'If I didn't have skin like a rhino I might be offended': Why Kay Burley won't let the trolls bring her down

Kay Burley loves her job and thinks journalism is the best career in the world. She tells me this around half a dozen times in a 25-minute interview.

But if she had to choose another profession, I'd recommend teaching. None of her students would dare be late for class or skimp on their revision. And they'd eventually learn not to talk back at her.

Unfortunately for me, after a trek to Sky News's Osterley office ("we're far out – in more ways than one," she tells me) I was five minutes late, and there were, it emerged, a few holes in my research.

At 12.05pm, just as I had found my way through Sky News’s security gate, I received an email from her PR asking: “Are you nearby?”

Three minutes later I was ready, and the presenter had joined me with a firm handshake.

After an attempt on my part at niceties, Burley lost patience and assumed her usual role – asking Sky News's guests the tough questions.

KB: “So what do you want to ask me?”

Well, erm, so, err, to start with – “mm hmm”, interjects Burley – you’ve been involved in lots of controversies during your time at Sky News. A recent one was your Nigel Farage interview shortly before last month’s elections (in which she pressed the UKIP leader on the definition of "racist") – “yeah”. Urm, were you happy with the way it went?

KB: “I didn’t think there was much controversy, actually.”

(Umming and erring has been paraphrased from here on) But you received a lot of criticism on Twitter, which resulted in a few website stories being written about it.

KB: “Well I get criticised all the time on Twitter but you can’t really take it too seriously… If you’re on the telly, if you’ve done as much live telly as I have, of course you’re going to get criticised. It doesn’t offend me or upset me in the slightest… it’s water off a duck’s back.”

I suppose it’s a new problem –

KB: “Relatively. Twitter’s been around since, what – 2007?”

Yes, but I suppose it’s becoming more and more used –

KB: “It’s a very useful tool for what we do.”

Yes, but what was it like before Twitter as a live broadcaster? Was it easier?

KB: “You didn’t get as much reaction from people as quickly. You know, we have a mail inbox so people would send emails. So I suppose that’s a form of social media. But you couldn’t necessarily interact with that presenter because it was a general mailbox. Now you can approach a presenter immediately.

“So that’s one way of looking at it. Of course, you know, if I didn’t have skin like a rhino then I might be offended by people at some of the things that they say. But I’m not.”

After talking about how she uses Twitter as a journalistic tool, like a new form of Press Association or Reuters and a way of plugging her work, Burley lists her favourite accounts for breaking news. She “obviously” thinks Sky News is the best, but also praises Russia Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News and the Telegraph accounts.

No place for the BBC breaking news accounts?

KB: “I look at the BBC website but I don’t tend to follow them particularly on Twitter… I’m damn sure they’re brilliant at what they do…I like the Telegraph, I think they’re very good. Mail Online, I follow them as well. Some are better than others, none are as good as ours, obviously.”

And on the BBC, I read an interview in the Telegraph where you said you would not work for it because you don't have a university education –

KB: “And what else did I say?”

Erm… nope, I can’t remember.

KB: “Okay.

“I said I was kidding.”

Really?

KB: “Yeah.”

Really? I don’t think it said that in the interview (quote from the article: "Burley… didn’t go to university and mentions several times during our interview that she wouldn’t work for the BBC because “I’m not clever enough”)

KB: “Well. It was with Bryony Gordon wasn’t it…

“But I have worked for the BBC. I worked for BBC Radio. I worked for BBC Radio Merseyside. I worked for Radio Lancashire. I worked for BBC Radio Stoke….

“So I have nothing against the BBC. It’s just that my career has taken in a path where adverts pay my mortgage. As opposed to people who subscribe to the licence fee.”

On the licence fee, are you one of the journalists who believes it should be reconsidered in 2015 when the Royal Charter comes up for renewal?

KB: “I’ve owned a telly for a very long time, I’ve been a householder for a very long time. I know that news gathering is incredibly expensive. And so I’m very happy to pay my licence fee. I think I get a lot of bang for my buck…

“I think they do particularly well with the amount of money that they have. We get a lot of fantastic shiny-floor television. If you look at public broadcasters in other parts of the world they’re nowhere near as good as what the BBC is. And providing good television is expensive…

“It’s always good to have a competitor. It keeps you on your toes…. If we are covering a story and we get on air before the BBC do then it just gives you that little bit of a sugar rush. It’s great.”

Sky News claims to have 450 journalists versus 5,500 at BBC News, and Burley believes her broadcaster is currently performing better.

After dismissing my questions about BBC News and Sky News following a similar news agenda, the difficulty for a breaking news channel to find exclusives and whether there are times when there isn’t enough important news to fill a bulletin, we move on to whether she would consider moving into a non-breaking news programme, like Channel 4 News or Newsnight.

KB: “No. No. Absolutely not. If you cut me in half I’ve got Sky News written right through me. I have the best job in the world.”

I suppose that reflects a recent quote you gave to Press Gazette about recommending journalism to young people?

KB: “Absolutely… I of course read your article subsequently and there were an awful lot of people who agreed with me.”

It was pointed out to me that I did ask the most successful and popular journalists, so it could be skewed in that sense –

KB: “Well I’m not sure I’m the most popular journalist you’ve ever come across – given how you first started the interview.”

How daunting is it to have to break something on live TV?

KB: “It’s about good teamwork. I have a fantastic exec producer, I have a fantastic team that work well as a group together. If they tell me something… or if they give me some breaking news in my ear, I trust them implicitly, 100 per cent.”

And when things do go wrong, as they do to everyone, and as they have to you a couple of times, the 9/11 thing –

KB: “I would like to see where that quote is, wouldn’t you? I think that’s what you call an urban myth.”

Is it?

KB: “Mm hmm.”

Really?

KB: “Mm hmm.”

Oh, I’m sorry.

KB: “That’s okay.

"It’s on Wikipedia so it must be right, I know.”

Burley and Sky News have attempted but failed to get the ‘quote’ attributed to her on 11 September 2001 – “the entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been decimated by a terrorist attack” – removed from Wikipedia. It has also been cited in the Telegraph, Mirror, Mail and Independent among other newspapers.

Okay, but what’s it like to make a mistake on live air?

KB: “Well nobody likes to make a mistake, obviously. But you know you just get back on the horse…

“The phrase that I often use is that doctors bury their mistakes, lawyers lock their’s up and television presenters broadcast their’s.

“If you make a mistake, 130 million people around the world will know about it. But hopefully I don’t make too many mistakes. I’ve been at the top of my game for 35 years, so I must be doing something right.”

Working at Sky News from the beginning, 25 years ago, in the UK, what was it like trying to establish yourselves?

KB: “There used to be a gag when I first started at Sky, that more people had seen the Loch Ness Monster than had seen Sky News. And it was true.

“We were from a standing start. And we had to build an audience from nothing. And we did that slowly, steadily, and now I think if there is a breaking story, anywhere in the UK, people will turn to Sky. Increasingly anywhere in the world…

“And that’s why I have sympathy with people like Susanna Reid and the like [at Good Morning Britain]… because they’re trying to build on an audience.

“Okay, it’s not from a standing start. But there have been so many problems and failures and challenges with Daybreak, or whatever the latest – it’s Good Morning Britain again now, isn’t it? It was Good Morning Britain when I worked for it 30 years ago.

“And so they have to build on that. And everyone’s watching them. Everyone is offering an opinion. Everybody is criticising at every turn. And the whole nation is watching them. So it’s even more difficult.

“Whereas when we were starting off, we were learning our craft as we went, but not as many people were there to judge us.

“I hope they do well, I really do. They deserve to.”

Do you think they will?

KB: “I hope so. I really hope so.

“I think if they’re given time to develop their chemistry – chemistry just doesn’t happen overnight….

“And I think with Susanna and Ben [Shephard] they’ll do very well. But it takes time. And people should stop being quite so judgmental  –  especially people who don’t know anything about television.”

Do you think Reid’s celebrity status, that she’s built up over the last few years, makes it more difficult for her and for Good Morning Britain because –

KB: “I don’t think that’s her fault.”

No, no –

KB: “Her celebrity status has been created because she did a fantastic show that she wanted to show her fun side. And she did that brilliantly. She was in the final three, wasn’t she? And so no I don’t think so.

“I think it’s a hindrance and it’s a blessing. Being a celebrity means that she’s more high profile. But you know it’s a blessing because she was given the opportunity, probably, I don’t know, I wasn't in the discussions, because she was a celebrity…

“We have a tall poppy syndrome in this country. We’re slagging off Wayne Rooney at the moment because he’s a tall poppy, he earns £300,000 a week. So I suppose he’s a bit of a celebrity as far as the England team is concerned. Everybody is looking to him to do well or to fail.”

Time’s up. I arrived five minutes late, so Burley can only give me 25 minutes. She's got a show to present later this afternoon.

Half an hour later, after a quick tour of Sky News's office with the PR who sat in on our interview, I board the train at Syon Lane back to London feeling tired.

I have been lucky enough to interview a number of leading journalists for Press Gazette, but none were quite like Kay Burley.

Never before have I finished interviewing someone and felt like I was on the receiving end of an interrogation.

Whether you’re the Prime Minister or a relatively green media reporter, Burley shows the same steely professionalism on screen and off. And you have to respect her for that.

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