by Martin Odoni

It is rather refreshing being able to talk about BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis doing something other than snuggling up too publicly with Peter Mandelson, but I genuinely wish to give her a (small) pat-on-the-back.

That the BBC stands up to the Tories with all the towering posture of an earthworm with a severe weight problem is not exactly news. With reportage from such unquestioning androids as Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Marr in the correspondents’ stable, the BBC might as well flash Vote Conservative on the screen during every programme it broadcasts during General Election campaigns, for all the ‘impartiality’ the corporation is capable of.

But Maitlis is showing signs of learning the hard way the true nature of the beast she works for. She famously started an episode of Newsnight in April 2020 with a coruscating-but-perfectly-accurate summary of Dominic Cummings’ conduct while working as an adviser at Downing Street. The BBC received a complaint from the Prime Minister’s office within a few hours, and within another few hours, the BBC posted an apology, stating,

we believe the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality,”

in effect stabbing Maitlis in the back and seriously undermining her freedom to do her job.

“If it’s coming from a spin doctor at No 10…then I don’t think we’d call that impartiality. We’d call that agenda-driven points scoring.” Yes, Emily, but that’s been happening for more years than I can count.

Maitlis then got stabbed in the back again a few months later, for simply retweeting Piers Morgan. Morgan was complaining, reasonably for once, that the punishment for failing to quarantine correctly during the Covid-19 pandemic was ten years, while there is no punishment for negligently allowing the pandemic to spread across the country in the first place.

The BBC rebuked Maitlis again, claiming,

“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.”

Maitlis has now publicly condemned her own employers, insisting that no one has ever explained to her what was inaccurate about her original diatribe against Cummings, and also criticising the BBC’s poor priorities. She compared its speed to act against her retweet to the breathtaking slowness of its investigations into Martin Bashir’s notorious documentary about Princess Diana from the mid-1990s.

“It hasn’t ever been explained to me what was journalistically inaccurate about [my words about Cummings]… It’s funny to see something like [the Cummings apology] 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.”

Now, on the one hand, we can interpret this as Maitlis only speaking out about BBC bias (kind of) when she personally got into trouble by over-stepping the mark. Media Lens refer to this phenomenon very roughly as ‘crony journalists only noticing they are on a chain when they step far enough from the establishment message to pull it taut.’ (Or words to that effect.)

Less encouragingly, even a little sycophantically, Maitlis also said,

“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.”

There is no reason why Maitlis should feel certain that editorial independence is that important to the BBC, or that it feels just as strongly as she does about it operating without fear or favour. Especially not when its Board of Executives is dominated by card-carrying Tories like Theresa May’s former employee, Robbie Gibb. But she did add one thing, and it is this detail for which I must offer her some applause; –

“On Newsnight, we analyse, we interrogate, we investigate. We’re not a public announcement tannoy [for the Government]. That’s not our job.”

Not a public announcement tannoy? That is true, but Newsnight, and other political programmes on the BBC, sure do act like one. Thank heavens someone on the BBC’s political staff has finally dared to say what everyone else can see. She has dared draw attention to what the BBC keeps doing that should be anathema to any journalist.

That is the first step to putting a stop to it.