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“We have to stop normalizing the absurd,” British journalist and author Emily Maitlis urged her colleagues on Wednesday at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
Delivering the fest’s prestigious James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, the former BBC anchor and journalist said that when Donald Trump was elected as U.S. president, “we did not yet understand that it wasn’t replacing one man with another, but one set of rules with another.” She added: “We didn’t realize we would have to change too.”
Maitlis, who rose to international prominence after her notorious 2019 interview with Prince Andrew for U.K. public broadcaster BBC, which became a factor in the royal’s fall from grace, said she called her lecture “Boiling Frog: Why We Have to Stop Normalizing the Absurd,” because “we’re becoming anesthetized to the rising temperature in which facts are getting lost, constitutional norms trashed, claims frequently unchallenged.”
Maitlis argued that “this surreal summer has been a prime example,” arguing that there was “a total disconnect between the dire warnings over energy and food bills that are massively hurting people in this country” and the “power vacuum circus” since the decision by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to leave his role in early September. Foreign secretary Liz Truss, the favorite to succeed Johnson, is going up against former Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
“We’ve heard — not once but twice from the frontrunner — that a policy idea was ‘misinterpreted by the media’ and that — my favorite — a question was asked in a ‘left-wing way,'” the journalist said. “We then saw that same candidate caught privately apologizing to a presenter for attacking the media, as if it had been an indelicate comment about his tie rather than a staple of our democracy. We only know because it was caught on hot mic. That conversation should have been said out loud.”
Concluded Maitlis: “This isn’t normal. Or rather, it shouldn’t be. Things that for many decades were givens — the checks and balances on the executive, the role of the judiciary or the civil service, a media free from interference or vilification — now appear vulnerable. We are seeing politicians move in directions that are deeply and clearly deleterious to basic democratic governance.”
Maitlis then recounted Trump’s admission to CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl on the campaign trail on his reason for “continually bashing the press.” Quoting Stahl, she read: “He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.'”
Maitlis’ conclusion: “The larger the gap, in other words, that populists can create between recognizable media sources and the people, the less impeded they will be by any scrutiny, any attempt to hold them accountable for the decisions they make in power. Just last week, Liz Truss told the host of the GB News (party member debate): ‘It’s not the BBC — you actually get your facts right.’ It was an artful bit of flattery, which she used to evade a challenging question.”
Maitlis also said about journalists, particularly at public broadcaster, that, “sometimes, we tie ourselves in knots over the ‘both-sideism’ balance.” She mentioned her experience of an interview with Robert De Niro at the height of COVID about the state of New York after being hit hard by the pandemic. “As we begun the interview, however, it was clear that De Niro had other things on his mind than New York,” she recalled. “He wanted to rage about President Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic. He accused him of not caring how many died. It was — for context — three weeks after Trump had given the infamous ‘bleach’ press conference where he was seen to be suggesting the use of disinfectant to fight COVID inside the body.”
So, the actor told Maitlis: “It’s scary because everyone is sort of nonplussed and stunned at what this guy Trump is doing. … You’ve got a lunatic saying things that people are trying to dance around — it’s appalling.”
Her then-editor urged her “as is his editorial job, to put the other side,” Maitlis recalled. “But I am resisting it because — quite frankly — what is the other side? Do I say, ‘Nonsense, bleach might work — we just won’t know until we’ve tried!’ Or do I pretend he didn’t mention disinfectant when it’s there on tape? Or do I say, ‘You’re only saying that because you’re a liberal lefty luvvie Democrat,’ which doesn’t seem to capture the gravitas of this moment.”
As an attempt at pushing back, she said: “Trump’s fanbase would take issue with that.” But De Niro batted that away. “The reason I’m recounting this is not for the exchange, but for what happens next,” Maitlis said. “We finish the pre-recorded interview; Adam Cumiskey is the output editor and he’s a big film buff. But as we are heading up in the lift, I turn to Adam and say: ‘We can’t possibly put this out. It’s too anti-Trump.’ Adam looks at me to see if I’m joking. And I’m not. I am terrified that by putting out the interview as it stands we will be seen as biased.” Wondered Maitlis: “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.”
Her conclusion: “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.”
The coda to this story is that the De Niro interview did go out. Probably with more “but-his-fanbase” pushback from me than was strictly necessary. And the sky didn’t fall down. Adam, at least, was very happy. And the news lines were picked up around the world. But it’s curious now to look back on our reactions because of what happened two weeks later.
Maitlis, also known for her 2019 book Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News, left the BBC earlier in 2022 to sign with radio company Global. At the BBC, she served as the lead anchor of BBC Two news and current affairs flagship program Newsnight until the end of 2021.
“The need to hold power to account without fear or favor is more urgent than ever before,” Maitlis had said ahead of her appearance. “We are good at documenting censorship and intimidation of journalists around the world. But we are sometimes too slow to recognize how and when it is happening in more subtle ways, closer to home. In many places the political actors, their style of communication and their relationship with the truth has changed.”
The interview with which Maitlis will forever be associated is her bombshell exclusive with Prince Andrew for Newsnight, in which he talked publicly for the first time about his links to Jeffrey Epstein. The interview, later described as “a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion,” is being adapted for the screen by rival projects. Writer Peter Moffat and the production team behind Luther are developing a feature based on Scoop, a book by former Newsnight producer Sam McAlister. Meanwhile, Maitlis herself is reportedly involved in a project with Blueprint Pictures, the company behind A Very English Scandal and A Very British Scandal.
“I apologize to anyone who came thinking this would be about the Prince Andrew interview,” Maitlis said in her MacTaggart Lecture on Wednesday. “That will have to wait till next time.”
Maitlis’ speech brought to an end the first day of this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival, the fest’s return to an in-person event after two years of virtual editions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Previous MacTaggart lectures have been delivered by the likes of Rupert, James and Elisabeth Murdoch, Vice’s Shane Smith, Michaela Coel, Armando Iannucci, Kevin Spacey, Ted Turner, Norman Lear and, last year, writer Jack Thorne.
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