The ‘Maitlis Monologue’ has left the BBC exposed and raised questions about objectivity but the broader problem is a lack of political plurality in the broadcast media.
“Dominic Cummings broke the rules — the country can see that and it’s shocked the government cannot,” declared Emily Maitlis in her BBC Newsnight monologue on Tuesday.
There was plenty to argue with in that sentence but, you’ll probably be relieved to know, I am not going to focus on the issue of breaches, minor or otherwise, by Cummings.
Rather, instead, there were two words in her introduction which were particularly grating but also extraordinarily revealing.
Maitlis believed, genuinely I am sure, that she spoke for the entire country when she made her address to the nation. I am not going to argue, like some of her critics have suggested, that this was cynical propaganda but suspect that she truly did have the impression that the entire United Kingdom was of one view. And that is a far more serious problem than a TV presenter ‘going rogue’.
Had she made a quick search of social media she would have discovered that there was an extremely heated debate going on over Cummings’ actions. People were, in fact, falling out in lumps over it, as the subsequent response to her monologue will have revealed, belatedly, to her. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that debate, whatever the percentage levels of support for Cummings, we certainly weren’t speaking with one voice.
In fact, when do we ever really speak with one voice? We are divided over pretty much every issue one could think of. From Meghan and Harry to Brexit and Lockdown rules, there are differing views and a very good thing that is too. This is so evident that it really is quite astonishing that an experienced current affairs presenter didn’t realise that she was so sorely overstepping the mark.
I suspect Maitlis, like many of her colleagues across the media, had her judgment influenced by the high octane thrill of the chase to get Cummings’ scalp. Spin-doctors are rarely liked by the press, for understandable reasons, but Cummings isn’t really a spin doctor. His role goes way beyond media management but he has been dismissive of the press to the point of mocking; his approach is less spin than shrug; all of which has made the attempt to force him out one which has added incentive for the media.
She might also have been, as some have suggested, searching for a viral moment. Why else do Newsnight now have an American-style monologue which is then cut-up and distributed across social media channels?
The Times reports today that the BBC, sensitive to the political issue of the licence fee, have turned to ex-head of news Richard Sambrook to look into the issue of social media use by reporters, in relation to potential political bias. Whilst I am sure he will be generously rewarded (with our money) for this new role, I do not envy his task.
As it stands, BBC news and current affairs staff, are barred from tweeting or posting personal political views, less it undermine the corporations official neutrality. But the public’s impression of the BBC is not gained solely from the words of Laura Kuenssberg or Andrew Marr but is also influenced by the overall tone and feel of the corporation’s output and personalities. Gary Lineker, the former footballer and presenter of Match of the Day, is, as a non-news employee, at liberty to tweet prolifically his proudly Remainer politics and has recently been openly accusing government officials of lying. The same goes for scores of comedians and other publicly-funded celebrities.
I am not, for one moment, suggesting that Lineker or Nish Kumar, be contractually barred from talking about politics; such an approach would be unreasonable and censorious. BBC staff would be up in arms at such a move but not because they are all free-speech enthusiasts, merely because most of them agree with the politics of Lineker and Kumar.
And this is the crux of the matter. Any attempt to push the BBC back to the days of Sir Robin Day and David Frost, to a time when its staff took the issue of balance as central to their approach to work, will come up against the over-arching culture of an organisation staffed by people who just simply think that their centre-left, socially liberal, Remainer and vaguely woke outlook, is nothing more than what decent, reasonable people think.
As any intelligent, well-travelled, well-read and open-minded, Leaver in the professional world in London knows all too well, being a Brexit supporter who voted for Boris Johnson, is not something you world normally talk about in the office or staff room and I imagine that goes doubly so for the BBC newsroom. Maybe there is a furtive Whatsapp group for secret Tories or Leavers at the BBC, but if it is anything like other professions, honest exchanges about politics for such people is probably restricted to chats outside the office with someone you have the feeling may be a kindred spirit or when alcohol means the tongue is looser and bitten less frequently.
It would be career suicide for a BBC staffer to tweet pro-Brexit messages but probably do little harm to their chances if they let slip the odd anti-Boris jibe. When it comes to political bias it really is ‘one rule for them….’
This would be a problem in itself, if this culture were only limited to the BBC. But there is no evidence to suggest that such an environment is any different at Sky News or ITV and certainly not Channel Four News. Ask yourself, would we really notice the difference if Robert Peston were a BBC reporter and Emily Maitlis on C4 News?
The BBC are, rightly, as a publicly-funded broadcaster held to a higher-standard when it comes to issues of neutrality, bias and objective reporting but there are guidelines in place for the other channels and all are obliged to observe them. Rules and regulations though are not really going to alter the fundamental problem with broadcast media in the UK — the culture which informs all its choices, approaches and ultimately news judgement. It is that ‘group think’ that resulted in their failure to even stop and ask if the ‘second trip to Durham’ that dominated their coverage on Sunday, actually even happened.
The culture also, surely, has an impact on recruitment. One can only imagine what it is like for a young and ambitious student journalist with conservative ‘Brexity’ or any kind of non-conformist views who wishes to enter those newsrooms? The smart career advice would be to keep schtum and nod along with the Remainers or maybe just think about a different job. But that, of course, merely continues the problem.
The licence-fee debate will surely be back on the agenda now, as some of the more thoughtful defenders of the BBC have noted. That is a topic for another day but the issue of plurality in the broadcast media can be changed without even addressing that question.
The Cummings affair has shown, yet again, that there is a real need for diversity in television and radio news and current affairs coverage. Blogs, podcasts and YouTube shows are all great additions to the mix but they have nowhere near the impact and reach of a full television network. Isn’t it time someone created a channel that caters for those of us who are alienated from and annoyed by the existing offering?
The late American conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer once said of Fox News: “The genius of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes was to have discovered a niche market in American broadcasting — half the country” .
There is in Britain, about “half the country” that doesn’t think Brexit is “madness”; doesn’t think everything about the place where they live is an embarrassment to the world; doesn’t tweet “Stop. Lying” every time a cabinet minister speaks and doesn’t feel disappointment when Nissan chooses Sunderland for its European hub.
They are the kind of television viewer who didn’t think Boris was carrying out a ‘coup’ last year, don’t think camping outside someone’s house for days on end is ‘fearless reporting’ and who switch off the daily coronavirus press conferences half-way through Peston’s first question. They just want the news told straight and to have a proper range of different views in debates.
We don’t need a British version of Fox but we surely would benefit from a different way of doing television news.
And, yes Emily, “the country” would be better for it.