Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News by Emily Maitlis review

Charlotte Edwardes

As A fan of Emily Maitlis’s clipped and flinty interviewing manner I was delighted when she was made lead presenter on Newsnight this month, amused by her weary side-eye while interviewing a politician on Brexit, and unsurprised that her notoriety had earned her a cameo on Alan Partridge. Indeed she is so absolutely of the moment, a quasi-memoir could not be better timed.

Airhead is a compilation of her greatest hits. And boy there are many. I am reminded of her mauling of former White House press secretary Sean “Spicey” Spicer, in which she tore strips off him for underwriting Trump’s lies and corrupting the discourse “for the entire world”. There was the electric exchange with Anthony Scaramucci, Spicer’s short-lived replacement, who gamely surrendered when she collared him near the White House lawn (five days later the “Mooch” was fired for accusing White House strategist Steve Bannon of self-fellating).

But Maitlis is no one-trick pony. Her passion over the Grenfell fire — she lives near the tower and describes volunteering in the aftermath — sharply contrasted with Theresa May’s stiff reserve when she interviewed the Prime Minister two days after the tragedy. She also coaxed a mesmerising interview from Emma Thompson about Harvey Weinstein as #MeToo was breaking. All this is narrated in her snappy, chatty style.

Looking for answers: Emily Maitlis presenting Newsnight on BBC Two

Of course broadcast interviews can flatten stories into headlines and Maitlis’s TV interviews are shorter and blunter than those we write in print. But the book includes her written profile of Piers Morgan which is fluent, conversational and funny. What does his wife Celia love and loathe about him, she asks, and when he replies: “Self-confidence. My ability to ride the storm and survive the jungle,” she deadpans: “I genuinely don’t know… if that’s in the loves or loathes column.”

Like her BBC colleague Laura Kuenssberg, Maitlis projects nerves of concrete. She is fast on her feet. As she says of her encounter with Steve Bannon, “My head is working out where to go. But my mouth is already ahead of me.” She is also full-frontal. Donald Trump is “creepy”; the Elnett cans he demands are “priapic”.

After three meetings her final interrogation of his “facts” ends with him storming off in a huff.

Her asides are acerbic, her observations hilarious. The night before she interviews Bill Clinton in India she spots him in the hotel gift shop looking at a “heavily decorated” copy of the Kama Sutra.

Autobiographical details are woven in lightly. For instance, while interviewing Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg about her husband’s sudden death, Maitlis says her editor is on one metaphorical shoulder willing her to ask the difficult questions, then drops that her mother, a therapist, is on the other, “willing me to be sensitive about this woman’s grief”.

In the most moving section she is most brusque. Maitlis was herself news when it was revealed she had been the target of a stalker for 27 years. She deals with the backstory in one paragraph, refusing to linger on details. Her brevity on the subject only amplifies the awfulness.

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News by Emily Maitlis (Michael Joseph, £18.99)