Emily Maitlis is right about BBC bias - but for the wrong reasons
It took no great powers of prognostication for Emily Maitlis to predict in her recent MacTaggart lecture to the Edinburgh Television Festival that critical comments about her former employer, the BBC, would plunge her into controversy. Maybe that was the point.
Both sides took to the barricades. Each had easy soundbites to bolster their case for and against the claim that the state broadcaster is in the pocket of the Conservative government, timid and fearful of losing yet more of its public funding.
To illustrate her argument, Maitlis highlighted a 2020 decision by the BBC to reprimand her for a monologue on Newsnight, its flagship current affairs programme, criticising Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s then-chief adviser. At the time, evidence that he broke the very Covid lockdown rules he helped to draft provoked widespread public indignation.
Faced with complaints from government officials, the BBC briefly suspended Maitlis and issued a hasty apology that she had violated impartiality rules.
Maitlis said she and her team had been denied “due process” to defend their script. It was as if the corporation was “sending a message of reassurance directly to the government”.
Her supporters can point to the fact that, after 12 uninterrupted years of Conservative rule, BBC management hardly looks neutral itself. The current chairman, Richard Sharp, a former banker, is one of the Tory party’s most generous benefactors. Tim Davie, the director general, is a former Conservative local council candidate.
Maitlis noted that Robbie Gibb, the spin doctor for Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, now sits on the BBC board. Describing him as an “active agent of the Conservative party”, she mocked his role as “arbiter of BBC impartiality”.
She cited media reports that Gibb had sought to block the appointment of journalists that might damage relations with the government.
Her detractors sidestepped these criticisms to make a barely veiled accusation of sour grapes. There were suggestions too that Maitlis has a commercial interest in making headlines: she is launching a podcast with Global, a commercial competitor to the BBC.
The state broadcaster issued a response denying government pressure. Its apology, it said, was based solely on the fact the programme breached editorial policy on impartiality. Former BBC chief executive Will Wyatt agreed, saying that Newsnight had overstepped the mark in rounding on Cummings.
The BBC selectively demands impartiality - when it suits its agenda - and selective impartiality is another term for bias
According to Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer: “[The BBC] expect our journalists to leave our personal opinions at the door… It’s a cornerstone of the BBC.”
Meanwhile, journalistic “treasures”, from David Dimbleby to John Simpson, rallied to the BBC’s defence. Dimbleby accused Maitlis of engaging in “polemic”.
Strangely, in 2019 - before she delivered the MacTaggart lecture - Maitlis herself had dismissed accusations of BBC bias as a conspiracy theory. It was really “a confluence of cock-ups and the wrong button being pressed at the wrong time”. But on one level, Maitlis’ lecture made an unassailable case.
The BBC selectively demands impartiality - when it suits its agenda - and selective impartiality is another term for bias. Necessarily, impartiality is subjective. In the BBC’s case, it is inevitably influenced by the corporation’s core financial interest in not alienating the government of the day that funds its budget.
When questioned about this problem by Middle East Eye, a BBC spokesperson offered a standard-issue response: "The BBC places the highest value on due impartiality and accuracy and we apply these principles to our reporting on all issues."
However, those claiming the BBC is committed to impartiality between the government and its critics need to revisit the archives. Watch, for example, this clip of Andrew Marr, then the BBC’s political editor, delivering a panegyric to Tony Blair in 2003 after the UK had illegally invaded Iraq:
“[Blair] said they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both those points, he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”
Millions in Britain had marched against the war. Not only did Marr have no right to speak for them, but he was also egregiously wrong in repeating UK government claims that there was no bloodbath in Baghdad (unless one ignored Iraqi deaths), or that all Iraqis, or even most, celebrated their country’s occupation.
Marr paid no price either for a blatant lack of impartiality or the dissemination of inaccuracies. The BBC offered no apology. But then again, Marr was saying exactly what the government wanted to hear.
A study by Cardiff University’s Mike Berry of the BBC’s reporting of the 2008 financial crash shows how it shifted the blame away from those responsible - the banks and the governments that failed to regulate them - onto a supposed excess of public spending.
Similar studies show that the BBC skewed coverage of Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, when both Westminster and the Queen were set against it.
And, of course, Maitlis is far from alone in noting that being strictly even-handed between two camps when expert opinion is mostly on one side is its own form of distortion and partiality - proved by both the Brexit and climate change “debates”.
Maitlis is right that the BBC is heavily swayed by governmental pressure - just as other journalists are influenced by their reporting for billionaire owners and working at outlets dependent on corporate advertising.
But Maitlis hardly emerges from this scrap unscathed herself. There is a deep flaw in her own argument that has gone largely unaddressed. No one has an interest in highlighting it, not even her detractors.
Maitlis referred to the Cummings incident in the context of a grander “thesis”, as she termed it, about what’s gone wrong with modern journalism. Her lecture was a lament that the profession is inadvertently colluding with political forces she, like her colleagues, calls “populism”.
Maitlis has won easy plaudits for focusing on the danger personified by politicians like Donald Trump, the narcissistic former president of the United States.
Trump, she observed, had deployed the main trope of populist rhetoric: that elites, including the media, use their unaccountable power to protect their interests and undermine the will of the people. As president, Trump turned this claim into a weapon to strip journalists of their power to scrutinise his actions.
But worse, Maitlis argues, journalists have colluded in their own emasculation and silencing. They are too apologetic faced with politicians who denounce the media as the enemy. They accommodate populists who exploit media impartiality codes to trade in lies. And they indulge demands for bogus balance.
Maitlis cited the Cummings episode as proof that these failings - of excessive timidity and deference - are now deeply ingrained in BBC culture.
This thesis, however superficially appealing, is patent nonsense - and Maitlis herself points to its central weakness. Her critique is not restricted to rightwing populism. She lumps in too the populist left and its champion in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn.
The claim that BBC journalists have been too timid and even-handed toward leftwing populism is simply delusional. That can be demonstrated even without re-examining the media’s claims over years of a supposed “antisemitism crisis” in Corbyn’s Labour Party, despite their inability to adduce any meaningful evidence for it beyond smears and character assassination.
The BBC was a central player in promoting distortions that bolstered that antisemitism narrative, as separate studies by the London School of Economics and Birbeck College demonstrated. The anti-Corbyn bias was so evident that even a former chair of the BBC Trust, Michael Lyons, noticed it.
But the argument that the BBC has been too timid towards leftwing populists can be disproven simply by analysing Maitlis and Newsnight’s own record of open hostility towards the former Labour leader. In contrast to the Cummings incident, Newsnight suffered no pushback from BBC executives when it indulged in that kind of partiality.
The latitude for smearing Corbyn was so wide that Newsnight thought it simply funny to close an episode with a doctored scene from a Harry Potter film. In presenting the then Labour leader as Voldemort, Newsnight’s populist messaging could hardly be misunderstood: Corbyn as the power-mad Dark Lord letting loose his Death Eaters to eradicate all good witches and wizards.
Maitlis was not reprimanded for breaching BBC impartiality guidelines on that occasion, of course.
The latitude for smearing Corbyn was so wide that Newsnight thought it funny to close an episode with a doctored scene from a Harry Potter film presenting him as Voldemort
Nor was she when Newsnight showed a giant mock-up of Corbyn as its backdrop. His face, set amid the Kremlin’s towers, was tinted red in sympathy with the Russian surroundings. An image had been selected of him wearing a hat that, on screen, resembled a Lenin cap.
In her Edinburgh lecture, Maitlis did not ignore the resulting social media furore. Rather, with great chutzpah, she recruited it to her cause, arguing it showed how deranged were the populist forces on both sides working against good journalism. Newsnight’s team, she said, did not know whether to view the fury as “farcical or threatening”.
But tellingly, her mood in recounting the episode was one of levity. With a wry smile, she noted that Newsnight had earlier used exactly the same Kremlin backdrop for Gavin Williamson, then the defence secretary.
Maitlis, however, was indulging in the same populist rhetoric and misdirection against which she has supposedly been sounding the alarm. She entirely stripped the two examples of their context.
In contrast, Williamson’s mock-up demonstrated not his sympathy with the Kremlin but his patriotic stance against it. The difference was underscored by the pair’s facial hues. Williamson’s blue tint, unlike Corbyn’s red, contrasted with his surroundings.
Look in the mirror
More extraordinary still, Maitlis received no reprimand when she flagrantly violated the BBC’s impartiality code interviewing Barry Gardiner, the shadow secretary for international trade, as he explained Labour’s Brexit policy in early 2019.
Maitlis’ body language was unmistakably hostile, her questions rudely aggressive, and his answers provoked ostentatious eye-rolling. Nadhim Zahawi, for the government, sat alongside, barely able to stifle his glee as Maitlis concentrated her fire on Labour for the Brexit shambles created by Zahawi’s ruling party.
MEE reached out to Maitlis for her comments, but had heard nothing by time of publication.
The problem here is not really that Maitlis is showing bias. And, as she suggests, on some occasions - when faced with lies, criminality or cruelty - it is her duty to refuse to be impartial.
Maitlis assumed she could give Cummings and Johnson a little taste of the editorial abuse Newsnight so regularly heaped on Corbyn’s Labour. She found herself sorely mistaken
Maitlis, like the BBC, is better accused of something else. Like other mainstream journalists, she unconsciously uses the very tools - misdirection, misrepresentation and distortion - she denounces in populists like Trump to promote a political agenda.
The BBC and the rest of the establishment media have been only too ready to skew public debate through flagrant bias when the target is a real critic of the establishment like Corbyn rather than a phoney, opportunistic one like Trump.
Tom Mills, author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, argues that Maitlis’ criticisms of the BBC “are best understood as an expression of a conflict between the liberal and conservative wings of the British establishment… a conflict in which the latter is proving more and more antagonistic”.
Centrists like Maitlis feel less and less at home at the BBC as its leadership, like the UK government, shifts ever further to the right. They have found their room to criticise the right’s divisive, scapegoating populism is far narrower than it is when they criticise the equalising policies of the populist left.
Maitlis assumed she could give Cummings and Johnson a little taste of the editorial abuse Newsnight so regularly heaped on Corbyn’s Labour. She found herself sorely mistaken.
The so-called mainstream media, whether a state broadcaster like the BBC or outlets owned by billionaires and major corporations, are not there to provide a level playing field between the establishment and its critics. In that sense, both Trump and Corbyn are right to criticise the establishment media for promoting its interests above the public good.
But while Corbyn desires media reform that genuinely allows for pluralistic debate, giving a voice to the public interest, Trump wants both to exploit growing public antipathy to an establishment media divorced from real concerns and to weaponise those criticisms to intimidate and silence the centrist parts of the establishment media. He is not interested in widening public discourse. He wants to narrow it to a small circle of his wealthy friends.
Maitlis’ failure, as with most of her colleagues, is not to recognise this fundamental difference. In muddying the waters between the populisms of Trump and Corbyn, she deployed the very tactics she warns are degrading our media and political landscapes.
Real media reform is desperately needed. But don’t count on Maitlis being an ally in the struggle to achieve it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.