Emily Maitlis, journalist, documentary maker and lead presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, was born in Canada but brought up in Sheffield after her father became a Professor of Chemistry at the University. In 2015 she was awarded an honorary degree from the University for her contribution to journalism.
Photo: © Getty
Reporting on global crises and interrogating world leaders is all part of her job. But after an unprecedented year, we caught up with Emily to reflect on what it has been like from her perspective as a journalist and get a glimpse into her career.
What has it been like covering Covid-19, Brexit and the US elections all in the same year as a journalist?
Each year we wait for the news cycle to slow down – thinking the pace of change and news is unsustainable. And each year it seems to ramp up. Over the last decade I have covered what I think of as firmament-shifting elections – here and in the US; referendums – here and in Scotland; terror atrocities; school shootings; the rise of new parties and the demise of old ones. It hasn’t stopped, quite frankly. The pandemic has made everything physically harder – for everyone, of course. We have fewer people in the office, more make-shift studios and resources. Brexit was the story that everyone said they’d heard enough of – but curiously, it brought big audiences to us each night. And the US elections at the end of this year were so refreshing as it meant a change of pace and tone – even though the pandemic was knitted so tightly to everything that happened there too.
There appears to be an increased prevalence of leaking to the press. Is that something new?
I don’t think leaking to the press began with Covid. It’s centuries old – both as a tool of revenge and as a means of getting things out that you’re happy to see public – without having a name attached. What I do think is happening is that social media has allowed those in power an instant way of sharing and magnifying their own views through journalists happy to do that job for them. The clamour, if anything, has been for journalists to name their sources – the spads, advisors, tip givers – more publicly. I think there is a real appetite these days for accountability rather than repetition.
Sometimes the off-record briefing can be a useful way for politicians to stop us doing a more analytical job; that is, we repeat what we have just been told as a ‘scoop’ instead of interrogating a little more thoroughly why we have been told something, or what the consequences of it will be. I think that’s where our job potentially gets dangerous.
When we parrot a phrase without thinking of the consequences, we risk enlarging and spreading a lie instead of shutting it down.
What is something you wish the public understood or appreciated about journalists?
The public don’t have to feel sorry for journalists – we don’t deserve that – but we do have to be allowed to do our job. Sometimes people will see or hear things they disagree with – and argue therefore they shouldn’t be given airtime. Our job is to represent different views and it’s normal to think some of them are wrong/bad/foolish. But it’s not normal to try and get them taken off air.
The other thing I would try and explain more is the concept of false equivalence. Equally dangerous when it takes hold. The idea that we try and ‘balance’ things that don’t need balancing and shouldn’t be balanced. For example, ‘some people think Joe Biden won the election and some people think Donald Trump won the election’. Of course, this is ‘technically’ true. Donald Trump convinced a number of his supporters that he won the election. But the truth of the statement is false and has been disproven time after time through the ballots, the recounts and the courts.
When we parrot a phrase without thinking of the consequences, we risk enlarging and spreading a lie instead of shutting it down. Our job is to sift through fact-based evidence and analysis to try and help the public understand what ‘actually happened’. Not to repeat lots of different things that people might feel.
How challenging is it working across media? Do you have a favourite?
I love the variety. My favourite medium – which may surprise most people – is writing. I have a love of words greater than almost anything else. There is nothing more satisfying than finishing an article or a chapter in a book and sending it off feeling you somehow nailed the thing you were trying to say. That said, I love the adrenaline of television and the teamwork (I literally work with the nicest people in Britain and the office/studio energy is an absolute joy to behold). There is so much more jeopardy around live television. When it goes right, it’s brilliant; when it goes wrong, you’re inconsolable. The podcast has been brand new for me this year and I’ve loved it. It’s allowed for a totally different tone. Somewhere, perhaps subconsciously, I decided there were so many people shouting disagreement at each other that I wanted Americast to feel collegiate, happy, funny.
You report on some very distressing situations. How do you manage to not let this affect you when you return home?
There is a huge relief when I step through the door. No matter what story I’ve been covering, I’m always overjoyed to be home (especially to see a washing machine and a kettle). I’ve learnt by now that my family don’t really want to hear tales of trauma or excitement – so I go for a long run to breathe it all out and then try and slot back in. Cooking, baking, watching American Office. Pretending, in fact, I haven’t really been anywhere.
Who would you like to interview but haven’t had the chance to yet?
We always want the exclusive. We want to hear from the person that hasn’t yet done their big interview. The person I think about a lot is the first Pope, that is, the one who resigned from his job but is still living. I want to know why. Why he stepped back. Was it about faith or conviction, or something he found out or something he couldn’t handle? I’m so curious. But – spoiler alert – I’m not expecting him to grant me an interview any time soon.
I don’t think I realised when I was growing up just how exceptional Sheffield is.”
You were raised in Sheffield. What are your memories of the city?
I don’t think I realised when I was growing up just how exceptional Sheffield is. My walk to school (King Teds lower school) was up three of the steepest streets in the city. I think it’s what taught me to adore hills – which I do now. Everywhere you go the views are extraordinary because of the elevation. And I still can’t believe that if I run from my old front door and turn right, I’m literally in the Peak District surrounded by sheep in forty minutes. Once you move south you realise how much flatter, blander and more crowded the rest of the country is. I really miss that about Sheffield.
I also love the way it’s halfway between a village and a metropolis. The clubs we went to as teenagers, the concerts, the bands, the theatre were first class – but it still had the ease, access and chance of bumping into your neighbours wherever you are.
Both of your parents worked at the University. What did it mean to be honoured by the University with an Honorary Degree?
It was a huge honour. The University was part of my life growing up there. I used the University library to study for exams, I felt it as an extension of the Sheffield I knew.
What would your advice be for those looking for a career in journalism?
Don’t be afraid to ask for things. Don’t go into the world thinking everyone will notice what you do – they won’t. It will be easier for people not to promote you, not to give you a pay rise, not to take chances on you for a new job or a new project. So be prepared to ask for them – when you think you have the experience and skills to do them well, that is.