John Ryley treasures his framed memento of the launch of Sky News – a disparaging advert placed in the Financial Times by ITV showing rusty satellite dishes and the line “Money for old soap”.
Twenty-five years after the rolling news channel went on air, its editor is in buoyant mood and ready to take some pot shots of his own at rivals in the TV news game.
ITV doesn’t impress him. While the BBC might have embarrassed itself with its coverage of the Queen’s Thames Pageant in 2012 (I watched its disastrous output that day in the company of an incredulous Ryley), he notes that “ITV didn’t cover it at all – they took the tennis from France”.
He claims that ITV has downgraded its commitment to news. “As the leaders’ debates begin to coalesce, I strongly believe Sky News, along with the BBC, are the two main news broadcasters in this country. At significant moments in recent years, ITV has ducked out of things,” he says. “The funeral of Baroness Thatcher in 2013 was carried both by the BBC and ourselves. ITV broadcast its This Morning show with slight two-ways with Alastair Stewart.”
In 30 years in the business, Ryley has worked for all three of these broadcasters, with the past 19 at Sky. He was a BBC trainee when Rupert Murdoch and his cohorts launched the channel in 1989. “The attitude in the BBC at the time wasn’t even dismissive,” he recalls. “It was that it didn’t really matter and would have very little impact on British television news.”
The BBC News division – which is facing £20m budget cuts and the loss of up to 500 journalists – cannot afford to be complacent about Sky News now. Ryley knows that it’s a good time to strike – with Newsnight in a period of transition after its recent traumatic history.
He wants Adam Boulton’s new weekday evening show, which begins in September, to define the channel as much more than a rolling news service with a niche audience. “I do see that as an opportunity to take on both Channel 4 News and Newsnight in a different way,” he says. “It’s two hours long [7pm-9pm] and has a bigger canvas than Channel 4 News and Newsnight.”
So rather than it just being the former political editor’s show, Boulton will draw on Sky News’s newly recruited team of specialists – the likes of economics editor Ed Conway, social affairs editor Afua Hirsch, foreign affairs editor Sam Kiley, diplomatic editor Tim Marshall and sports correspondent Paul Kelso – for big interviews and scoops. “I would see those journalists being deployed to deliver exclusive stories for that show,” says Ryley. He has been “very deliberately” raiding newspapers for expert talent and has assembled a team quite capable of rivalling the other big current affairs shows.
Sky has already been experimenting with long-form 12-minute packages – “which was unheard of here” – on the missing Malaysian airliner and the Ukraine crisis. The lengthy format also works on other platforms, such as the recently launched Sky News catch-up service, which will pioneer the use of footage from the appeal courts, where cameras have recently been introduced.
Ryley is an innovator and is planning talks with the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, on revising Prime Minister’s Questions. The raucous Wednesday exchanges should be made more meaningful to those watching “on television or on an iPad”, he thinks. “MPs get up and, if you are watching at home, you don’t know who they are or what the context to the question is.”
Also, in September, Sky News will launch a campaign, “Stand Up and Be Counted”, to encourage young voters to engage in the election process by allowing them to post self-generated content to its site.
As well as taking on British broadcast rivals, Sky News is attempting to establish a greater presence in the United States where it has 500,000 subscribers via Apple TV and the Roku streaming platform. Ryley reveals that he is in talks with several US media companies to embed a Sky round-up of the big American and international stories in their websites. “We are in discussions with other American-based organisations about becoming partners, which would give us increased eyeballs in the States.”
Sky News’s appeal in the US is its “impartial independent reporting” – and he doesn’t consider Murdoch’s Fox News as a competitor so much as CBS or NBC. Ironically, the British regulations that prevent Sky News adopting Fox’s partisan approach have become a selling point for Murdoch and BSkyB.
The Sky News app has been made free internationally and is popular in southern Africa where presenter Jeremy Thompson is already a famous face. This week, Ryley will give a talk at the Royal Society in London on the impact of digital technology on news. He has his eye on the rising global population: “Parts of the world that didn’t have access to television will definitely have access to mobile phones,” he says. “The future for news is on mobile.”
The potential merging of BSkyB with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia (partly and wholly owned by Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, respectively) could provide more opportunity for growth. “It would be naive if that comes about for there not to be a very serious think about how we might offer a pan-European news service.”
But clearly he resents any suggestion that he is a Murdoch pawn. “I meet people even today – friends – who think Rupert calls me up and tells me what to do, which is extraordinary. I have to explain that I’m quite shocked they think that.”
At 52, Ryley hasn’t lost any energy. He spent the weekend cycling from London to Paris (and back) on the Duchenne Dash charity ride in the company of colleague Dermot Murnaghan and some of his C4 rivals. Next Saturday, he will ride the course for the first leg of the Tour de France, which is in Yorkshire. Then he’ll return to the battle of breaking news.
News UK gives itself starring role
Cashing in on its “world exclusive” claims about the Qatar bid for the 2022 World Cup, The Sunday Times stars in a series of remarkable publicity films.
A cynic might say this new “Forever Unquiet” project was an exercise in News UK shoring up the reputation of its premium brands (The Times is also vaunted) just as the jury goes out in the hacking trial at the Old Bailey. But there is a greater value to the series.
In Question Everything, the Sunday Times investigative journalists David Walsh and Brian Deer explain the emotional journey of their long investigations into the lies of Lance Armstrong and MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield, respectively. In another clip, digitally enhanced images from the Sunday Times photographic archive bring shots of historic events by the likes of Terry O’Neill and Tim Hetherington almost to life.
Nick Stringer, the director of marketing communications at News UK, says seven more films are in production, including one with foreign news reporter Christina Lamb speaking on the balance between motherhood and the frontline. There are plans to film the story of the Syria kidnapping of war reporter Anthony Loyd and photographer Jack Hill, and an account of the Qatar scoop. An animation project will record the work of Crimean War reporter William Howard Russell. All in all, it’s not just an ad campaign but a celebration of Britain’s great reporting traditions.
We need a BBC with plenty of bite
Ahead of Charter Renewal negotiations, the BBC must not pull in its journalistic teeth. The signs of late have not been great, as troublemakers Jeremy Paxman and Panorama editor Tom Giles have stepped down. The BBC has already lost cage-rattling reporters such as Michael Crick and Paul Mason.
Editorial mistakes could be damaging at this delicate stage of the BBC’s history, but the organisation must avoid becoming risk averse. It must support its investigative teams in the face of powerful subjects – from heads of corporations to leaders of big charities – who might try to undermine their work by going over the heads of journalists in private appeals to BBC executives.
There is real concern in the newsroom of a chilling effect, as emerged after the Hutton crisis in 2004. We need the BBC to be bold.