Newsnight is playing a dangerous game

As a concerned friend, I beg you to see that this isn’t healthy

“Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot. The longer ministers and the prime minister tell us that we worked within them, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be…He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can now flout them.”

The words of Emily Maitlis, opening the BBC Newsnight programme for 26th May 2020. True? Brave? Wise? Advisable? Appropriate?

It wasn’t until this morning that I saw the clip. I, like many others, haven’t watched Newsnight for years now, and I have my own reasons. The reaction to this has been divided, but I confess mine was one of deep discomfort and unease. I tried to find the best gif for it, but so many just didn’t quite do it. The closest I got was the classic Picard head in hands one, but even that isn’t exactly there.

It’s hard to explain this without sounding like a partisan. If you are willing, up front, to be assured that I am not, then I hope you will hear me. To ‘the Left’ (as unhelpful a term as that usually is, it’s the best I have at this point), those who like, defend and cherish the BBC, I beg you to hear this. As a critical friend, I offer this up.

To start with, read the lines again. Can you hear them in the voice of, say, Owen Jones? Can you imagine Ash Sarkar saying it? Polly Toynbee? Sounds right to me. Now, can you imagine it from Allison Pearson? Daniel Hannan? Ok this isn’t a perfect science, but you take my point.

It certainly sounds like an opening monologue from a CNN news show, perhaps MSNBC, and of course if you flip the perspective, Fox News. American channels whose biases are upfront for you to see. Does it sound like something that should be being said on a supposedly neutral show, on a supposedly impartial channel? It was praised by the Independent and HuffPost, criticised by the Daily Mail and the Express. What does that tell you?

Whatever you may think about this tiresome Cummings story (and I made my point clearly, I think he broke the law), the facts and the interpretation of the events are disputed. While I think he broke the law and you may do too, others don’t. And frankly, it seems to be straight along party lines whether you believe it or you don’t, which makes this even more of an issue. It looks like Maitlis, and by extension Newsnight, and by definition the BBC, are taking a side in a partisan dispute. And that just isn’t sensible.

The current government has not hidden its disdain and dislike for the BBC. At the start of its administration, the higher levels of the Conservative Party have been making strong noises about what will happen when the BBC’s charter expires (which, barring some monumental collapse, will occur under a Conservative government). Cabinet Ministers don’t appear on the main news shows (outside crisis time). I am absolutely not saying that the BBC should be kowtowing to the incumbents, far from it. But again, I say as a concerned friend, is it wise to be so brazenly flouting the charter rules? Is it really in your interests, long term, for Newsnight to editorialise along your party line? Is is wise to claim, on a neutral platform, that you are ‘speaking for the nation’?

Honestly, if Maitlis had taken my exact, biased thoughts and spelled them out in a monologue, I would not have cheered. It’s not the platform we should be hearing it from. It felt like Maitlis thought she was taking a loaded gun and firing it at the government. That it was fool proof, that this would be a clear shot with little repercussion. What it looks like she has instead done, is load the gun and hand it straight to them. The government is under the heaviest sustained attack it has yet faced, and now they have an out – ‘look at that, blatant bias, against the rules’, blah blah blah.

Newsnight is supposed to be impartial, to report the news. The news yesterday was that Cummings had given his account, that some of the story checked out, some of it was fishy at best, and there was serious doubt over whether what he did could reasonably have been said to have broken the law. That was the story, it is straightforward enough and, frankly, looks awful for the government when reported straight. But that’s not what the monologue said. And opinion could absolutely have been given by invited guests

Emily Maitlis is a great presenter and interviewer. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the interview she did with Prince Andrew last year, in which she slowly and quietly handed him the opportunity to sink or swim, and he duly threw himself into the water without a life raft. It was meticulous, it was thorough, it was well prepared, it was even on his territory. The interview with the Prince was so powerful because she stayed neutral, because she didn’t get tribal or aggressive.

Newsnight is the flagship BBC television news programme, and Maitlis has been key to it for a number of years now. She is very, very good. But last night she made an error. Not only did she make an error, but the whole team did. I struggle to understand how that speech managed to get written, then past however many layers of editorial checks that are required for a programme like that without being remotely questioned. Even if you agreed with every word, I plead with you to see that this isn’t a good thing.

The BBC takes serious risks with its own future when these sorts of things happen. This isn’t the time to be flagrantly taking a line when its whole financial model, its very existence could be coming under serious pressure very soon. As somebody who would hate to see the BBC disappear, I’m worried. And these rather silly attempts to look tough and trend on Twitter could be very costly indeed.