PICTURE the scene. Emily Maitlis is sitting at home in her baffies, tanning a tube of Pringles when the phone goes. It’s a nervous senior manager at the BBC ringing to chastise her for her performance on Newsnight.

The call is tense, evasive and stuttering. The manager frequently reassures her that she is highly valued, that the storm will blow over and that everyone in the team loves her, but the stuttering tone of a nervous headmaster having to discipline a popular pupil persists.

Maitlis is incandescent with rage but sophisticated enough to understand the mess that her candid journalism had put her in. Knowing that the BBC needed “wriggle room”, she proposes the idea of taking a night off, maintaining her own dignity whilst handing the BBC a get-out clause, the perception that she had been disciplined even stood down.

Maitlis puts down the phone and then thinks to herself “fuck it – I could murder a Wagon Wheel”.

With a modicum of poetic licence, that is more or less what happened when the BBC found themselves in the compromising predicament of speaking truth to power, when the powerful hold your future in its vengeful hands. It cannot be easy having to broadcast powerful current affairs, let alone negotiate a new licence fee with shambling sociopaths and political ideologues that simply despise the very idea of a publicly funded broadcaster like the BBC.

Maitlis’s temporary suspension is a centrifugal moment in our media, where public service broadcasting is being tested like never before.

To cover itself, the BBC released a statement on Twitter trying to put a wet blanket over the smouldering fires. It said: “The BBC must uphold the highest standards of due impartiality in its news output.

“We’ve reviewed the entirety of last night’s Newsnight, including the opening section, and while we believe the programme contained fair, reasonable and rigorous journalism, we feel that we should have done more to make clear the introduction was a summary of the questions we would examine, with all the accompanying evidence, in the rest of the programme.

“As it was, we believe the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality. Our staff have been reminded of the guidelines.”

Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan, who seems to be relishing his new role as socially progressive provocateur, called the statement “utterly disgraceful” and said the BBC is “chucking one of its best journalists under the bus for telling the truth”.

The loaded term “due impartiality” was used twice in what was a relatively short statement and so unintentionally the BBC drew attention to the underlying weakness of the concept.

Apparently, with Maitlis’s agreement, a decision was taken that another presenter, Katie Razzle, would front the show. It remains an unfortunate barrier to Razzle’s gravitas that she shares her name with a 1980s soft porn magazine and although I have never subscribed to the title, I cannot imagine that its fondness for pendulous breasts is conducive to late-night intellectual analysis.

Due impartiality is one of the load-bearing props of the BBC’s producer guidelines. Not only is it a concept that is easily unpicked, I would argue that it has run its course as a guiding principle and is now singularly unsuited to a society where the media is fragmented, where views do not sit comfortably on the see-saw of balance and when the digital world has disrupted television’s authority.

Social media piled in behind Maitlis, evidencing various shows where due impartiality was in thin supply. Not least among them was a previous Newsnight show in which the set behind Maitlis portrayed the former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in a Leninist hat projected on to a backdrop of Moscow’s Red Square. The BBC subsequently denied that there was any intent to frame Corbyn as a Marxist and a supporter of Russia, at the height of the sensitive investigations into the Salisbury poisonings.

Due impartiality is not only a dated misnomer it is too crude a concept to hang broadcasting values around. Take for example coverage of a trade war with a foreign competitor, especially one like the Cod Wars, which escalates beyond bureaucratic negotiation. The BBC tells that story from Britain’s perspective, the idea that they give equal weight and airtime to the rival nation’s arguments is fanciful nonsense.

Coverage of the politics of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands have been reported very much from the often-implausible perspective of Britain, whilst the claims of Spain and Argentina are underreported or blithely dismissed.

Due impartiality falls flat across a whole range of other subjects too. At his height as a pop star, Boy George was ravaged with heroin addiction. All branches of the media, including the BBC, told the story as a fall from grace. At no stage did the BBC offer equal time to heroin addicts to articulate their point of view, nor did anyone expect them to.

Harold Shipman was accused of killing up to 250 people most of them old and infirm. There is no balancing perspective to this story. No-one would step forward to argue that killing old people is a good idea as it lessens the burden on social services, unless it was one of the “weirdo” outliers that Doming Cummings wanted to recruit in his infamous blog advert.

We frequently see royal correspondents on our screens, but news and current affairs across all broadcasters are weak when it comes to reporting the politics of republicanism.

The BBC has already conceded one of the failures of due impartiality when in the early years of debating global warming it gave equal space to climate change deniers in the flawed pursuit of balance and impartiality.

One of the scandals of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the unforgivable rate of deaths in care homes. The BBC has chosen to cover them as personal tragedies where a loved-one dies alone. I understand that and many of the reports have been emotionally powerful but there has been limited analysis of the privatisation scandal, that 86% of care home are privately owned and that the ownership is often obscured by shadowy corporations registered in off-shore tax havens.

News items that count the tally of deaths should rightly point out shortcomings in the performance of devolved government, the limitations of the current licensing system, but due impartiality would require a feature to point out the underlying ownership structure, and what role profiteering has played in staff numbers, lack of proper equipment and poor hygiene.

There is another contradiction that the panjandrums of due impartiality have set for themselves, one that has real resonance in Scotland. Among the BBC’s many laudable obligations is the idea that they should be a unifying force in Britain. Outgoing director general, Tony Hall, said in a recent annual plan: “When the country is increasingly being portrayed as fragmented and divided, the BBC will maximize opportunities to bring the country together.”

Where does that leave many millions of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who do not necessarily believe that Britain should be brought together? Many people, most of them license fee payers and democrats, think that there may be a more hopeful political future in disaggregating the political union and unpicking the centralised politics of Westminster.

How can we be certain that the BBC observes due impartiality when it clashes with another major strand of their treasured values?

How can we be sure that Emily Maitlis even knows what a Wagon Wheel is – we live in confusing times.