When the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis made her ill-judged remarks about the Dominic Cummings saga last week she made at least one fan happy. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, tweeted approvingly: “Public Service Broadcasting!” as if, by editorialising as she did, Maitlis was upholding the finest traditions of the BBC. Nothing could be further from the truth; in doing what she did, Maitlis gave the BBC’s enemies one more reason to distrust it. The BBC’s prompt apology only underlined the seriousness of the matter; the BBC is a master of prevarication when it comes to complaints about bias in its output (men have grown long in the tooth and white of beard waiting for a proper response), but on this occasion they distanced themselves from the presenter’s remarks within 24 hours.
In a second statement about the affair, which came a few days later, the BBC went a little further in explaining why it had publicly admonished Maitlis, saying: “Our editorial guidelines allow us to make professional judgements, but not to express opinion. The dividing line can be fine”. Indeed it can – as I know from long experience. It is not an easy matter, and comes naturally to very few journalists, to suppress their own opinions when writing a news bulletin. When I started as a reporter for the BBC in the late 1970s (and if that sounds like “an old man remembers” please forgive me, dear reader), it was the golden rule which I was made to understand from the first day I worked there. It comes down to this: that the BBC reporter takes no side in a political argument and that it is their job merely to present the facts of the case with both sides fairly represented in the piece.
To do that according to the spirit of the BBC’s commitment to impartiality is an exacting challenge. As a tribe, journalists are more political than the average run of the population. This holds good for all journalists but especially for BBC people partly because the BBC is so much part of the political process in Britain. The majority of editorial staff in the BBC are left-liberal in outlook and some of them, a minority, are politically committed. The obligation to be impartial and to avoid giving their own opinions is a heavy imposition to lay on individuals who have strong political opinions. And I think we can take it as read that Emily Maitlis does have strong political opinions.