It got there first, it did it best, and now it's on a roll

Sky News took over Five's bulletins just as it was showing the way with its tsunami coverage. Vincent Graff reports from behind the scenes
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The Independent Online

Nick Pollard, head of Sky News, realises that even the most addicted viewers of 24-hour rolling news are beginning to tire of the tsunami. "For the first week, you just send your reporters out to get whatever they can find and shoot it. You take it all, and put it all on," he says. "But after that, you have to ask if yet another story saying 'here's a flattened village' will convey more than it did yesterday." By the very asking of the question, Pollard knows - we all know - that the answer is no.

We are speaking on Wednesday, day 11 of the disaster, and Pollard and his staff are changing gear. He still has 60 staff journalists and technicians in the tsunami zone, and his channel's coverage remains focused on the Indian Ocean. But there is a sense that it is about to enter a deeper, more analytical stage.

From the early hours of the disaster, until last Tuesday (day 10), more than 95 per cent of Sky News's airtime was tsunami-related, according to Pollard. By the following day, that figure was down to 80 per cent. Pollard estimates that, barring a surprise, by the middle of this week (two and a half weeks on), the tsunami will provide around a quarter of the channel's output.

It is no secret that journalists, unique among their human relatives, relish disasters; and it is an accepted truth in the industry that Sky has had "a good tsunami". Such a feeling is certainly evident inside the company's HQ, an ugly concrete box plonked on an industrial estate a few miles from Heathrow.

The ocean waters struck in the early hours of Boxing Day morning UK time, when every newsroom was at its lowest state of alert, and any self-respecting journalist was at home sleeping off the excesses of Christmas. Sky, like its rivals, was operating on a skeleton staff, broadcasting a pre-recorded, much- repeated, review of 2004.

At 4.07am it broke into its broadcast to report the first rumblings of the story: a handful of fatalities. But a sixth sense tingled inside Gerard Williams, the former Reuters veteran who was manning Sky's overnight newsdesk. He called Adrian Wells, head of foreign news, at home; Wells called his bosses. Within minutes the decision was made to go "open-ended" on the story. Sky's impressive machine had lurched into operation.

Pollard was at his desk by 6am. He found Wells booking flights for reporters and crew to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. Dishes had to be moved: one, which had been parked up in Jerusalem in place for today's Palestinian election, was rushed overland on a truck to Tel Aviv, flown to Vienna, and then placed on a second plane, to Colombo. (And at a considerable cost: putting such heavy equipment on to a commercial flight typically costs upwards of £20,000 in excess baggage fees.) The network's biggest name presenters were told to go to the airport. As a result, Sky's biggest hitter, Jeremy Thompson, was hosting his network's coverage from Phuket the day after the tragedy. He was later to be joined by anchors in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Compare this to the BBC's efforts. Jeremy Bowen was not broadcasting from the disaster zone until two days after Thompson; and George Alagiah - of Sri Lankan origin - was not even put on a plane until New Year's Day. ITN, too, was beaten by the upstarts at 15-year-old Sky - though the organisation deserves praise for the brilliant reports filed by John Irvine, who was holidaying on the Sri Lankan coast when disaster struck.

Rolling news is an industry sometimes pilloried for its addiction to being first merely for the sake of it - occasionally at the expense of accuracy. And there are other criticisms levelled at Sky. It is deliberately more concerned with the human interest angle of stories than the BBC: a report about the first baby born in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka in 2005 was unlikely to have made it on to News 24; even if it had done so, such an item would not have ended with a mawkish coda from the reporter "... and she's beautiful."

The channel is also over-branded, say some: if viewers are not watching the Sky News Weather or the Sky News Money slot, they are being asked to press the red button for Sky News Active. Meanwhile, the word "Sky" - in brash red, white and blue - is sometimes on screen in three places.

Pollard is unabashed. "You have to stand out. And, in a way, you have to shout to your viewers. I do not make any apologies for the fact that our look is deliberately bold." The look is "vivid, but not lurid," he says.

Such nit-picking will not dampen the understandable glee at Sky, which feels it has stolen a march on the nation's traditional news providers.And in one sense the tsunami came at an opportune time - spirits were already raised by the fact that for the first time Sky has, since last Monday, been making news bulletins for a terrestrial channel, Five, having snatched the contract away from ITN.

At the daily ideas meeting on Wednesday, that exuberance was evident. Pollard was discussing how best to cover the Europe-wide three-minute silence, due at midday. TV4 in Sweden would be showing a blank screen, said an executive. "Very Bergmanesque," replied Pollard.

The conversation turned to the problems of getting reporters on board aid trucks, and to the movement of satellite dishes. But for every mention of logistics, there were two related to storytelling. There is a good angle on aid distribution, said one executive. It is working much better in Thailand - "it's almost like Ocado. People ring up, say 'we want x, y, z' and they get it delivered" - though it is in trouble in Indonesia, where many roads have been washed away entirely, he said.

Do the story, nodded Pollard. But he wanted to hear other things. "We can begin to creep away from the tsunami." Wells suggested the vote in Palestine. "I do not see why we can't do a quick hit on Gaza," agreed Pollard. He also wanted to see a piece on video refereeing, following the previous night's controversy at Old Trafford. Rolling news was rolling on.