'It was the lowest point of my career'

Sky News is the winner in the rolling news war. But did 'macho management' lead to a reporter's suicide? Its head, Nick Pollard, talks candidly to Vincent Graff
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The Independent Online

I put it to Nick Pollard, head of Sky News, that however good he is at his job, he is never going to be promoted. James Murdoch's recent appointment as BSkyB chief executive demonstrated that Pollard lacks the all-important quality to take him to the top. He was, I suggest, born with the wrong surname to impress the chairman. Rupert Murdoch has imposed the ultimate glass ceiling, hasn't he?

Pollard laughs. He has had a few weeks to work out his response to such impertinence. "All I would say is that I am in the happy position at Sky of not being able to do any of the jobs above my pay grade," he says. "I do not see myself ever running a bigger television organisation." He speaks to James several times a week, and his new boss is "extremely supportive". And yes, he admits: "I would be bound to say that."

So far, Pollard has had a good run at Sky News - barring one horrendous episode a few weeks ago, of which more later. By common consent, Sky has led the way in rolling news. Its chief rival, BBC News 24, was a late arrival and quickly gained a reputation as second best. Whatever the jibes about how Sky's supposed rush to the screen before it has checked out stories adequately - Sky is "never wrong for long", sneer the critics - rolling-news viewers turn to the commercial player in larger numbers than to the BBC.

But is that about to change? Yesterday, the corporation relaunched: in came the brashest upper-case "breaking news" captions you have ever seen on the BBC, plus plenty of shiny red glass and a big plasma screen behind a (standing) presenter.

The aim was to win more viewers and answer the government-sponsored Lambert Report into News 24, which claimed that the channel was not distinctive enough to justify its use of licence money.

Pollard's initial judgement is that, the captions aside, "cosmetically it is is not hugely different" from what went before. But, he claims, News 24 has picked up a tip or two from its rival.

"We had a bit of a chuckle here," says Pollard. "At 9am they kicked off with one presenter in the studio and one by a video wall, which is exactly what we moved to two years ago." But, he says, an illustration of the central problem the BBC faces came half-an-hour later. In order to be "distinctive" and nod towards its public service obligations, News 24 went into a digest of world news at 9.30am - something Sky would never do at that time. But in order not to lose viewers, its top world news story was the rugby victory parade in London. "With the best will in the world, that is not a world-news story. It is certainly not the lead world-news story," Pollard says.

But should the BBC even be in the rolling-news business? The corporation only entered the market in 1997, after Sky had already been going eight years. Sky News was just about to break into profit for the first time when the BBC launched News 24 - and gave it away for free to cable operators. Until then, Sky had been charging the cable firms 50p per subscriber per month for its news service - a fee that it had to scrap. Sky News has made a loss every year since.

There are some noticeable differences in the diet offered up by the two rivals. The Soham murder trial has clearly been given more emphasis on Sky than on News 24.

Pollard has been planning the coverage for almost a year. Initially he explored the idea of doing a full reconstruction of court proceedings, using actors, "but it became clear that you can't do that within the law as it stands at the moment. There is case history on this. The legal precedent is the Clive Ponting trial - when Channel 4 were gearing up to do nightly reconstruction with actors of the evidence, and the Attorney General stopped them.

So Sky "worked back from that to what was legally acceptable, and what we came down to was a reading of the evidence by journalists out of vision." Viewers of the nightly 30-minute Soham round-up hear the words of lawyers and defendants, but see a 3D virtual-reality depiction of the court. There is also, throughout the day, a comprehensive rolling transcript service running almost in real time, for the first time.

Up until this point in the interview, Pollard has been on strong territory. He is fiercely proud of his channel, and its integrity. But now for the first time, he turns to what he calls "the most painful thing that has happened to me in my entire career" - the events that followed his decision to uphold his channel's reputation; a course of events which ended in the death of a Sky News reporter.

The facts are brutally simple, albeit ethically far more confusing. James Forlong faked some footage in a Sky News report during the war on Iraq and was exposed by a BBC documentary crew. Forlong was forced to resign. Any news organisation would have done much the same. Tragically, though, three months later, having failed to find a new job, Forlong hanged himself.

Pollard will not talk in detail about Forlong's death. The feeling at Sky is that to do so would only increase the pain of a grieving family. But he talks in the context of two other reporters whose deaths can be attributed to the recent conflict: "I was a big friend of Terry Lloyd's - I worked with him for 12 years at ITN - and it was shattering; and I knew Gaby Rado [of Channel 4 News] very well, and it was tragic that they were victims of that war, doing a job that they did very well and that they loved. And without the Iraq war, James Forlong would still be alive, there is no doubt about that. But I think the combination of events that led to that, to be honest, I think we should draw a veil over. I think everybody has thought hard about it and learned lessons."

Not everyone has been so circumspect, however. The National Union of Journalists has used Forlong's death as a part of its argument against Sky's decision not to recognise trade unions in the workplace. Last week, it published an anonymous article describing Forlong as "just the latest victim of an uncaring macho-management machine". It is a charge that leaves Pollard, a former NUJ member himself, visibly angry.

"I read that. I also saw what the NUJ general secretary said at the time. I think there is something very unappealing about the way the NUJ has jumped on the bandwagon of the James Forlong story. I think it is really unworthy of a trade union, unworthy of any organisation. I didn't think they had any regard for the facts." Union leaders "seized on" the Forlong story "and twisted it to their own particular political purpose".

As for the NUJ's allegations of bullying, "I don't believe I have got that sort of reputation. I don't think you could run a place like Sky News on that basis. It is too small and tightly knit and claustrophobic. The place would implode."