Emily Maitlis’ MacTaggart impartiality would destroy the BBC
Emily Maitlis has a strong background as an interviewer and journalist, notably on BBC Two’s Newsnight, where she left a few months ago. Now she has used the UK broadcasting industry’s biggest event to shine the spotlight on her former employer and his attempts to observe impartiality – as required by the Royal Charter which is his constitution.
The company’s chief executive, Tim Davie, has pledged to put impartiality at the heart of the BBC, but has repeatedly come up against the natural human tendency of journalists like Maitlis to call events as they see them .
Maitlis is the latest television luminary to give the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture – the keynote address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where my own tour took place 31 years ago. She gave a lengthy and somewhat aggrieved account of the most notorious of these collisions of impartiality: Dominic Cummings’ flight from Durham during the COVID lockdown, and her clear belief that he had thereby broken lockdown rules. After protests at 10 Downing Street, the BBC reprimanded her, much to her irritation. His departure will not have caused sleepless nights for Davie.
The problem with “impartiality” is the degree to which it clashes with the veracity of reporting. I know this from my own career in television journalism, which began producing news programs for the BBC before moving on to similar roles in commercial broadcasting. Sometimes one side of a debate just isn’t believable. For example, the BBC – rightly in my view – gives little space to Russian versions of the war in Ukraine and follows the US mainstream media in explicitly rejecting Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 US presidential election has been handed down to him. stolen.
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But domestic politics is a much trickier arena. Even straightforward factual reports – for example, on the various issues besetting the NHS – can, over time, become hostile in the eyes of the government of the day. A news program narrowly focused on Partygate, Brexit issues and the Prime Minister’s wallpaper can quickly be seen as deliberately undermining. For a broadcaster whose income – indeed, very existence – depends on government decisions, such perceptions can spell real danger. Appeals to journalistic principles do not eliminate this danger.
Even so, whole swaths of public debate – for example, stories of racism – are exempt from the concept of “balance” because society is overwhelmingly one-sided. Much trickier is an issue like Brexit, where decades of uncritical EU coverage has left the BBC with few press staff who could even understand the desire to leave, and has also left many viewers very doubtful. as to the reliability of the BBC on the subject.
Maitlis regrets that the BBC has bent over backwards to find pro-Brexit economists when the vast majority have opposed it – what she calls ‘both sideism’ – and she is not the only ex-Brexit. BBC star to lament the sacrifice of (his) “truth”. for “balance”. Yet had the BBC joined Operation Fear, it would surely have lost the trust of Brexiteers entirely and not have reached its centenary unscathed.
Moreover, the legal duty of impartiality is actually quite narrow. The Royal Charter concept of “due” impartiality only applies to matters of current political debate (in the case of elections, even stricter rules apply). So, for example, my observations on the BBC documentary series on the Murdochs could be successfully dismissed on the grounds that these programs were historical, and therefore not bound by the required impartiality.
Maitlis reserved his strongest criticism for the appointment to the BBC board of a former Conservative Party communications director, Robbie Gibb, calling him an ‘agent’ of the party, and thus implicitly a threat to the impartiality rather than guardian of it.
Yet there is a long history of party supporters being appointed to the BBC chair or board – a former Liberal MP once served as chairman. The current president is a Conservative donor. Previous Tories who have served as President are Lord Patten, Lord Grade and Christopher Bland. It would be difficult to identify any action they have taken in their role at the BBC that undermines the broadcaster’s duty of impartiality, let alone in favor of their party.
Tim Davie himself is a former Tory adviser – but a predecessor as DG was Greg Dyke, a former Labor adviser, whose biggest crisis at the BBC was the battle with the Labor government over the Iraqi WMD files.
Maitlis left the BBC to start a commercial podcast with Jon Sopel, a former colleague at the company. She was one of the BBC’s highest-paid presenters, but her earnings are unlikely to suffer in her new role. His first podcast will be released next month. Freed from the rules that apply to the audiovisual sector, we will see how his “truthful” journalism goes. If she persists in blaming Brexit for the recent queues of motorists in Dover, when it seems a shortage of French customs officers is the main reason, we will know that she is happy in her bubble, and Tim Davie will sleep all the easier.