“Newsnight” anchor Emily Maitlis took aim at Donald Trump, the U.K. government and the BBC – her soon-to-be former employer – in a speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival on Wednesday evening. But crucially she didn’t give any insight into her infamous interview with Prince Andrew, which she is now hoping to turn into a scripted drama.
“I apologise to anyone who came thinking this would be about the Prince Andrew interview,” said Maitlis, who has reportedly signed a deal with Blueprint Pictures to make a screen adaptation of the interview. “That will have to wait till next time.”
While many of the attendees to Maitlis’ MacTaggart lecture were hoping she would open up about the “car crash” interview, which saw Andrew banished from public life after it aired, Maitlis instead chose to focus on the journalistic landscape, giving examples of her own interviews with former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka as well as actor Robert de Niro.
“I have been extremely lucky to have had the chance to hold power to account,” she said in the opening to her speech. “Princes and prime ministers, presidents and policymakers. But here’s the thing. It’s got – and is getting – harder. And tonight I want to explore that. Because my suspicion – no, be braver – my thesis is that the political actors have changed. Politics has changed. But that we as journalists have not yet caught up.”
She went on to say there is a “total disconnect” between the current cost of living crisis and the current Conservative leadership election, which will determine the next Prime Minister following Boris Johnson’s resignation, which she described as a “power vacuum circus.”
Maitlis also took aim at the way in which public figures have increasingly tried to discredit the media, referencing her interviews with Gorka as an example, in which he “would use up most of the interview time by screaming abuse at the BBC,” she said.
In response Maitlis said she tried to defend the broadcaster. “It is insane,” she said of the interview. “He levelled the accusation to get social media traction. And I allowed it to become viable debate. You see where I’m going with this. Either way, Gorka won, and the BBC lost.”
And while Maitlis said her lecture would not be a “post-BBC ex-employee rant” – she took the opportunity to praise her former employer, which operates by strict impartiality rules – she did describe her speech as “an exhalation. A deep breath out. All the things that wisely could not be said then, can be said more easily now.”
However, she did call out the BBC for apologizing with “speed” after U.K. Government press offers expressed their displeasure at a “Newsnight” segment about one of Boris Johnson’s aides who had broken lockdown rules during the pandemic.
“Why had the BBC immediately and publicly sought to confirm the Government spokesman’s opinion?” Maitlis asked. “Without any kind of due process? It makes no sense for an organisation that is admirably, famously rigorous about procedure – unless it was perhaps sending a message of reassurance directly to the Government itself?”
Earlier this year, Maitlis announced she was leaving the BBC after two decades to host a podcast at Global alongside the BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel.
She also mentioned an interview with actor Robert de Niro in which he criticized Trump over handling of the pandemic. Maitlis revealed that after she had wrapped the interview she told her editor Adam Cumiskey “We can’t possibly put this out. It’s too anti-Trump.”
“Adam looks at me to see if I’m joking,” she recalled. “And I’m not. I am terrified that by putting out the interview as it stands we will be seen as biased. De Niro is a world-famous actor, and a New Yorker, and has chosen our programme, ‘Newsnight,’ as the place to land his thoughts quite carefully. So why do I feel unable to let him say it without trying to find an equally world-famous actor who that same night is miraculously going to tell us the opposite. And wouldn’t I be tumbling into both-sideism – false equivalence – even if we had?”
“It speaks again to how forcefully even imagined populist accusations of bias work on the journalist’s brain. To the point where we censor our own interviews to avoid the backlash.”
At the end of the lecture, Maitlis spoke briefly about her upcoming Global podcast, “The News Agents,” which she said “will allow us room to move away from cellophane-wrapped formality, to lift the curtain on why things happen, how we choose our stories and how we book our guests. Instead of the cliched stagecraft of supporter X versus supporter Y, we might choose nuance as we did on [BBC podcast] ‘Americast.’