The TV in the House of Commons cafe was showing Kay Burley standing in a Somerset ditch wearing wellies, anorak and a hat that appeared to have been snatched from a local farmer's wife on her way to a duck shoot. “Who does she think she is?” said a police officer to his colleague as they took a tea break. “She looks like she's in a not very good folk band,” said the other.
Yes, this is typical of the harsh reaction the Sky News presenter draws from some of her viewers. She is scorned for her bluntness - she triggered tears from both Peter Andre and the people searching for missing schoolgirl April Jones. But I believe that Burley – who I do not know at all - is in need of reappraisal as she celebrated 25 years of Sky News yesterday.
It is easy to see why she can sometimes provoke ridicule and anger. Broadcasting live from the Sky News studio on the day of the 9/11 attacks, she memorably said: “If you’re just joining us, the entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been decimated by a terrorist attack.” She was pictured with her hand around a female photographer's neck during the media scrum for Naomi Campbell's court appearance in 2008. Then, in 2012, there was that April Jones gaffe, when the Queen of Breaking News told members of the still-hopeful search party that the five-year-old was probably dead. A Twitter-storm of hate followed.
But as Burley herself knows, there are two sides to every story. Her 9/11 comments were a mistake, but forgivable on such an overwhelming day. Her grabbing of photographer Kirsty Wigglesworth’s was shocking, but Kay was reacting to being hit in the cheek by a camera – mitigating circumstances, surely. And when Kay confronted two women in Machynlleth with the news about April, she had begun the live interview in the belief that they knew it had turned into a murder investigation.
I am sure she gets more vilification and ridicule because she is a woman. But it is because she is a woman that we have to celebrate her. She is over 50 and female, a rare stone curlew in broadcast news. Her sheer staying power in a world of young women and greying men is to be admired. Yes, Adam Boulton has been at Sky News as long as Burley has, but her gender makes her the greater survivor of the two.
Burley is open about her plastic surgery – she had a £10,000 facelift for her 50th birthday - and I wonder whether it has helped her stay in the job? It would be depressing to think so. But younger female journalists should not see her ever-youthful looks as role model material, instead they should seek to emulate her grit, determination and hard work to get to, and remain at, the top of journalism, after starting out in newspapers in Wigan at the age of 17. She was not born into privilege, as many in TV are, and perhaps this comes out in her approach to asking tough questions.
In an interview three years ago she said: “If I’m interviewing a politician, nine times out of 10 they deserve a good kicking and I really don’t care if they’re offended or not.” She can certainly put in a shift – broadcasting for several hours on the major stories of the last quarter of a century. She has, she points out, been a single mother for most of her son’s life, yet has developed a remarkable career as the leading face of Sky News. Which woman in public life serves in the same job for 25 years? Only the Queen has lasted longer.Reuse content