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Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Cara Lee discusses the journalistic experiences of BBC broadcaster Emily Maitlis.

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Image Credit: Penguin, 2019

The York Festival of Ideas was one of the many events that fell victim to the pandemic.  The Festival is an annual event which seeks to promote York as a city of new ideas and innovative thinking, captured perfectly by the vast array of speakers presenting talks.

This year, talks were online for the first time since the Festival started in 2011, covering a range of areas from “Brexiternity” to “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk”, as well as performances by The Chimera Ensemble.

The highly anticipated headline event was “The Imperfect Art of Making News”, an interview between Emily Maitlis, BBC broadcaster, and Isabel Berwick, a journalist at the Financial Times.  The talk was an accompaniment to Emily’s new book, Airhead, both of which highlight the chaotic nature of working in the media, and the sheer amount of stories that are never aired.

Emily is currently a presenter on BBC Newsnight and is perhaps most well-known for that interview with Prince Andrew amidst the Epstein scandal, where he supplied months’ worth of meme content due to his frankly astounding memory of a visit to Pizza Express in Woking in 2001.  Airhead looks at this interview among many others, as a way of recording the chaos of journalistic life.  Emily joked that the book will serve almost as an alibi, giving her children the answers to her erratic absences and an explanation as to why cakes made late at night for bake sales the next morning “looked like the dog got to it first”.

Airhead is in equal parts entertaining and reflective; one second you’ll be giggling, the next you’ll be reading about tragedies worldwide.  From the contents pages of the book alone, the diversity of a life in this industry is staggering, featuring everything and everyone from Donald Trump to Emma Thompson, the Grenfell Fire to being arrested in Cuba.

In the talk Emily rightly mentioned the importance of stepping back, and admitting mistakes and where things went wrong.  In fact, she also admitted that writing in retrospect, she sees her own naivety and her unawareness of how monumental certain events were.  She went as far as saying that Airhead is a book of her mistakes: by drawing attention to how volatile the media, and especially interviews, can be, she shows that it is almost miraculous when something doesn’t go wrong.

Interestingly in the York Festival of Ideas talk, Emily pointed out gender biases within the media industry.  After the Dominic Cummings scandal of recent weeks, she received hundreds of emails supporting her statement that he was breaking the rules – but she also noted that her interviewing and journalistic style has faced criticism before.  She said that editors have previously told her she doesn’t wind up interviewees enough to fully get under their skin, although conversely has also been criticised recently for interrupting or focussing on too many details.  To that criticism, emailed to her by a viewer, she said her style is very similar to Jeremy Paxman’s and asked whether he disapproved of Paxman’s style too.

The answer?  He didn’t disapprove of Paxman.

Airhead is also being made into a TV series, work on which is due to start in September.  At that point, the plans (coronavirus permitting) are that Emily will be in the United States of America, covering the Elections.  She says each election is a “beast” and very different to the last, and looks excited about the challenge.

If you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend watching the York Festival of Ideas talk or reading Airhead.  Whilst some of the topics covered are devastating, Airhead is overall an easy-going
read with humour littered throughout, and reading about the ups, downs and behind the scenes of every broadcast is thoroughly amusing.

“The Imperfect Art of Making News” is available to watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVq9iiVGwis.

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