Maitlis, Grimes, Jones, and the Death of ‘Real News’

In the halcyon days of 2010, the esteemed broadcast journalist and host of Nightline Ted Koppel published an article in the Washington Post lamenting the disappearance of objectivity and neutrality in American broadcast journalism.

In his piece, the point of which is summarised succulently in its headline, Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news, the legendary newsman argued that editorialising, commentary, and subjective analysis had effectively killed-off any notion of objective, ‘just the facts’, straight reporting TV journalism in the United States.

Never to be outdone, the then-host of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann hit back at Mr Koppel, shredding his overly-romantic view of a period in news that never really existed (citing Walter Cronkite’s reporting from Vietnam and Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasting from London’s rooftops during the Blitz) and defended robustly what he and other journalists were doing at the time and continue to do today.

This exchange returned to me while watching a couple of different events that have recently taken place; specifically the furore around the presence of individuals like Tom Harwood and Darren Grimes (whom I have decided to refer to collectively as the ThunderTwinks™) on television and the eruption of rage around Emily Maitlis’ recent edition of Newsnight.

There was lots of anger around, as there seems always to be these days, but, put simply, many were irate that both Mr Harwood, a reporter for the centre-right website Guido Fawkes, and Mr Grimes, the former Vote Leave activist and face of the newly launched Reasoned outfit, are invited regularly to appear on TV to give their opinions.

I would have thought that being well-known, good-looking, articulate, informed, and never short of an opinion is enough for them to make them good TV guests but, apparently, I’m wrong about that. Lots of “why is Grimes/Harwood on my tv?” and other such sentiments – always coming with the implicit, “…and why am I not? I’m ever so smart!” (I usually imagine them spoken in the voice of Martin Prince from The Simpsons) followed.

Similarly, Emily Maitlis was judged to have broken the rules during her recent Newsnight programme in which she did a scathing piece to camera about Dominic Cummings and what he is said to have done. It is a striking and compelling bit of television and is worth watching more than once.

However, it too drew much ire from the Twitter bird, specifically its right wing, and the BBC was pushed into making an apology – albeit one that I read with a sarcastic tone. I hope I’m right to have done so.

Beneath the envy that is almost certainly a motivator for the fury directed at Grimes and Harwood, as well as at their left-wing contemporaries like Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones, and the opportunistic partisan hackery that fuelled much of the ire fired at Maitlis, there is another, more interesting, fundamental objection.

It appears that both the Maitlis and ThunderTwinks™ outrages have, at their heart, the same misguided, misplaced, and misjudged desire for the kind of straight-forward, ‘just the facts’, objective, neutral, and aloof journalism that Koppel pined for in his 2010 article. If you too hold this notion, then you really ought to disabuse yourself of it. It’s not as noble and intellectual as you may believe.

As Olbermann’s response to Koppel’s argument puts it, the best of journalists are not “glorified stenographers”. They do not simply note down facts and put them in print, or on broadcast, for people to consume like they’re hooked up to an IV-drip of ‘what happened’.

The best writers and journalists present any given story in a way that provokes a question, paints a picture, or adds something important to the discussion. They do not just regurgitate plot points. They scrutinise, analyse, ask questions, and pursue their instincts – that’s their job. This aspect of the trade is essential because, as Mr Olbermann also puts it, sometimes, “when truth was needed, all we got were facts.”

My overarching point is that while what Maitlis did break the BBC’s rules, I don’t particularly care. She did editorialise and has paid dearly for it but just because it was against the corporation’s rules does not mean it was the wrong thing to do. She smelled a rat and used her voice to direct our attention to it. She is to be praised because she did what she felt was right and not just what was ‘correct’ – we need more of it in our television news.

I apply this same reasoning to the ThunderTwinks™ and to Jones and Sarkar. They too present stories in engaging, entertaining, and compelling ways that give the audience the credit of being able to switch off, or over, should they choose to. Nobody is forced to listen to them but it is recommended – doing so is certainly more intellectually nourishing and rewarding than listening to some drab ‘just the facts’ reporting, if any such thing really ever happens.

People think that they want objective and neutral journalism because they think it makes them sound better or more intelligent. I assure you, it does not. Editorialising is to be welcomed and we should confine the fetishization of objectivity and impartiality to the bin in which we keep the stuff that never has, never can, or never should exist.

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