Emily Maitlis ‘increasingly appreciating politicians who can answer a question’

Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis has criticised politicians for never answering questions and trying to reduce political debate down to three-word slogans.

She also criticised politicians for saying the complete opposite to what they really think when they are being interviewed.

Maitlis, who has worked as a journalist at the BBC for nearly 20 years, said she now “appreciated” those politicians who are able to answer a question.

Asked how she would prepare to interview Boris Johnson and what her main question to him would be, Maitlis replied: “I’m not entirely sure it matters what question you ask Boris Johnson…

“Nevertheless, I think increasingly I have really come to appreciate the people or the politicians or the interviewees of any stripe and size who are able to answer a question and it seems such a small gentle thing to demand in 2019 but it has actually become the biggest ask we can make.”

Reflecting on what changes she has seen in her career, Maitlis said: “I think what I notice now is that a lot of the things that are said to us on camera on air are not particularly believed and quite often not true and its an extraordinary position to be in when you’ve had WhatsApp messages, text messages off record.

“The stuff we have been told off record tends to be the stuff that is true and the stuff we are told on record on camera tends to be the stuff that is not so true.”

Maitlis was speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival to promote her new book Airhead, which is a reflection on her career.

She went on to highlight recent examples of interviews with Cabinet ministers discussing Theresa May’s attempts to get her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.

“It’s a really weird position to be in as a journalist because quite often you can be sitting there interviewing somebody and they say, ‘There’s absolutely no doubt we are going to get Theresa May’s deal through… stop being a pessimist and be an optimist… and we are going to get the numbers and it’s absolutely ridiculous to say we haven’t…’,” Maitlis said.

“They the camera stops running and I go, ‘So how many do you think you’re going to lose by?’ and they reply, ‘About 80’.

“And you think, ‘Wow, that was three seconds later’. The hard thing is what is my job? I don’t want to be cosy with the guy who I know isn’t saying the truth to the viewer.

“I want to be able somehow to tell the viewer that I am trying to get the answers.”

She added: “Somehow we have to be able to indicate to our audience that we know how frustrating it is when the answers they are hearing are necessarily the answers that the person speaking them believes.”

Maitlis said that if she called politicians out then she had lost.

“What I do know is use a small word like ‘how’,” she said.

“In the last week you will have seen the banners ‘Get Brexit Done’ and it’s a brilliant slogan from a marketing perspective.

“I was interviewing a Cabinet minister and he kept saying ‘Get Brexit Done’ and I said, ‘Great, just explain to me how?’

“There is an infantilisation of language now where we think three words shuts down debate and that kind of panics me.

“It’s a way of saying that if you question something you are being a bit negative, or not patriotic and you don’t want to believe… on any side, whether it’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘People Before Privilege’.

“We cannot fall into the trap of just allowing the slogan to shut down debate because that’s my job.”

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