Emily Maitlis: Getting it right

“When you’re a journalist, this is all just extraordinary times. You sit through a presidential press conference with popcorn. It’s unmissable!”


Emily Maitlis is talking about “one of the hardest things” in her life. And it’s all to do with her Judaism. For Maitlis, 46, feels that she has not “got it right” when it comes to her two sons, now aged 12 and 10.

She speaks haltingly about her feelings, which is unexpected from someone known for her fluent and confident news presenting: “I think it’s the thing that I probably beat myself up about the most,” she says, referring to the fact that she is not bringing up, in her words, “practising Jewish boys”.

“There’s no way of colouring that better,” she adds. “I just didn’t get it right.”

Maitlis’s concerns appear to be that her sons aren’t instilled with enough Yiddishkeit. But perhaps she’s worrying too much: the Newsnight presenter does not seem to be doing too badly.

The whole family will be celebrating Seder night with Emily’s older sister and her family, they belong to a shul (the London S&P, as Emily’s sister is married to a Sephardi Jew) and the boys even attended cheder – before the lure of Sunday morning football drew them away.

But Maitlis is clearly conflicted and her language on this, filled with pauses and sighs, reflects her thoughts. “It’s just the tension of growing up, where both parents aren’t on the same page,” she says, pausing again. “It’s much harder to instil one type of, you know…arrangement.

“I would say it’s sort of one of the hardest things in my life,” she continues. “Not in a tragic way, but it’s been a hard thing, because my husband’s Catholic and I’m not very practising. I guess the boys have been raised – and I embrace this – in a family where nothing is indoctrinated particularly, so every thought, every opinion, every exploration is sort of up for grabs.

“My eldest son you know, in his short life so far, he’s experimented with Corbynism, Communism, Brexit. He’s now Welsh nationalist and libertarian. He’s gone through the whole range, so for me to say ‘you must believe’ or ‘you must follow this doctrine’ is slightly outside how we talk as a family.”

However, she explains that her sons do have the “cultural side” of being Jewish and describes this as “everything else”.

She clarifies: “It’s arguing, in a very good and positive way. It’s sort of sitting down and pulling an argument apart. I think that’s a very oddly Jewish thing. And it’s the chaos of family and a slight sort of cosy messiness of it all.”

The family attend shul on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and “do” Chanukah, while the boys also know a great deal about modern Jewish history, although they have not yet visited Israel. “They do call themselves Jewish,” Maitlis says.

The extended family, joined by Maitlis’s parents and other assorted relatives, will enjoy Seder together this year. But modern Seders are quite different from the ones her family grew up with, marking the occasion with their grandparents in Finchley, north London.

“It was always quite fraught because there was no sense of a shortcut,” she says with a smile. “Shortcuts were for the fainthearted. And so it was about four hours long and the kids were starving and the grown-ups were rowing and a door always got slammed. I sort of remember the whole thing ending in tears every year, but now think I had an absolutely classic, normal childhood Seder.”

These days, however, family Seders are “the express version” although she says she’s “still on for a good sing-song”.

And do her sons enjoy it? “Do you know what? They adore their aunt and their cousins, so that’s half the battle. They come along for the ride.

They know the story and they love spilling wine and dipping fingers, and all that kind of stuff. They get into that, and then there’s that sort of moment when it goes really quiet and the kids take off and you know that somewhere in the house an Xbox has been turned on, and you all have to pretend that you don’t know what’s going on.”

It’s not hard to imagine Maitlis enjoying Seder nights and singing along to all the classic Pesach tunes. There’s something of the head girl about her, a sense of someone who would always be organising others, joining in and trying to do the right thing. Perhaps this helps to explain her feelings about her children and the sense that it’s not all quite as it should be. Even though it sounds far from being a tragedy.

Maitlis was born in Canada and grew up in Sheffield, with two older sisters, a scientist father (Professor Peter Maitlis) and physiotherapist mother. She read English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and worked for NBC Asia, Channel 4 and Sky before joining the BBC in 1991. 

Mind you, she could have been a hairdresser – her first job was as a Saturday girl at Ross & Foster hairdressers in Sheffield. “I got paid £6 a day and I was dreadful, but passionate!” she says. 

“I spent all my holidays working there until they offered me a full-time position.” The offer, unsurprisingly, was turned down.

Now she is best known for reading the news, and co-presenting Newsnight, a job she clearly loves. Still, she won’t rise to the bait when asked if she should have been made lead presenter rather than another man (Evan Davis) when Jeremy Paxman left in 2014.

“No,” she replies firmly when asked. “We’re a good ensemble and it works for us.

“Evan does a great job – and Kirsty [Wark]. We’re a very collegiate team. I hear some horror stories from other channels, and I think what a blessing to work with a team of people that you’re genuinely happy to hang with. I don’t feel I need to dominate Newsnight.”

It’s not easy being a journalist at the moment, but Maitlis seems remarkably gung-ho about living in a world where “fake news” has become a common accusation. “It makes all of us work harder, and actually that’s not a bad thing,” she declares. “You carry on doing what you’re doing, but in a sort of heightened way. 

“I’m really conscious now that you can’t slip up because you’ll be held to account by people who don’t want to trust you in the first place. And actually if it means you triple fact-check, or you think once more about your language, I think that’s quite an interesting place to be.

“From a news perspective, we’re having a field day,” she adds. “When you’re a journalist, this is all just extraordinary times. You sit through a presidential press conference with popcorn. It’s unmissable!”

Maitlis has been a journalist, and in the public eye, for many years. And she says that she feels more at ease now she’s that bit older.
“I actually think in a funny way, I feel better at TV now,” she says. “As I get older, I know what I think and I know what works and I enjoy it more. I don’t have that sort of sense of constant panic that you have in your 20s with ‘am I doing this right?’”

But how long has it taken to get to that point? “I would say in the last five years I’ve had the confidence to say that I might not be doing this in exactly the same way as everyone else, but it works for me,” Maitlis replies, adding that she has had to develop a thicker skin.

“I get more misogyny than antisemitism,” she adds. “I know that antisemitism exists and I know people who say they get it badly. I’m not dismissing it, but I get more of the female load.”

And is she concerned about a general upsurge in misogyny, racism and antisemitism since the election of President Trump? Yes, up to a point.

“It depends what you mean, an upsurge,” she questions. “Somewhere along the line, you’re right, people say that Trump and maybe others have been enablers. They allow things to be said that they might not promote.

“A classic example is that David Duke [of the Ku Klux Klan] is forever leaping up and down and supporting Donald Trump. Trump hasn’t ever said that he supports the KKK or that he welcomes their support, but somewhere along the line, white supremacy groups have grown from 90 to 900 over the past two years. Somewhere, a lid has come off.

“Does it mean, therefore, that what we thought was going away, the racism, the antisemitism, the misogyny and homophobia, never went away at all, and people sort of gagged themselves? Or does it mean that people don’t really feel that, but are experimenting with shouting loudly? I don’t really know. I think that’s one of the most interesting bits of this coming year.”

She has met Trump numerous times, and interviewed him for a documentary five years ago. In fact, she has a photograph that he sent her and wrote upon – in gold ink of course – that says: “Emily, you’re fantastic, keep doing what you’re doing.”

Did she like him? “I don’t think I had strong feelings, actually. He was my interviewee, my subject, if that makes sense.” 

But while she did not imagine, back then, that he would go on to be President, she says that a lot of the things he said make sense now.

Just one example will suffice: “He would talk about his hotel having the biggest ballroom in New York. We went off and fact-checked that, and it isn’t the biggest. But you feel kind of silly having an argument with someone about the size of their ballroom.” However, she adds that Trump is not the first politician who has lied, cites Nixon and Clinton, and says that it’s simply vital to check the facts.

Maitlis genuinely appears to enjoy her job. She works four days a week, but is frequently offered work outside her BBC news remit, often for reality television programmes.

“I sometimes think they’re just seeing how crazy you’d be,” she laughs. “They ask, would you like to do The Jump – a show where the best that happens is that you get a lifelong neck injury. No, funnily enough. That’s not pressing my buttons.”

But is there anything she would like to do? There’s a long pause. “I’m trying to think,” she replies. “I’d love to do ice skating and dancing, but I’d sort of have to do it with a bag on my head.”

So, no Celebrity Big Brother? “I actually can’t think of anything worse than being locked in a house with other people and no book. That’s my Room 101,” she says. And as for going to the jungle with I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here – “My hair would go frizzy, I can’t do that!”

Off screen, Maitlis does a lot of charity work, mainly for Action for Children and World Jewish Relief, as well as for Debate Mate and World Child. She’s passionate about them all and seems genuinely grateful to be involved.

“I’ve been really lucky, actually,” she says. “I’ve been to extraordinary parts of the world with WJR. They do extraordinary work and I feel very privileged that I’ve seen some of that with my own eyes. You stand in a cultural centre which is helping really dispossessed old people forge out a living for themselves, in these pretty out-of-the-way places. And it’s so nice to see something tangible.”

Maitlis’s Judaism is plainly an important part of her life, but she doesn’t see herself particularly as a role model. “I don’t think like that,” she says. “I don’t hide my Judaism, I don’t shout it. I just sort of get on with it.” And in these difficult times, that may be a lesson for us all.  

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