Interview: Dermot Murnaghan's on a Sky high

The man who braved the wrath of Peter Mandelson in an interview that led to the former Cabinet minister's resignation says he did not 'defect' from the BBC for more money. He tells Ian Burrell of his excitement at switching to Sky News
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The Independent Online

It is early evening and Dermot Murnaghan has been up since 4am but, as he explores his new surroundings at Sky for the first time, the mention of his salary is a subject that greatly animates him. When he found himself the subject of headlines in October, the presenter was portrayed as a "defector", abandoning the beleaguered, cash-shorn BBC for a lucrative offer from the commercial sector.

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, was quoted as saying it was "healthy" that Murnaghan, and his former BBC Breakfast colleague Natasha Kaplinsky, had been allowed to go rather than be offered a better deal by the BBC.

"I emailed Michael about that and put him straight," says Murnaghan, stressing that money was "not the slightest factor" in his move to Sky News, where he starts tomorrow morning.

"I can tell you with hand on heart that it's been almost entirely a flat deal. For me, lifestyle was pre-eminent, my children were growing up without my noticing. My eldest girl was 10 when I started this job and she's now a confident teenager of 15," he says. "I can't speak for Natasha Kaplinsky but the reason for my move was very simply a lifestyle decision. There was no point in my discussions with BBC executives at which I said 'I want more money.'" (Kaplinsky is to join Five News.)

He would have even taken a pay cut to stay, if the right job with a later start had been there. "I'll tell you this on the record, I was prepared to, if my life could have been improved there in terms of the hours, I was prepared to discuss salary adjustments in an opposite direction."

But there were no suitable BBC jobs available. "The BBC is incredibly well-resourced in terms of the calibre of the people there. Sure, ultimately I would have liked to have done the Six O'clock News or the Ten O'clock News, yeah. I did News at Ten at ITN and the 6.30pm news at ITN. I went to BBC Breakfast to do a job which I think I achieved and then I got tired of it but the Six and the Ten are taken."

So when his former ITN colleague, John Ryley, the head of Sky News, came in with a plum offer to host the rolling news channel's output from 9am-1pm each weekday it was a "no-brainer". Not only does he get to test himself in a new environment working for a broadcaster he has "always admired from afar", he also gets to put the alarm clock back, which is a definite bonus for a presenter who was recently caught yawning on camera as a colleague reviewed the morning newspapers. "I will be on air three hours later, so I can see a half-past-six [wake-up] coming which I regard as exotic."

Alarm calls and salary packages are not the only things exciting Murnaghan who rails against bloggers, filibustering political interviewees and the abandonment of coverage of Northern Ireland by the British news media.

With his ability to move easily between anchoring big breaking news stories and discussing items of everyday popular culture on the BBC Breakfast couch, Murnaghan, who celebrated his 50th birthday on Boxing Day, has established himself as one of Britain's best-known news presenters. He led ITV's coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for more than 20 hours. Earlier in his career, he anchored an "open-ender" on the death of Labour leader John Smith, which saw him remain on air for much of the day, showing presentation skills which convince Ryley that he is well-suited to a rolling news channel.

As an interviewer, he can lay claim to the scalp of Peter Mandelson, who resigned from the cabinet in 1999 after Murnaghan had questioned him over the way he had filled out the mortgage application on his Notting Hill home. The exchange won Murnaghan the Royal Television Society Interviewer of the Year award.

In his new environs he will be expected to embrace new technology, reflecting Ryley's enthusiasm for engaging viewers through all forms of digital media. Yet Murnaghan has his reservations about the blogosphere. "I actually find a lot of blogging incredibly tedious. Why do I want to hear the witterings of some lunatic in the United States? It's diverting for a while but it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Is it sourced? Who did you talk to?

"Sometimes there's no journalistic endeavour whatsoever in these things and people take them as god's own truth," he complains. "There are, however, million bloggers out there and some of them are just nutters sitting at the top of a tower, the modern day versions of a hermit, writing whatever they like and if they write well people take it as gospel truth. Well, I'm a journalist where are the sources? Who did you talk to and where does that come from?"

He is also unconvinced of the news value of the stream of emails and texts forwarded each morning to the BBC Breakfast hosts, among other news presenters. "We are getting obsessed with that these days. We say 'send us your emails' on air. It's interesting and nice to know people are watching but do they add to the great sum of things? Mmm, you know ...not generally."

He thinks that, as mobile phone technology inevitably improves, the anticipated advance of citizen journalism will happen, but notes that viewers expect good camera work.

"Audiences are used to HD television and unless an event is of the utmost urgency and nobody else has got footage of it, if you show some shaky hand-held stuff with somebody's thumb in front of it, audiences will just say 'That's rubbish'."

Professional journalists still have a vital role to play in holding the political classes to account, he believes. "When we let our guard down, and I'm hinting at events in the recent past, and allow ourselves to be pushed around, trampled on, then I do think democracy suffers and I do think we are living through the consequences of that right now," he says, apparently referring to the lasting damage inflicted on the BBC by Alastair Campbell.

"I think we are still in the post-Hutton phase, the shock the BBC went through then was enormous. I don't think there has ever been or ever will be a clash like that between the corporation and the Government. A lot of serious lessons were learnt on both sides."

He thinks that politicians have become so effective in neutering the questions of television journalists that live interviews on tightly-scheduled news bulletins are rendered almost worthless. "Politicians are so media trained and so entirely aware of the amount of time you have available that for tailored bulletins it's virtually impossible to do a live interview with a politician of any rank because they'll just turn it into a party political broadcast."

Murnaghan anticipates that his new berth on Sky News Today will allow him "a bit more time" to get through the guard of such politicians. And they should beware: Peter Mandelson appears to have taken Murnaghan too lightly before losing his job in 1999.

"He had done Newsnight the night before and [Jeremy] Paxman had tried to rough him up but he seemed to sail through that. He did the Today programme in the morning and we asked if we could do him that afternoon. I think he felt that having survived the bruisers that was it, and so he agreed."

Mandy's next mistake was to suggest a pre-recorded interview. "This gave us the chance to do a longer interview because quite frankly the lunchtime news is half-an-hour long and every minister knows that if they filibuster for three minutes you won't lay a glove on them."

The extra time allowed Murnaghan to probe whether Mandelson had declared on his form his loan from Geoffrey Robinson. Though Mandelson claimed to have filled out the form correctly, he resigned later that afternoon.

Murnaghan doesn't claim, though, that he has a more effective style than the "bruisers" of broadcasting. "Paxman and [John] Humphrys are way out of my league, these are peak-of-their-game guys, these are the premier league interviewers of our time and I watch in open mouthed amazement at their abilities," he says. "But there are times, they admit themselves, when you think 'You've got the wrong end of the stick, I'd like to hear the answer'."

As he talks, another big name news journalist, Jeremy Thompson, walks into the room. "Oh, it's JT," exclaims Murnaghan, before the pair, greet each other like a couple of luvvies. "We got you in the January transfer window, fantastic," says Thompson, advising his new colleague to get in physical shape for the challenge of rolling news. "Get down the gym, you just need stamina mate."

Murnaghan, though he is now an Arsenal season ticket-holding member of the north London media class, spent much of his childhood, from the ages of seven to 18, in his father's native Ulster, an experience which continues to underpin his journalism. "I remember going to my local Catholic primary school and in the first week being teased for sounding like a junior Geoffrey Boycott: 'You're a Brit, you're a Brit.' Then on the way home getting stones thrown at me by the local Protestant school and called a 'Taig'." His childhood broadcasting hero was the BBC's correspondent, WD Flackes. "He was a little baldy headed man with a thick Northern Ireland accent he probably wouldn't get on television these days."

The Northern Ireland story has been prematurely abandoned by British news organisations, he believes. "This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but when do you see a Northern Ireland story on the news now? I'm not Martyn 'good news' Lewis here but there are some remarkable things going on. For goodness sake, 15 years ago little boys in Warrington were dying because of this."

The door opens again and this time it's John Suchet. More luvvie-ness follows ("Who would have imagined it?", hug, hug), and the two former ITN colleagues discuss the impending return of News at Ten (JS: "Only four nights a week!", DM: "Yes God, it's News at Ten, don't keep trying to fix it!", JS: "They'll never get it right will they?").

Murnaghan will be allowed to continue presenting his popular BBC2 quiz show Eggheads ("I think quiz shows are credible things for newsy people to do"). He is also looking forward to displaying that broad hinterland through his presenting on Sky, especially when working with colleagues from Sky Sports.

Viewers of the news channel will also get a chance to see his vast collection of ties, which famously runs to 1,000. When Murnaghan is reminded that ties, at least according to Paxman, are worn these days only by unfashionable reporters and estate agents, he does not dissent.

"I hate wearing ties, I only wear one because I'm expected to and the 1,000 ties is because I've been a presenter for 23-24 years and haven't thrown away some of the appalling confections I got in the 80s," he says. "It's easy for blokes, you need three suits, six shirts and 1,000 ties. Whereas if a woman wears the same outfit twice in a month, it's 'Aaagh, you haven't got anything else to wear.' Change your tie and you're fine."

Dermot Murnaghan presents "Sky News Today" from 9am-1pm, from tomorrow