“It’s been a great year to be a journalist,” reflects Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis.
“I remember on the day of the [Trump] election thinking there is not a news organisation, or periodical that won’t be covering this on the front page.”
The RTS Network Presenter of the Year nominee has spent the year hot-footing it across America in pursuit of the new president.
“I didn’t call it for Trump,” she confesses. “I started in Texas following Ted Cruz. I went down to Florida, I followed Marco Rubio. I knew each of the candidates before we got to Trump.”
The Trump win, she admits, took the media by surprise. “We thought [Jeb Bush] was in with a chance. He was an obvious candidate. It was meant to be a Bush/Clinton contest, the two big dynasties all over again.”
The win, she explains, is all thanks to Trump’s effective strategy. “We spend a lot of time trying to work out: is Trump phenomenally smart or not? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that he gets human weakness like almost no one else I have come across.”
The 45th President’s predilection for dismissive nicknames derailed many of the GOP nominees’ campaigns, Maitlis believes.
“Pocahontas was brilliant,” she recalls. The nickname for Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren refers to her 2012 campaign for the senate, where Warren claimed to have Native American heritage. “That leap of imagination was sort of phenomenal.”
Marco Rubio (‘Little Marco’) and Ted Cruz (‘Lying Ted’) both found themselves on the receiving end of a Trump nickname, while Jeb Bush was called out for being “low energy.”
“It literally just killed the whole [thing], it literally took the air out of that campaign” Maitlis recalls.
“My son came to me: ‘oh yeah, that bit about how Jeb Bush has to pee sitting down!’ I thought that was something Trump said. It was so wild and so rude. Then he was like ‘no, no. That was on SNL’ but we couldn’t actually remember the difference!”
The Rise of Trump has caused something of an identity crisis for the media.
“There’s always been a tension between those in power and those holding power to account,” Maitlis is quick to point out in explanation of Trump’s erratic approach to the media. “What we’re seeing now is just a more blatant disregard for it.”
“As journalists, we spend so long looking at slightly diplomatic, mealy-mouthed politicians and [asking], what do they mean? Now you’re doing the opposite. You’ve gone from covert language to something that is so exposed you actually don’t know what to do with it!”
However Newsnight, she believes, is perfectly situated to deal with that change. “Newsnight has always had that sense of going around the corner a bit” Maitlis explains.
“What we’re doing now at the BBC – with pride – is this thing called Slow News. [It] feels not just necessary, but invaluable to have that space between the thing that is said and your analysis of it.”
The acclaimed current affairs show is Maitlis’ current home, having started her career in journalism in Hong Kong in 1992.
“I hadn’t felt anything like that sense of frenzy and climax and change, and that real sense of being on the cusp of something big and momentous and change-worthy” she says of her decision to enter journalism. “I felt a real sense of urgency about my work and I loved that.”
It is a combination of adrenaline highs and exacting standards that got Maitlis through the epic TV events like the US election coverage or the Brexit referendum. “I don’t drive fast cars. I don’t ski very well. I just get all my kicks from those moments on air” she explains.
That’s not to say that she is ever at ease when the red light is on. “Literally there is this constant thing [in my head] saying ‘Don’t fuck up. Don’t fuck up!’ I torment myself the whole time, and if I have fucked up [then] I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning going ‘Oh no!’”
But she keeps on coming back to it. "Of course" she replies.
“I’m incredibly lucky to get paid for something I love,” Maitlis says. “I find my colleagues incredibly unprecious and very self-deprecating for the most part. They’re people who wear a fairly serious job very lightly.”
Emily Maitlis was nominated for the RTS Network Presenter of the Year award at the RTS Television Journalism Awards 2017.