The wrong conclusions are being drawn about Emily Maitlis’s comments on Dominic Cummings on the BBC flagship Newsnight show this week. Her remarks are not evidence of her courage, or that journalists are being gagged, or that the BBC is suddenly capitulating to the government.
The problem is caused by our desire to focus on whether Maitlis was right or wrong about Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, breaking the lockdown rules. But it is actually a distraction to fixate on the issue of whether Maitlis should or should not have been allowed to express the widely shared view – supported by a police investigation – that Cummings broke his own government’s rules by driving around the UK when he suspected he and his family were infected with Covid-19.
Even narrowly concentrating on the matter of whether the BBC was justified in hurriedly reprimanding Maitlis for criticising Cummings’ behaviour – and then seemingly forcing her off air the next night as punishment – limits our understanding of what the incident signifies, what it means.
BBC statement on last night's Newsnight pic.twitter.com/JFm4Nt5YMv
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) May 27, 2020
Glitch in the machine
The BBC, the rest of the media, even Maitlis herself, would all prefer that we restrict ourselves to debating the rights and wrongs of this particular row – and that we continue to see it chiefly as a “row”, with two sides arguing over what was the right thing to do in the circumstances.
But viewing the incident in this way is to personalise the “row” into a question simply of whether Maitlis is a good journalist or a bad one, or whether BBC bosses were too submissive towards the government on this occasion or are really trying to uphold standards of “impartiality”. Neither “debate” gets us very far.
Maitlis is a senior BBC journalist who got where she is today by doing with flair what the BBC is supposed to do – and consistently does. This week something went wrong. There was a very brief glitch in the BBC’s well-oiled machine. Studying that glitch in isolation really won’t clarify things. The glitch must be seen in relation to the well-oiled machine – in that way we can throw light on what the BBC does so effortlessly the rest of the time.
The usefulness of the Maitlis “row” is not in weighing whether she was impartial or partial on this occasion, or conversely whether her BBC bosses were enforcing impartiality rules or being partial. Rather, it helps to shed light on whether the BBC and its journalists ever actually aspire to be impartial, and whether impartiality is even possible.
Mocked and berated
The almost-immediate reprimand issued by the BBC, chastising Maitlis for failing to uphold the corporation’s supposedly strict standards of impartiality, helps in this regard because it is so clearly nonsense that Maitlis usually prioritises impartiality, or that BBC bosses usually hurry to issue reprimands when such standards are broken.
Here to remind us that Maitlis has no qualms about being partial – and the BBC no qualms about letting her be partial – is another short clip of her in action, from a broadcast 14 months ago. On this occasion she interrupted, berated and ridiculed Barry Gardiner, then the shadow secretary for international trade, as he tried to explain Labour’s Brexit policy:
Notice the differences in that segment compared to her comments this week. Her criticisms of Cummings were delivered in sombre tones, as if in disappointment, as though Cummings had fallen below the high standards normally set by the government. Her comments were carefully ascribed to the national mood. And she restricted herself to critiquing Cummings’ behaviour (criticisms echoed by the police investigation) and Johnson’s commitment to standing by him. She did not stray into wider territory that risked targeting the government’s political policies or its priorities.
The Gardiner interview is something else entirely. She rolls her eyes at the camera, she mocks him with barely concealed disdain, she laughs at him, and her body language is openly hostile. She explicitly ridicules the Labour party’s policy on Brexit while a representative for the government sits grinning next to Gardiner in pleased disbelief at her outburst – all remember at a time when the Conservative party, then led by Theresa May, was in a complete shambles, tearing itself apart over a Brexit mess it had created and ensuring near-complete political paralysis.
Analyse those two videos of Maitlis and then decide in which one she appears more partial. Were you a visitor from Mars watching those two clips, which one might you expect the BBC to have hurriedly apologised over for breaking its supposed impartiality rules?
And yet I can find no indication that the BBC ever issued a reprimand to Maitlis over the Gardiner interview, either at the time or later.
In fact, the interview was in many ways so normal by the BBC’s standards – especially in the days when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader – that I have yet to see anyone on my very active social media feeds about the Maitlis incident refer to it. Unlike the Cummings comment, Maitlis’s public bullying of, and contempt for, Gardiner went critically unremarked outside of the usual leftist circles. Instead, the interview was generally celebrated. On its Youtube page, the “liberal” Guardian even implicitly lauds her “exasperation” at Gardiner as capturing the “national mood”, again as if Labour was more responsible for the chaos of Brexit than the government whose policy it was.
A matter of power
Just to underline the point, here is another image of Maitlis on Newsnight, this time being politically “impartial” about Corbyn himself. The photomontage backdrop two years ago was meant to suggest that the Labour leader was a Kremlin stooge, at a time when Russia hysteria was at its height.
(In a laughable effort to defend this montage, a Channel 4 “fact-check” argued that it could not have been politically motivated because the same backdrop had earlier been used for the then defence secretary Gavin Williamson. That ignored the glaringly obvious point that in Williamson’s case the backdrop was used to contrast him with the “Russian menace” and indicate the dangers the UK government faced. This was even emphasised by accentuating the blue hues in Williamson’s cut-out image. In Corbyn’s case the montage was clearly meant to imply a sympathy between the Labour leader and the Kremlin, including the addition of a red hue to Corbyn’s face and the manipulation of his peaked cap to make it look like a Brezhnev-style pie hat.)
The difference in the BBC’s treatment of the Cummings comments and the Gardiner interview relates not to the question of partiality but to the matter of power. Cummings is at the very heart of power, at the centre of a government unabashedly representing the interests of the establishment. He is the indispensable “brain” – the Svengali – behind the dull-witted, vacuous but amiable prime minister. Without Cummings, the government would be rudderless, which is exactly why Johnson is determined to try to keep Cummings, despite the damage it is causing him and the party. It is why Johnson was so incensed, and frightened, by Maitlis’s comments. And it is why the BBC realised that in the circumstances the stakes were far too high to back their star journalist.
The mistake made by Maitlis and the Newsnight team was not appreciating just how important Cummings is to the government. He is not just an adviser. In many senses, he is the government.
‘Free press’ for billionaires
One of the mistakes people outside journalism often make is to imagine that journalists are primarily seeking to hold power to account. Most journalism, in fact, do the very opposite. Journalists crave their own little slice of reflected power – exclusives, inside scoops, the story behind the story – and that depends on access to those who really wield power. Access journalism dominates in politics, business, crime, showbiz, royal reporting, sport – in fact, in every part of the media.
If that were not bad enough, the main task of senior newspaper journalists is to understand very precisely the interests and worldview of their proprietors – and of similarly minded corporations that advertise in those papers. The journalist’s job is then to reflect that worldview back to the owners and advertisers. Which is why newspaper journalists share the concerns of billionaires over those of ordinary people.
For a shocking and amusing example of quite how tightly scripted journalists’ performance can be in promoting corporate interests, watch this short clip showing reporters for 11 different US television stations recite word for word the same “news” about how wonderful Amazon has supposedly been during the pandemic:
The room for ideological manoeuvre enjoyed by newspaper journalists is a narrow window on issues either that the billionaires and advertisers do not care strongly about or that they disagree among themselves about. This is what journalists are typically referring to when they speak of “freedom of the press”.
Two parties of capital
The job of a senior journalist like Maitlis in a state-funded broadcaster like the BBC is similar: it is chiefly to reflect back to the political establishment its interests and worldview. Nowadays newspaper proprietors and the state broadcaster are driven by almost identical agendas, given that government parties are funded by the billionaires and corporations that own newspapers and advertise in them and that corporate money and the corporate media’s support largely determine the outcome of elections.
Billionaires own the media, and it’s destroying democracy pic.twitter.com/HtBecLJCk2
— Aaron Bastani (@AaronBastani) May 21, 2020
Once the editorial room for manoeuvre at the BBC was a degree wider than it is today. Back in the 1970s, for example, when workers could place some limitations on establishment power through organised trade unions, and Labour governments sought to represent that power, the BBC had to balance these competing demands, between the political elite and the labour movement.
Those balances have largely gone. After Tony Blair created New Labour as a second party of capital, remaking Britain’s system in the image of the US one, the counter-pressures on the BBC largely evaporated. Blair and New Labour came to enjoy the same craven support as the Conservatives from the BBC’s star reporters – remember Andrew Marr’s fawning panegyric to Blair’s war crimes in Iraq back in 2003?
The BBC only found its journalistic policy of “impartiality” – big rows over marginal issues, non-ideological scandals, celebrity news – disrupted with Corbyn’s shock election to lead the Labour Party by the mass membership in 2015. That was an event to which the media class reacted with instant, utter and sustained horror until Labour managed to restore Blairite normal service this year under a new leader, Keir Starmer.
Real and charade journalism
For some time, the BBC has barely bothered to make even a pretence of even-handedness in the selection of its personnel. Its board is regularly chaired by senior Conservative politicians, including until recently by Lord Patten, and stuffed with people who have worked for major corporations.
BBC editors are nowadays interchangeable with their counterparts at the Daily Mail, Times and the Telegraph, where they have often worked before (James Harding, Sarah Sands). Many have been, or go on to be, advisers to the Conservative party (Thea Rogers, Robbie Gibb, Craig Oliver, Will Walden, Guto Harri). And aside from the fact that many senior BBC journalists were born into a social elite (Laura Kuenssberg), some started their careers as explicit cheerleaders for the Tory party (Nick Robinson, Andrew Neil). These journalists are indisputably an elite media class, part of the establishment, and their journalism is there to defend their privilege.
That is the proper context for understanding Maitlis’s comments. She does not represent some standard of courageous BBC journalism separate from her colleagues. She did not pick a fight with the media establishment. And she was not trying to hold the Johnson government to account. None of those things is true, or indicated by the “row” about her Cummings comment.
Remember that Maitlis’ tepid comments about Cummings were much less forceful than those of the far-right, Boris Johnson-supporting, billionaire-owned Daily Mail. If she is waging a battle for a truly free press or rigorously holding the powerful to account, then so – very improbably – is the Johnson-adoring Daily Mail.
Maitlis’s mistake was to use the BBC – whose job is to do the very minimum to look credible journalistically to itself and its audience as it avoids challenging the political establishment – as a platform to vent her own, and a widely shared, anger at Cummings’ decision to abandon his own lockdown rules when they didn’t suit him.
The Mail did it – because the billionaire proprietors and advertisers don’t especially care about Cummings, and because they know their readers are riled by Cummings’ behaviour – so Maitlis and Newsnight assumed they could do it too. Maitlis didn’t properly understand that a BBC journalist is even more tied to defending the establishment worldview than the redtops.
Like her colleagues, family and friends, Maitlis felt personally angry. She let that anger cloud her normal judgment. Her emotion trumped her astute journalistic instincts to avoid ruffling the features of those who paved her career path to the top of the BBC. She made the mistake – for once – of doing real journalism when what is expected of her is charade-journalism.
On a leash, sitting by the peg
Such moments are rare for most journalists. As Michael Parenti, the US media critic, once famously observed of corporate journalists: “You say what you like, because they like what you say.” He added:
You don’t know you’re wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It’s only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you’re free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.
Most of the time Maitlis sits by the peg. For once, her anger – an anger shared by all normal people outraged by double standards, by privilege and by lies – drove her to forget what her job entails. She momentarily forgot what she has been socialised to do through her education and her class, and further trained to do through her journalistic career: to create the illusion for herself and her viewers that she is holding power to account. For once, she did real rather than charade journalism – and instantly found herself reprimanded for it.
The public rebuking of Maitlis by the BBC is an extreme version of the rewards-and-punishment training all corporate journalists go through. Mostly such admonishments are suffered by staff when they are employed at junior levels, as they “find their feet” and learn from their elders and betters what journalism requires of them. Maitlis’s reprimand served a similar purpose. Its usefulness was not just to remind Maitlis of the tight limits on what her job allows, but to demonstrate to those in the lower ranks that, if this is what can happen to someone like Maitlis, they need to be more careful still.
Thousands of BBC journalists contemplating doing real journalism learnt this week the price of disobedience. This episode tamed them a little more, ensured they understood a little more clearly that they are expected to be subservient to power. As a result, they will move a little closer to the peg.
Next time you wonder why BBC reporters are so timid, so feeble when confronting the establishment; when they so obviously miss stories or angles clear to the rest of us; when blow up small issues into big issues; when they grandstand to no obvious effect or benefit; when they focus on stories about celebrity and trivia; when they choose to hit down rather than up; when they unite to attack and vilify the rare politician who dares to question the verities of today’s neoliberal order; when any of that happens, remember this moment.
Because all the BBC’s journalists, including our future Emily Maitlises, watched her chastisement this week. They learnt their lesson from her error.