Book Review: Emily Maitlis – Airhead

On first glance, it looks as if the BBC presenter’s autobiographical account of some of the most interesting, strangest and greatest moments of her career is simply a collection of her greatest hits. But it’s much more entertaining than that.

What thrills me most about this collection of stories is the way which Maitlis flawlessly slides between the serious and the farcical (and often in between). Take, for example, her chapter about her Newsnight interview with Anthony Scaramucci, one of Donald Trump’s former Communications Directors. She juxtaposes the serious questions about democracy and the possible Russian interference in the 2016 election with the tale of how the interview only came about because her and another producer ran over to him and managed to convince him to appear on the show (with the help of Sebastian Gorka, one of Trump’s aides). Another bizarre recounted event (also in the USA) features her son holding up, and being escorted from, a Chippendale show while Maitlis interviews a performer about his views on the #MeToo movement.

As she, herself, states repeatedly, this is not her analysis of the news stories which have taken place. This book is designed to expose the goings on behind what is transmitted on the news. It may seem pretty niche, but between the anecdotes and the technical information she imparts with, explaining what she does in her every day role, it provides a very well-rounded story behind the iconic images of recent history.

The section which has stayed with me the most is the two chapters about the Grenfell Tower disaster. Many awful events have happened in the past ten years, but Grenfell, for whatever reason, hurts more than the others. Reading her story of being on the ground, volunteering and offering whatever support she could (Maitlis lives nearby) before reporting live from the scene at 10:30pm sent shivers down my spine. I genuinely felt her internal fears of reporting on something so close to home, of trying to do her job and not let her heart completely take over; my immediate response was of understanding. No one watching her could have criticised the way she conducted the interviews that night: the entire country was in shock.

The following chapter concerns her last minute interview with Theresa May about the fire, two days later. This was where the ‘Maybot’ tag came back and remained, having haunted her through the 2017 election campaign just a couple of weeks before. Instead of merely criticising what could easily be dismissed as a disastrous response from May, Maitlis looks deeper. She addresses the difficult situation she found herself in. She looks beyond the words and the then-PM’s public face into her actual emotions – something, we of course, never see. It adds another dimension to simply describing what happened, through both using her thoughts at the time and hindsight.

What is noticeable is that Maitlis seems more willing to give other people ground for making mistakes and having troubles, yet she seems reluctant to take credit for things she has done, and focuses more on things which have gone wrong when it comes to herself. She opens the book, addressing the infamous incident on the night of the Paris attacks, where she appeared to shout ‘MIGRANTS’ down the screen. She explains what happens, but it’s clear that it still hurts. And when she goes deeply personal into her own life, and the stalking which she has endured for 27 years, she looks to be trying to minimalise the importance of her speaking out about it. She mentions that she’s more fortunate than others in similar situations: what I would say to her is this. Everyone with a horror such as that in their lives sees it as a massive thing – and of course it is, it affects so many things in their lives and lingers like a shadow. Speaking out, no matter how insignificant you think it is, is one of the most important things you can do. (she doesn’t need me to tell her that though)

Very funny, with poignant moments, witty writing yet both also extremely informative and serious in tone, it feels like Emily Maitlis is actually speaking to you when you read this. Being one of the very few saving graces remaining at the BBC (political section anyway), ‘Airhead’ has made me appreciate her and her work even more than I already did. Good, hard-working, human, journalists such as Maitlis balance out some of the (increasing number of) problems which the British media face as we head into the 2020s. For anyone interested in politics, current affairs, or even just an insight into the chaos of modern life, ‘Airhead’ is a must-read. I finished reading it slightly too late to recommend it for a Christmas present, but if you’ve forgotten any relatives or friends which you’re seeing in the next few days, ‘Airhead’ will save you from embarrassment and shame (save that to some of the people inside it).

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