Reprimanding Maitlis makes her the media's fall woman

Holly Margerrison unpacks the complexity of impartiality in broadcasting.

Holly Margerrison
1st June 2020
Emily Maitlis has been praised for her unrelenting interviews in which she confronts Prince Andrew, Donald Trump and even a living God. She predicted the post-truth age of Trump before he was elected. She navigates the behind-the-scenes world of journalism as a female broadcaster in her quasi-memoir, Airhead. She's received a host of awards – Broadcast Journalist of the Year in 2017 to name but one. So, why, during a time when we need facts, truth and transparency from our politicians, has Maitlis been yet another fall-woman in our mainstream media?

Women make up 51% of the population. But women make up 48% of the broadcasting industry, 25% of front-page stories and lose out on a 2.8:1 male-to-female ratio on programmes like BBC Radio 4. It may not be new news, but these figures of underrepresentation only make it more disparaging for female journalists wanting to break into a male-heavy profession.

The issues don't stop there: even when figures like Maitlis manage to establish a credible reputation, they are challenged by the public, their peers and even their bosses.

Take the past few weeks as an example. One moment, Maitlis was being praised for debunking the political spiel we are being spoon-fed by our politicians during Covid-19:

"The language around Covid-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading, you do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues will tell us. The disease is not a great leveller."

Emily Maitlis, BBC NewsNight

Known for her obstinate interviewing tactics, one twitter user tweeted: "I want @Maitlis to sit down with Dominic Cummings for an hour like she did with Prince Andrew", to which she replied "Very much available here". Her reply ramped up 58.1K likes.

So, just nights on, when Maitlis opened her NewsNight piece with "Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that and it's shocked the government cannot", why was it that Maitlis had to take one for the team?

It would be inefficient to ignore the power of the press. Conflicting ideas of what good journalism is surrounds us everywhere, but there's one area of broadcasting that journalists must be crystal clear about: impartiality. Ironically, this is also one of the greyest areas of OFCOM's code.

There's no denying broadcasting can implement huge numbers of people. There's no denying everything has to be dealt with sensitively. But impartiality is a tricky balance between objectivity, neutrality and balance. You can't single one out without the other.

Then there's due impartiality. What the public would deem to be right and wrong. There may be a certain case that springs to mind (Naga Munchetty, nudge nudge) when you think of The BBC and impartiality. Sometimes it takes a while for companies to realise what they stand for.

My issue with Maitlis being replaced on NewsNight the following evening is this: turn to Twitter and you see all parties pointing the finger at Cummings. Turn to your neighbours and hear them talk of their disappointment in our government. Follow Cummings down the street and you hear the painful stories of those making sacrifices, whilst Cummings has not.

The fact is this: Cummings broke the rules. The nation can see it. And it's shocked the government cannot.

Female broadcasters are reprimanded whilst men like Cummings cannot be held to account.

The decision to replace Maitlis the following evening sparked controversy from both sides and perhaps we're beginning to understand the complexity of impartiality. There's a part of me still expecting The BBC to repeat the Munchetty case and go back on their word.

Where do we draw the line? Can we still criticise the institutions that are failing us? Wasn't Maitlis just conforming to journalistic integrity?

Maitlis may state she took a step back to allow Katie Razall the limelight, but The BBC suggesting Maitlis overstepped the mark speaks back to a double standard: female broadcasters are reprimanded whilst men like Cummings cannot be held to account.

Featured image: Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

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