She has revealed the truth about the corporation's "neutrality"
There are those who’d like Emily Maitlis to shut up. But not me. For a start, she no longer works for the BBC and is therefore free to speak her mind. This isn’t just her right, it’s also genuinely enlightening — because the more she talks, the more she gives the game away. Our national broadcaster, compulsorily funded by the British television-viewing public, is under a duty to remain politically impartial and unbiased. However, this assumes there’s some ideologically neutral viewpoint from which editorial judgements can be made.
This is questionable — and even if it were possible to achieve such Olympian heights of objectivity what makes us think that an organisation staffed by people like Emily Maitlis is capable of such a feat? Only this week, she tweeted out a silly comparison between Tory leadership contender, Liz Truss, and Viv Rook — the fictional fascist leader in the dystopian TV drama, Years and Years.
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— emily m (@maitlis) August 20, 2022
I’m presuming it was meant as a joke. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the smartest move for someone who expects to taken seriously when speaking about broadcasting issues. But yesterday Maitlis gave the MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh Television Festival. In it she tackles the issue of bias, citing the example of the way that Newsnight covered Brexit: “It might take our producers five minutes to find 60 economists who feared Brexit and five hours to find a sole voice who espoused it… But by the time we went on air we simply had one of each; we presented this unequal effort to our audience as balance. It wasn’t.”
This is revealing because it suggests that neutrality doesn’t mean presenting both sides of the argument, but rather reflecting the balance of opinion within some section or other of the cultural establishment. The problem with that is it turns the BBC into an echo chamber for other echo chambers — the liberal elites reverberating to one another’s opinions for evermore. This isn’t objectivity, it is hardwired confirmation bias, and a gift to the populists that Maitlis railed against in her lecture.
She also attacked the government for being “prepared to test the very limits of the constitution to achieve their aims”. Her key example was Boris Johnson’s “unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks by an executive that wanted to remove parliamentary democracy from the decision making process”. This ignores the context, which was that MPs had engineered a parliamentary deadlock, preventing the rightful government from fulfilling its manifesto promises while simultaneously blocking a general election to settle the matter. Furthermore, this was part of a campaign to overturn the Brexit referendum result — the largest democratic mandate in British political history. One might have thought that a hint of nuance here might have been appropriate. But none was forthcoming from Maitlis.
It only goes to expose the dangers of delegitimising what she calls “both side-ism”. Even if the “anti-establishment” side is usually wrong, that doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. Indeed, it is precisely when the establishment most commands our trust that it most needs to be challenged. That doesn’t mean that we have to waste airtime on debating Flat Earth theories, but on genuinely unsettled questions — like Brexit or transgender issues or whether or not Emily Maitlis represents the voice of reason — both sides must be heard.