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Emily Maitlis’ version of impartiality would have destroyed the BBC

The ex-BBC star called board member Robbie Gibb a Tory ‘agent’. Reality is more complex

David Elstein
25 August 2022, 6.39pm

Emily Maitlis rehearsing ahead of delivering the MacTaggart lecture


PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Emily Maitlis has a strong track record as an interviewer and reporter, most notably on BBC Two’s Newsnight, from which she departed a few months ago. Now she has used British broadcasting’s biggest industry event to turn the spotlight on her former employer and its attempts to observe impartiality – as the Royal Charter that is its constitution demands.

The corporation’s director-general, Tim Davie, has committed himself to placing impartiality at the heart of the BBC, but has at various times bumped 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 turn was 31 years ago. She gave an extended and somewhat aggrieved account of the most notorious of these impartiality collisions: Dominic Cummings’ flight to Durham during the COVID lockdown, and her clear belief that he had thereby broken lockdown rules. After protests from 10 Downing Street, the BBC reprimanded her, much to her irritation. Her departure will not have caused Davie any sleepless nights.

The trouble with ‘impartiality’ is the degree to which it clashes with reporting truthfully. I know this from my own career in television journalism, which began with producing current affairs programmes for the BBC before moving to similar roles in commercial broadcasting. Sometimes one side of a debate is simply not credible. For instance, the BBC – in my view rightly – gives little space to Russian versions of the war in Ukraine and follows the mainstream US media in explicitly rejecting Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen from him.

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But domestic politics is a much trickier arena. Even straightforward factual reporting – for instance, on the various problems besetting the NHS – can, over time, come to seem hostile, in the eyes of the government of the day. A news agenda tightly focused on Partygate, Brexit problems and prime ministerial wallpaper can quickly become viewed as deliberately undermining. For a broadcaster whose income – indeed, very existence – depends upon government decisions, such perceptions can spell real danger. Appeals to journalistic principles do not make that danger go away.

Even so, whole areas of public discussion – for instance, stories of racism – are exempt from the concept of ‘balance’ because society is overwhelmingly of one point of view. Much trickier is an issue like Brexit, where decades of uncritical coverage of the EU left the BBC with few news employees who could even understand the desire to leave, and equally left many amongst the viewing public highly dubious about the BBC’s trustworthiness on the subject.

Maitlis regrets the BBC’s bending over backwards to find economists who favoured Brexit, when the great majority opposed it – what she calls “both sideism” – and she is not the only ex-BBC star to have deplored the sacrificing of (her) “truth” for “balance”. Yet if the BBC had become part of Operation Fear, it would surely have lost the trust of Brexiteers entirely, and not have made it to its centenary year unscathed.

What is more, the statutory obligation to impartiality is actually quite narrow. The Royal Charter’s concept of ‘due’ impartiality applies only to matters of current political debate (in the case of elections, even tighter rules apply). So, for instance, my observations about the BBC’s documentary series on the Murdochs could be successfully batted away on the grounds that these programmes were historical, and so not bound by due impartiality.

Maitlis reserved her strongest criticism for the appointment to the BBC board of a former Conservative Party director of communications, Robbie Gibb, calling him a party “agent”, and therefore implicitly a threat to impartiality rather than a guardian of it.

Yet there is a long history of party supporters being appointed to the chair or board of the BBC – a former Liberal MP was once chairman. The current chairman is a donor to the Conservatives. Previous Tories who served as chairman include Lord Patten, Lord Grade and Christopher Bland. It would be hard to identify any action they took as part of their BBC role which undermined the broadcaster’s obligation to impartiality, let alone in favour of their party.

Tim Davie himself is a former Tory councillor – but a predecessor as D-G was Greg Dyke, a former Labour councillor, whose biggest crisis at the BBC was the battle with the Labour government over the Iraq WMD dossiers.

Maitlis left the BBC to launch a commercial podcast with Jon Sopel, a former colleague at the corporation. She was one of the best-paid BBC presenters, but it is unlikely that her income will suffer in her new role. Her first podcast will be out next month. Freed from the rules that apply to broadcasting, we will see how her ‘truthful’ journalism goes. If she persists in blaming Brexit for the recent queues of motorists at Dover, when it would appear a shortage of French customs officials was primarily the reason, we will know that she is happy in her bubble, and Tim Davie will sleep that much easier.

David Elstein was the chief executive of Channel 5 at its launch and has been head of programming for BSkyB, director of programmes at Thames Television, managing director of Primetime Productions and managing director of Brook Productions. He has also chaired openDemocracy's board and is an openDemocracy donor.

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