When the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis made her ill-judged remarks about the Dominic Cummings saga last week she made at least one fan happy. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, tweeted approvingly: “Public Service Broadcasting!” as if, by editorialising as she did, Maitlis was upholding the finest traditions of the BBC. Nothing could be further from the truth; in doing what she did, Maitlis gave the BBC’s enemies one more reason to distrust it. The BBC’s prompt apology only underlined the seriousness of the matter; the BBC is a master of prevarication when it comes to complaints about bias in its output (men have grown long in the tooth and white of beard waiting for a proper response), but on this occasion they distanced themselves from the presenter’s remarks within 24 hours.
In a second statement about the affair, which came a few days later, the BBC went a little further in explaining why it had publicly admonished Maitlis, saying: “Our editorial guidelines allow us to make professional judgements, but not to express opinion. The dividing line can be fine”. Indeed it can – as I know from long experience. It is not an easy matter, and comes naturally to very few journalists, to suppress their own opinions when writing a news bulletin. When I started as a reporter for the BBC in the late 1970s (and if that sounds like “an old man remembers” please forgive me, dear reader), it was the golden rule which I was made to understand from the first day I worked there. It comes down to this: that the BBC reporter takes no side in a political argument and that it is their job merely to present the facts of the case with both sides fairly represented in the piece.
To do that according to the spirit of the BBC’s commitment to impartiality is an exacting challenge. As a tribe, journalists are more political than the average run of the population. This holds good for all journalists but especially for BBC people partly because the BBC is so much part of the political process in Britain. The majority of editorial staff in the BBC are left-liberal in outlook and some of them, a minority, are politically committed. The obligation to be impartial and to avoid giving their own opinions is a heavy imposition to lay on individuals who have strong political opinions. And I think we can take it as read that Emily Maitlis does have strong political opinions.
One of the most alarming aspects of the Maitlis affair is that after the BBC’s apology there were reports from within the Corporation that many of her Newsnight colleagues were up in arms about the fact that she had been publicly told off. They argued that the BBC had undermined the journalistic mission of the programme. If that is genuinely how they feel, they are clearly clueless about what “impartiality” means; anyone watching Maitlis forcibly delivering her opinion and who thinks that it fell within the meaning of “impartial” misunderstands the word.
It is troubling to think that Maitlis’s script would have been pored over by the programme team on the night in question. Someone at senior level surely read what she intended to say and decided that it was fine and dandy. A TV news script is the work of many hands. There will be others who contributed to and eventually signed off on hers; one wonders what reprimands, if any, the BBC has seen fit to give them.
What all this tells us about the BBC is something that many of us already know; that the Corporation’s proclaimed impartiality is a sham.
The Maitlis affair concerns a specifically political event but bias is very evident across the BBC’s output. Social conservatives have long despaired of getting anything like a fair hearing from the BBC. When was the last time, for instance, that you heard a sympathetic hearing given to the pro-life case? Or a boost given to campaigners trying to restore decency to the teaching of sex education for young children? In the past 50 years, the BBC has lined up behind every transgressive left-wing movement and in doing so it has helped further our moral decline. The Corporation is not some neutral umpire but a potent actor in the nation’s affairs – as the Maitlis affair demonstrates.