Kay Burley’s plea for Matt Hancock shows one thing — the UK media is far too cosy

They share the same obsessions and the same dinner party tables...

Kay Burley has been a mainstay of Sky News’ coverage of practically everything. She’s like one of the Easter Island heads of British media, both baffling and heavyweight, and has seemingly been there forever.

In a media that is stuffed with posh products of posh universities whose connections buttered them into big jobs with unseemly swiftness, Kay Burley is a genuine working-class success story. Born in Wigan, with parents who both worked in a cardboard factory, Burley began her journalism career at 17, working for the Wigan Evening Post and Chronicle. Moving to BBC local radio and then Tyne Tees Television, she got her big break in 1985, becoming a reporter and newsreader. Two years later, she started anchoring the programme’s first hour and providing fill-in cover.

In November 1988, she joined Sky News — directly recruited by Andrew Neil — and she has been at the station ever since. Now in her 32nd year with the broadcaster, Burley remains a punchy and provocative interviewer who is able to create real moments from seemingly workaday encounters. However, the problem is that she can veer wildly from forensically ferocious to just unfocused and angry.

It’s not for nothing that Burley’s Wikipedia page features an extensive section on controversies. In 2001, as the September 11th attacks were ongoing, Burley said live on air that “the entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been decimated by a terrorist attack”. In 2008, while interviewing Pam Wright, the former girlfriend of the serial killer Steve Wright, Burley asked whether she felt a better sex life would have prevented him from murdering five sex workers in Ipswich.

Also in 2008, Burley was caught on camera seemingly strangling photographer Kirsty Wigglesworth in a press scrum outside a court hearing where Naomi Campbell was appearing. Sky News explained the incident saying: “Kay Burley was provoked by a hard hit to the face with a camera.”

Two years later, in February 2010, Burley apologised to Peter Andre after she aired comments by Dwight Yorke criticising Andre for offering to adopt Katie Price’s first child — Yorke’s son — Harvey. Burley wrote online that Andre had sobbed on her shoulder. She had quizzed him on how he would feel if Price’s new man tried to adopt his children.

During 2010’s General Election campaign, Burley’s interview with David Babbs, an electoral campaigner, led to over 1000 complaints — which were subsequently dismissed by the regulator Ofcom — predominantly focused on her saying:

The public have voted for a hung parliament. We have got exactly what we voted for ... so you marching down past Westminster today will make no difference whatsoever. ... Why don't you go home and watch it on Sky News?

Heckled by protestors while she reported from the media enclave on College Green, near Parliament, Burley responded on air saying, “There are lots of demonstrators shouting ‘fair votes now’ — not sure what they mean by that… They don’t like The Sun, they don’t like us, they don’t like Rupert.”

In September 2010, responding to the News International phone-hacking scandal, a clash between Labour MP, Chris Bryant, and Burley went viral. She asked Bryant to prove that phone hacking was “endemic”. Bryant called Burley “dim” and continued:

...the Information Commissioner produced a report which if you had listened to the debate earlier yourself then you would know, or if you had read that report then you would see that he referred to more than 1,000 cases in various different newspapers. I think it was something like 800 – I've not got the figures with me now – 800 incidences in the Mail alone.

Burley falsely accused Bryant of being negligent and that if he had simply changed his PIN, he would not have been hacked. Bryant responded in an Independent article saying:

“My PIN had nothing to do with my phone being hacked. Someone phoned Orange, my mobile network provider, and tried to pretend to be me in order to gain access to my voicemails”

In October 2012, Burley broke the news that a five-year-old girl was probably dead to volunteers who had been searching for her. Burley’s interviewees were unaware that the case had moved from a missing person’s investigation into a murder inquiry.

Another general election rolled around again and 2015 saw Channel 4 and Ofcom receiving over 400 complaints about bias in their treatment of Labour leader Ed Miliband and programming, including a town hall in-part moderated by Burley, that appeared to favour the incumbent Prime Minister, David Cameron. Burley questioned Ed Miliband about his relationship with his brother David, saying “Your poor mother.”

Notoriously, in the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks in Paris — an event I was on the ground reporting on — Burley tweeted a photograph of a golden retriever and added the caption “Sadness in his eyes #parisattacks”. That meme endures.

In 2018, Kay Burley asked, in an interview with Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, about Boris Johnson’s comments on the burqa, whether the politician would be ‘offended’ if he found it hard to read Simon Weston’s expression. Weston received severe facial burns during the Falklands War.

Covering the litany of controversies that Burley has largely created in her career is not fair. But I don’t promise to be fair in this newsletter, I promise to tell you as a reader what I really think about the media and to provide some analysis of what that means for it and crucially for you. However, in the interests of balance, here’s a glory reel of the stories Burley has covered during her decades at Sky News.

She broke the news of Princess Diana’s death at 5am on 31 August 1997. She was on air as the first tower was hit on September 11. She fronted Sky News’ coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami from Sri Lanka.

In 2005, Burley anchored Sky News’ coverage of the general election and Prince Charles’ marriage. Her Royal coverage also includes a hilarious hours long stint waiting for Prince George to be born outside the Lindo Wing, where she news scatted for minutes on end with absolutely nothing to say. She started a new show — The Kay Burley Show — in 2018, before it was rebadged as Kay Burley @ Breakast in September 2019 and moved to mornings. That’s where she’s plying her trade right now.

Like John Humphrys, who embedded himself in the flesh of the Today programme like a particularly tendencious tick, it will take a lot of Kay Burley to leave Sky News. I think it’s likely that she’s aiming to make her 40th year on air before she retires and why shouldn’t she? She’s well-paid, usually well-briefed and sharp. Most of her gaffes, such as they are, come from the fact that she has been on television for hundreds of hours, operating at a high tempo and with an aggressive style that gets results more often than it causes upset.

When Burley is batting for your team — needling a bad politician or a oleagenious executive, it’s hard not to cheer. The problem comes when everything snaps back into focus and you realise she is as much part of the establishment as anyone she interviews. Remember how she referred to “Rupert” in her defence of News UK against Chris Bryant? That’s because she knows Rupert Murdoch personally and Murdoch, who no longer owns Sky News, was more than a boss to her, he was a friend.

Burley’s seemingly unassailable position at Sky News and her friendships across media, politics and other areas of the establishment are a good example of one of the UK media’s biggest issues: It’s too cosy. In another industry, Burley might have moved into different roles over the course of three decades, giving space for younger thinkers to move into the frame. She might also have faced some censure for the outrageous things that she has said and done to vulnerable interviewees over the years.

And while Burley is a ferocious interview things like the tweet that opens this edition — asking us to give the Secretary of State for Health, in a government rife with incompetence and corruption, the benefit of the doubt — show that often borders on a performance.

Burley is like a professional wrestler, a heel with a habit for pulling face turns. How she truly feels emerges often as the kayfabe — the agreed fiction in wrestling — breaks and she slips in a shiv-like question between the ribs of an interviewee she clearly dislikes. Burley can be a powerful weapon for getting answers, but you can’t guarantee what direction she’ll head in when she’s fired off… that’s dangerous for journalism.

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