me wrong. In so doing, ironically, I lost the very objectivity I was seeking to defend.
As with the claim of not being familiar with the concept of false balance before Brexit, confessing to being unable to understand the bad faith tactics of someone like Gorka represents a bigger failure than Maitlis intends to admit. By the time she first encountered Gorka, she had been a BBC reporter and interviewer for 15 years.
Maitlis recalled her opening question from an interview with Gorka in 2018…
Dr Gorka, I know in our previous encounters, we have spent a lot of time analysing whether Newsnight itself is fake news, so just for the sake of our viewers and moving the story on, why don’t we agree to recognise that’s how you view things.”
… and bluntly concluded:
It is insane, we didn’t spend a lot of time analysing. He levelled the accusation to get social media traction and I allowed it to become viable debate… either way, Gorka won and the BBC lost.
While she deserves some credit for explaining it now, the set-up was obvious at the time and plenty of people not paid six-figure salaries for their journalistic rigour and apparent analytical skills were saying as much.
Similarly, Maitlis’ line that…
… ours is an industry that rewards speed, amplification, and the intimacy of the anonymous off-record briefing.
… is correct but utterly toothless as she continues to praise ex-colleagues — including Laura Kuenssberg — who wallowed in the “intimacy of anonymous off-record briefing”. Like Kuenssberg, Maitlis repeated the quickly disproved claims that an aide to Matt Hancock was hit by a Labour activist during the 2019 general election, and one rather notorious tweet from 2017…
Wonder if lab could try and stage coup against Corbyn. Is there time for that?
… is still up. As is the Newsnight clip of her introducing edited footage from Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone featuring Jeremy Corbyn as Voldemort.
Curiously, Maitlis opted not to mention that ‘joke’ — one of Ian Katz’s trademark cringe-inducing show endings — in the lecture, preferring instead to discuss the ‘Corbyn’s Commie hat’ controversy again. After accepting that the former Labour leader was monstered by the “Murdoch and Rothermere-owned press” — no role for broadcasters in there — she said:
… it was a story we decided we put on Newsnight that night with a large plasma screen of the Kremlin to symbolise the Russian context and Jeremy Corbyn in the forefront as the subject of that piece. That night, Twitter was alight with Corbyn supporters alleging our graphics team had doctored the image to make Jeremy Corbyn appear more Russian.
[pause for laughter]
After saying that the Newsnight team “weren’t sure to whether to find the episode farcical or threatening”, Maitlis talked about the Channel 4 News FactCheck article — which actually ducked coming to a clear conclusion — and the fact that Gavin Williamson, then the Defence Secretary, was pictured on the same backdrop two weeks previously. The difference, of course, was that Williamson wasn’t tinted red.
The ‘Corbyn’s hat’ incident has gained a longevity and significance that outweighs what actually happened because it was far from the only occasion when Corbyn and his shadow cabinet were presented in a way that seemed to differ from the treatment of other politicians. From Newsnight alone there was the Voldemort edit, Corbyn mocked up in a ‘Make Britain Great’ hat — drawing a direct comparison to Trump — and Maitlis rolling her eyes in a pantomime fashion at Barry Gardiner.
I’m not sure I buy the argument that the public is more mistrustful – the debate will always garner that kind of traction because anything the BBC does is always in the spotlight. So often people read conspiracy into a thing when it’s really a confluence of cock-ups and the wrong button being pressed at the wrong time, or the guest you wanted gets into the wrong taxi and doesn’t show up.
The turning point for Maitlis seemed to come after her Newsnight monologue about Dominic Cummings at Barnard Castle (“Dominic Cummings has broken the rules. The country can see that and it’s shocked the government cannot.”). After a call from Downing Street — which the BBC ludicrously claims had no influence — her bosses publicly rebuked her and it was not the last time she was accused of crossing the gossamer thin barrier of the BBC’s beloved “impartiality”.
In her lecture, Maitlis argued:
Why had the BBC immediately and publicly sought to confirm the government spokesman’s opinion, without any kind of due process? It makes no sense for an organisation that is admirably, famously, rigorous about procedure, unless it was sending a message of reassurance directly to the government itself.
A cynic might say… no, fuck it… I am saying that Matilis’ attack of conscience is fantastically-timed, arriving after she’s in the loving embrace of a big money deal with LBC — a station whose commitment to journalistic excellence is indicated by its employment of Nick Ferrari and willingness to have the Prime Minister’s sister interview the Prime Minister’s father — and on the eve of her new podcast alongside fellow BBC ex-pats Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall.
The end of Maitlis’ lecture was an extended advert for that new Global podcast — The News Agents — which took the shine off the sermon that came with it…
Whatever our journalism does, it must earn the trust of our listeners, our audiences, our readers, otherwise we are mouthpieces, mere clients, cosy with those in authority, disconnected from those we are trying to serve.
Had Maitlis called for the BBC to be better when she didn’t have a new product to sell, it would have been bravery. Instead, it was marketing with just the right amount of morality sprinkled on top to make everyone praising it feel vicariously virtuous.
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