Emily Maitlis has been a journalist and broadcaster for over twenty years and is currently the lead presenter of the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Her first book ‘Airhead’ is a collection of her most significant and memorable TV interviews, with an explanation of the planning and thinking behind each one, as well as the build-up and aftermath off camera. Sometimes the interviews are carefully planned and structured in order to tease out the most telling response from the person being grilled. More often than not, though, the most effective and surprising ones are brought about by happy accident such as her encounter with Anthony Scaramucci. Coupled with the constant sense of unpredictability associated with live television (which is more cock-up than conspiracy, according to Maitlis), the subtitle “the imperfect art of making news” is certainly fitting.
The interviewees themselves are varied – a good balance between high-profile politicians and other well-known figures ranging from David Attenborough to Russell Brand to Sheryl Sandberg. The interviews are very much focused on events from the last three years or so – Brexit, Trump and the Me Too movement all feature prominently. The book gives her the space to analyse the circumstances of how each interview came about and reflect on what went well and what didn’t – she has a tendency to berate herself for mistakes, doubts and regrets over the questions she did or didn’t ask. She also describes being arrested in Cuba, volunteering to help the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and having a cameo role in the latest Alan Partridge series.
Although ‘Airhead’ isn’t a memoir, there are occasional glimpses of her personal life in between the chaos of regular transatlantic travel and a 24-hour news cycle. There is a chapter towards the end in which Maitlis addresses being stalked for over two decades by a man she met at university. It’s a topic which she initially didn’t want to include in the book as it was too personal, but she reflects thoughtfully on how being the subject of a news story instead of reporting on it has been a poignant experience for her professionally.
This is a really engaging book. Maitlis is very aware of the power of striking the right tone in her work and she definitely succeeds here. The style is smart, chatty and very self-deprecating and she gives great insight into how television works behind-the-scenes and what happens when the camera stops rolling. Many thanks to Penguin UK Michael Joseph for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.