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What the Duke of York’s inquisitor can teach us about self-doubt 12 January 2020

Of course, I have no idea what Emily Maitlis was thinking as she strolled through Buckingham Palace with Prince Andrew immediately after recording what must surely be one of the most powerful TV interviews of the last decade. 

But I can hazard a guess.  The clues are in Airhead, a book she’s just written about what goes on behind the scenes as her big-hit interviews have been prepared and conducted.  My partner gave me a copy for Christmas, and I’m gulping it down.  It contains a lesson or two for all of us about integrity in business. 

I reckon that her heart was still pounding.  That she was asking herself if she’d asked the right questions.  That she was wondering how it would all edit together.  And, above all, that she was reassuring herself that she’d been fair.  

I don’t base these assumptions on any knowledge of Emily — I’ve never met her, though our careers in regional news shared a brief cusp in around 2001, when I was presenter of the BBC Late News for the South East, and Emily was presenting BBC London’s.  (Since then, my career has settled happily in the South-East and London, while hers has taken a rather different trajectory — and I’ve become a signed up fan.)   

But what Emily reveals in her book is a fundamental truth about fairness and honesty — that I believe makes for good business as much as good journalism. 

Self Doubt Is Good

Time and again in her book, Emily’s revealed the humanity of a journalist who just wants to get to the bottom of something, while being fair to all sides.  

Interviewing a long-retired President Clinton recently, there were tough questions to be asked after ‘Me Too’ — but he was in frail health that baking hot morning, and she had to bear that in mind. 

After filming doctors in Cuba (who had agreed to speak to her) she heard they had been arrested.  She worried about this, and kept in touch to check they were okay.  

Two days after the fire at Grenfell Tower, the presenter is told she will have five minutes to interview the Prime Minister — in ten minutes’ time.  She writes: “You have less choice about these things than you realise … they are the product of sleepless nights and palpable nerves, where your make up is done in the lift going down, where your bosses are arguing, where your own notes are scrawled in a handwriting you will never decipher.” 


You’re not alone 

Last night, sitting in bed, I tore through her story of the interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook.  It ended awkwardly.   “The moment the camera stopped rolling the tone changes again.  She (Ms Sandberg) is furious and looks to her assistant.  Then to me.  Then to the cameraman and to my producer.”  

My own takeaway from these admissions?  That I’m not alone in feeling torn, unprepared, occasionally feeling the wrath of interviewees who may suddenly accuse me of asking the wrong questions, even though I’ve tried to be scrupulously fair.  “I am utterly confused”, one of the BBC’s most senior TV interviewer writes about the awkward eye contact with Ms Sandberg. 

I find Emily’s honesty empowering.  I have never come close to the level of interview she has secured.  But I’ve had my share of sweaty-palm moments, whether pushing my luck with the Home Secretary, visibly irritating Dame Kelly Holmes, being given barely an hour to prepare an interview with David Cameron, or being trusted by a Headteacher to reveal details, in the public interest, about child neglect connected to a murder case.  

(Her husband rang me that wet November night, as I sat down to my evening meal, to tell me I’d let her down, and she wouldn’t speak to me again.   Nine years later she got back in touch to say I had not, and thank me for the issues that my report had raised.)

You can hear me speak about some of these stories in my 45 minute keynote, Seven Tales from the Newsroom.

Being Great At Your Job

Do you still feel nerves ahead of a big meeting which will test your integrity as well as your business skills?  Do you head home wondering if you’ve pushed your luck too far, asking yourself what your colleagues will make of your actions?  Do you still question whether you’re any good at your job?

If so, take comfort — as I did last night — from this conclusion to the Sheryl Sandberg story.  Once the dust had settled, Emily writes: “We sign off with a selfie together, and a big hug — she tells me I’m great at my job.”  

If you fret a bit, maybe it’s because you’re great at your job too.  The general view of the Prince Andrew interview was that Emily Maitlis had been a credit to her profession as well as herself.  Buckingham Palace told Newsnight later that they had been fair. 

So whatever Emily Maitlis may have been asking herself as the Duke of York walked her through the corridors, it’s clear she didn’t have anything to fret about.

If you’re looking for a keynote speaker who can hold your audience with some sparkling, video-illustrated stories of TV Newsroom life  — with real business takeaways built in, but without charging a celebrity fee —  give me a call.

Photo Credits:  News Media Pool/Henry Macaulay  


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