MEDIA: What’s next for BBC news? Promise of freedom lures away more ‘big beasts’

The departures of Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel for Global, which operates LBC, are part of a wider talent drain as other broadcasters offer more independence.

It is. Both Sopel and Maitlis are BBC “big beasts”: high profile, highly experienced, strong personality-ed political journalists. Maitlis, best known for presenting the BBC’s flagship news analysis show, Newsnight, has been a star for a while, but she became even more so when she pulled in the “no sweat” 2019 interview with Prince Andrew. Sopel was the BBC’s well-respected North American editor for eight years, and considered to be one of the frontrunners for the BBC political editor job when Laura Kuenssberg steps down in April. Both had established a strong following for their Americast podcast, launched to cover the last US elections and continued afterwards, due to its popularity.

Maitlis’s departure leaves Newsnight needing a presenter, as well as a programme editor, since Esme Wren has left to become the editor of Channel 4 News. Within the BBC, it had been noticed that Maitlis was taking an oddly timed sabbatical for a few months: perhaps, some thought, she was planning to move to Channel 4 News herself, to take up Jon Snow’s old position? But instead she and Sopel (who’d also taken a step back from the BBC, supposedly to write a book) have followed Andrew Marr, who will start a 6-7pm Monday to Thursday show on LBC from 7 March. Before Marr, there was Eddie Mair (ex-presenter of Radio 4’s PM, moved in 2018) and Shelagh Fogerty (ex-Radio 5Live, joined 2014), who both have daily shows on LBC. Not to mention John Humphrys and Moira Stewart, ex-Radio 4 and ex-Radio 2, who host on Global-owned Classic FM.

If you’re not an LBC listener, you might wonder why such big names are making the move. There’s a sense, among those who don’t listen to it, that LBC is a bit low rent, with shows hosted by kneejerk controversialists who say whatever they like to get headlines. Isn’t LBC where Nigel Farage had a show? And Katie Hopkins? Wasn’t one of their hosts sacked recently?

Well: yes, yes and yes (all were sacked: Maajid Nawaz, earlier this year, because of his anti-vax stance) – but LBC has been on the up for a while. Once a local London station known for its feisty phone-ins, it’s been national since 2019. Brexit was a turning point, in terms of listeners (they rose to 1.6million in 2016: since then, the number has doubled), but James O’Brien, who hosts the most popular show on the station, mid-mornings during the week, says the appeal of LBC, to hosts and listeners, is more than that.

“You could hang it on Brexit,” he says, “but really it’s because LBC gives people the freedom to explore ideas and express opinions. It has a different sort of journalist than a few years ago because the fact is the world has changed – look at Brexit, Trump, Johnson – and the current model of impartiality at the BBC doesn’t work. You want to be able to call somebody a liar if they’re lying. You don’t want to have to put another side of climate science when there isn’t one. At LBC, you’re allowed to say the world’s gone mad. You can’t do that on the BBC.”

Against that background, there are a few other reasons for Maitlis and Sopel making their moves – and not all of them are monetary, though Global has deep pockets and is perfectly capable of doubling the rate that they received from the Beeb.

Ambition is one. Global has big ideas, and it wants success: before the pandemic, managers would host an all-company meeting in a cinema to discuss Rajar [listening figure]results, highlighting achievements as well as shows not performing well. In contrast, some flagship BBC radio programme hosts aren’t even given their Rajar results, presumably because they make no difference as the show will never disappear. Plus there is talk of LBC moving into TV: it already live streams every show, and show clips regularly go viral on social media.

Resources is another: the BBC has been cutting costs for a while, and its restructuring and the relocation of many teams has meant that several experienced producers have left. It used to be the case that commercial radio shows would run on a presenter and a single producer manning the phones, and that can still happen. But big names like Marr, Maitlis and Sopel are bringing their own producers and will have other support.

Another, subtler, reason is tone. Since Twitter, where anyone can express themselves without gatekeepers, BBC radio – especially Radio 4 – can sound a little cold. Clearly, it offers excellent reporting from respected experts. But it can seem top-down, even patronising, to listeners more used to being able to contribute. The Today programme does not feature listeners. In fact, Radio 4, filled as it is with “built” (pre-made) programmes, doesn’t have much space for listeners generally, though Woman’s Hour and You and Yours host phone-ins. On LBC, the lines are open all day. Last Thursday O’Brien’s show got a phone call from a political scientist working at King’s College London – the type of expert that Radio 4 would book on the Today programme. On LBC, he just called into the show.

But O’Brien is right in that the biggest pull-factor for these clever journalists is freedom. Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, has been enforcing stringent no-bias rules on its presenters, preventing them from expressing personal opinions on social media and in public. Maitlis has been reprimanded for breaking these impartiality rules: first, for her searing opener about Dominic Cummings’ lockdown jaunt to Durham; more recently for retweeting Piers Morgan. Andrew Marr has indicated that he wants to be able to express his opinions (especially around climate change), and in his first blog post for LBC, seemed to reiterate this.

“This has,” he wrote, “sadly, been an age of political lies, and now of war propaganda. Never has plain-speaking clear, cut to the chase reporting… been more important.”

As it happens, James O’Brien was once offered a chance to host Newsnight. He loved the experience of presenting – “it’s like driving a Formula 1 car, one of the greatest pleasures in journalism” – but did not enjoy the management. “They’re like Formula 1 owners, who you expect to have your back, but don’t because they’re living in fear of what the Daily Mail might say.”

He says: “I was told off for calling Toby Young a twat on Twitter. And I thought: do I really want to be in a position where I can’t call Toby Young a twat?” He’s sort of joking, but only sort of. When he was thinking about joining Newsnight – coming off social media, keeping his head down – he was advised, by a couple of very experienced journalists, to “keep your own voice. And on LBC, I have my own voice”.

One final factor: podcasts. Though the BBC is great for drama, true crime and chat podcasts, its news podcasts have perhaps been underestimated. Their relaxed, intimate tone is a relief for journalists and listeners alike. LBC has yet to announce exactly what Maitlis and Sopel will be doing, but Americast is owned by the BBC, so they can’t bring that with them. However, there’s no reason why they can’t make a similar podcast for Global, especially as they’ve brought Americast producer Dino Sofos along too. When it comes to radio, you can see them taking a double-headed Friday night slot, or perhaps a weekend afternoon.

Back at the BBC, the feeling is that it might not be so bad that Sopel has gone: as a middle-aged, middle-class white man, it could have looked off if he were appointed as the new political editor. But Maitlis is acknowledged as a big loss, and news in general is having a tough time. Newsnight needs a lead presenter. Laura Kuenssberg’s job is open – the first interviews were held last week – and, aside from Sopel, many others have ruled themselves out of that job, too. There aren’t that many medium-sized beasts left, let alone big ones. And they can’t give every job to Amol Rajan.

Emily Maitlis is moving from the Newsnight programme. Pictures by Bill Heaney

Leave a Reply