Was Emily Maitlis right or wrong to offer her views on the Dominic Cummings's row? The BBC decided she overstepped the mark. But while the corporation's investigation was concluded within a few hours of the programme being broadcast, this isn't a debate that will go away any time soon. And the fallout from this row makes me worry about the direction in which Britain's broadcast media is heading.
A constant of Europe's post-1989 'Velvet revolution', which I helped cover for ITN, was the way those rising up against communism fought so hard for control of TV and radio stations. Information is power; control of it helps secure it. A number of my ITN colleagues went on to turn a shilling advising those brave souls of Berlin, Prague and Bucharest on how to create news outlets that better served the people than had the sons and heirs of Isvestia and Pravda. The central tenet of their pitch was 'impartiality'.
Like me, they'd grown-up with it under the watchful eye of Sir David Nicholas, the towering former editor of ITN and the daddy of 'News at Ten'. As a former 'lefty' deputy president of the NUS, it was first spelled out to me in 1976 when I was on the brink of turning my attentions from trying to become an MP to joining Southern ITV as a trainee. The managing director of Southern, Frank Copplestone, said he was aware of my undergraduate activities and 'broad left' beliefs. 'That all stays at the door,' he told me. It proved to be one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given and guided me through a career of more than four decades.
Impartiality is the pounding heart of 'L'affaire Maitlis'. Her introduction to BBC Newsnight on Tuesday caused a furore: those who believe Cummings has done wrong cheered her to rafters, flooding social media with messages of support; those sympathetic to Cummings and, perhaps, the Prime Minister he serves, cried foul – in their thousands. Many in the second camp formalised their objections in official complaints to the BBC.
There is also a third camp made up of those who are worried about the ethics of how news is presented. Here the concern was the introduction went beyond a crisp, compelling and impartial menu of the charges and the defence, and how Newsnight intended to examine them. It seemed to be a statement of editorial judgement on the matter, that came down on one side of the argument.
The BBC investigation found against Maitlis and the Newsnight team. Words have been had and Maitlis has taken some time out. As a result, the BBC stand accused of being 'spineless lackeys', either for bowing to Government pressure or for not going further in its judgement against Newsnight.
There are still plenty of questions needing answering. Does Newsnight escape the rigours of the Ofcom and BBC guidelines because it is not a news bulletin but a news magazine? Does the discussion nature of the programme give it access to a 'get-out-of-jail' card?
The BBC clearly thought not, but the issue won't vanish; nor should it until this broader debate is resolved. So what sort of broadcast news do we want in this country and how do we want it regulated? A fundamental review of those questions is now front and centre of a fierce public debate.
When Rupert Murdoch's empire established 'Fox News' in the USA in 1996 it was, by pretty common consent, a pro-Republican counter to what Murdoch and his friends saw as a 'liberal', pro-Democrat broadcast media. From small beginnings it has grown to be a huge player on the spectrum of TV News. It helped George W Bush; it helps Donald Trump.
As current UK regulations stand – Ofcom's rules on impartiality and the editorial guidelines of all the major and minor broadcast outlets – it would not be possible to establish such a broadcast channel in Britain, that is overtly sympathetic to a particular political party or ideology. That said, evolution doesn't tend to happen in single instances. It is a gradual process. So, too, I fear, could be the 'Foxification' of Britain's broadcast media.
I don't mean to single out Maitlis and Newsnight who are far from the first to have been called out. Other presenters from other channels have, too. And this issue of impartiality on television has risen to the surface in recent years. Why? The advent of social media compounds the problem. Some journalists seem to believe they can be one thing in a tweet and another in a broadcast report; an editorial chameleon. The simple truth is they can't.
An impartial broadcast media is one of the pillars of a pluralist, democratic society; so, too, is a newspaper industry which offers readers a daily reassurance of their prejudices – left, right and pretty well everything between. Like podcasts, newspapers do what they say on the tin: folk know where they stand and that is one of the most powerful reason for them buying a particular title.
But those two noble estates – print and broadcast – are profoundly different. Newspapers can and will publish whatever they want, within the law, that supports the political line of their owners and editors. Broadcast news must eschew such partiality with a passion. Broadcast media must remain a 'go-to' source of balanced, impartial information that listeners and readers can trust and believe it will help them come to their own conclusions.
I could be wrong: there may be a rising appetite for a greater freedom for broadcasters to express and even proselytise their personal beliefs. But if this is what viewers really want, it must come with a restatement of the contract that exists between news outlets and their audiences.
It was once a given that folk, good enough to tune in a TV news programme, would receive it 'straight'. The confidence people can have in that is eroding. Without action, we risk a gentle drift to partiality, occasionally called out but all too often nodded through. Talking to a senior Government figure recently I suggested this challenge to impartiality, the role and powers of Ofcom and the broadcasters own guidelines was a more pressing concern than any other on the media agenda. I was not contradicted.
Alastair Stewart is a former ITV news presenter