Radical Ryley is set to change Sky News

by Adrian Monck

IF YOU came here to read the decline and fall of Sky News, look away now. On the rolling share across the last week in April, the channel whiskered its way to a 0.01 per cent victory over its arch-rival. And no, that wasn't because a fuse went in Peter Horrocks' office. It's just a tiny reminder that the battles continue, and the advantages switch.

There is a certain kind of revisionist take on Sky News these days. In no small measure Horrocks' arrival at News 24 has stirred it up. Taking arms against a rival is a great way to rally the troops, and Horrocks has succeeded in reversing the conventional wisdom about BBC News, and giving it back a buzz.

His success has caused some people to question Sky's leadership.

The revisionist view says that Sky News was in good shape when Nick Pollard turned up and he just kept it ticking over, thanks very much, that'll do nicely. And then, polite cough, "the relaunch," exit stage left. This view is what's known in the news business as bollocks.

Pollard is probably the single most influential figure in 24-hour news. If you look back at his achievements in the glory days of ITN, running News at Ten when Alistair Burnett read the ‘bongs' and Mrs Thatcher watched the show to take the pulse of the nation, you could make a case for Pollard in terrestrial television's hall of fame too.

It's a tough thing to lure people to a converted industrial warehouse in Osterley, take them from making the news for the massed ranks of the general public every teatime and get them to make the news for an audience of thousands, not just occasionally, but every second of every minute of every day.

Money plays its part, but a few extra quid and the promise of a car parking space a couple of hundred feet below the Heathrow flight path don't get you the people who are the spine of a world-class news operation. That takes leadership, belief and a lot of 6am starts.

Today it's easy to take Sky News for granted, easy to think that its resources are a natural consequence of an organisation flush with cash from football and Simpsons re-runs.

Easy, but wrong. Sky bosses didn't just leave money in brown envelopes for Pollard to spend on satellite trucks and doughnuts for Adam Boulton.

The kit was fought for, the personnel wooed. And part of Sky News's appeal was Pollard. For people in the industry, his presence guaranteed a quality and commitment that didn't always spring to mind when reflecting on a branch of the Murdoch empire.

His arrival at Osterley coincided with satellite communications becoming accessible and reliable enough to match the speed of a 24-hour news channel. Even the BBC's John Birt was impressed. He described the channel's coverage of Diana's funeral as Sky News's "coming of age".

There was also a seriousness to Pollard's Sky.

Stenographers in the courtroom for the Soham murder trial brought court reporting to interactive television. Nightly reconstructions of Hutton were the kind of ambitious project that might once have been seen on Channel 4. And, of course, whales swimming down the Thames.

The seriousness was matched by the relaunch and its commitment to quality. Whatever you think of the studio and its stripes, Pollard's ambition was to provide more analysis and depth, and to improve Sky's packaging.

Lesser figures might have opted for a novelty approach designed to win industry headlines. Less confident executives would have aped Fox News. Pollard's departure is a shock, but he's leaving a news operation that has robustness and respect, and a senior team that would be the envy of many newsrooms.

So what can we expect in September when Pollard's lieutenant, John Ryley, steps up to the plate?

On paper, Ryley looks even more Sky News than Pollard.

He was there before Pollard arrived, exec producing the breakfast show. Ryley was too much of a maverick for Nigel Dacre's News at Ten, and when he quit as the programme's deputy to go to Osterley, ITN friends commiserated at a successful career blighted. But it was Ryley who invented the onair look of Sky News.

His Sunrise show established a template that has defined the way Sky looks to this day. Pollard recognised talent and Ryley too contributed to Pollard's success. But anyone who thinks Sky News is in for more of the same will be in for a shock.

Ryley may be a conservative scruff around the studio, but he's a radical when it comes to the way news is delivered. And that radicalism shouldn't be underestimated. Make no mistake, this is not an appointment to consolidate or bridge a gap; Sky News will change.

And despite the fact that Sky is sending Ryley off to Helen Boaden's alma mater, Wharton, it isn't to do a quick course in budget slashing.

The public battle with News 24 will doubtless continue.

It's too much fun to be abandoned, and competition is good for both sides. But just as with the Beeb, the future for Sky News is already on other platforms.

That's going to be the challenge Ryley faces, coming up with a template that goes beyond rolling television news.

And if he's lucky, there might just be someone working away in the stripey news hangar who has worked out what that is.

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