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.