Book Review: Airhead ~ The Imperfect Art of Making News

Image: Deadline

Emily Maitlis is rather topical in the UK at the moment because of her framing of the Dominic Cummings debate on Newsnight. Maitlis opened the current affairs program with,

“…He made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools and has allowed many more to assume the can now flout them.

The Prime Minister knows all this but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his back benchers, the dramatic early warning from the polls and a deep national disquiet – Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it…    

(You can see the full opening statement here.) In my opinion, her statement did not break “impartiality” regulations but there we go, some are always bound to think otherwise.

However, funnily enough I was actually reading her book before this started. I’ve always admired Emily Maitlis for her approach to broadcasting and this was largely inspired by her brilliant interview with Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal last year. As someone who wants to go into journalism, I couldn’t wait to read her book.

Review

Title: Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Author: Emily Maitlis, British journalist and presenter of Newsnight

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Maitlis’ Airhead is premised as an autobiography of her experience as one of the UK’s leading British broadcasters. In hosting the current affairs program, Newsnight, she is often at the forefront of breaking news. This book documents a range of interviews she has conducted, from President Donald Trump, to the Dalai Lama. Each chapter is structured as a specific interview, or peppered with a particular experience in her career – such as when the BBC got arrested in Cuba, or when she took her twelve year old son to see the Chippendale’s in a Las Vegas strip show.

Although the interviews were interesting to read, I found they were largely driven by pure narrative, and each chapter had the same structure and format. In a sense, it was quite repetitive and lacked substance. Some chapters were better than others, and I did enjoy reading her experience as the interviewer – one that stands out is the interview with former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, days after the Grenfell tower tragedy. Her writing reveals to the reader that indeed, no interview is ever perfect and a lot of the time, due to constraints they are haphazardly glued together in the moment, for the purpose of fulfilling the “breaking news” agenda.

Before reading this I thought it would focus more on the ins and outs of news making and the philosophies of journalism itself. By this, I mean who does news making aim to please, the morals and ethics of breaking news reporting, and how instant reporting via social media has undergone a revolution in recent years. Also, the impact that breaking news has on history making and our conception of events. These are all things Maitlis has been in the thick of over the years, and I was therefore, surprised they weren’t really discussed. Perhaps I expected too much?

Maitlis integrates some of this ever so slightly, but only in the final chapter,

“A huge amount of thought goes into what we do. Interpreting moments of history whilst they are still unfolding is both deeply rewarding and endlessly challenging. Television news is messy. It gets things wrong. It is imperfect – sometimes laughably so – and sometimes you just nail it.”

Emily Maitlis, Airhead

I felt that she had saved the best until last – this reflection on the art of making news should have framed the entire book, and she could have gone deeper into this and been more selective with the amount of interviews included.

The book is marketed as an “autobiography” but it certainly doesn’t read like one, we don’t receive details of her early life, childhood, or how she got into journalism, just snapshots of favourite moments in her career that when reading, feels more like a diary entry. Don’t get me wrong, the interviews were interesting and funny at times, but I found the book lacked depth she could easily convey, considering her remarkable career.

There’s a lot to be said about news making and the ethics of broadcasting, and Maitlis is one of the best people to discuss it, but it’s a shame she didn’t make this more of a feature, perhaps she is saving it for another title!

All in all, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile read for anyone that is interested in broadcast journalism and wants to read about it from her perspective. But don’t expect too much from the sub title, “the imperfect art of making news” as this isn’t given the attention it deserves.

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