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Kay Burley has been in an extended, self-inflicted lockdown of sorts. The veteran news presenter has spent the past six months suspended from her job at Sky News after breaching Covid guidelines on a Soho night out with colleagues in December.
She is due to re-emerge early next month to the biggest change in the television news landscape since her own debut on the UK’s first rolling channel 32 years ago alongside the likes of Adam Boulton. GB News launches on June 13.
Led by chairman Andrew Neil, who hired Burley for Sky all those years ago, GB News aims to capture a swathe of the viewing public he believes are disillusioned with existing options. While much of the focus has been on a potential rivalry with the BBC, the newcomer poses questions too for the future of Sky News, which is searching for an identity under new ownership.
The sale of Sky to Comcast three years ago both guaranteed the financial future of Sky News and cast doubt over its role. Under the influence of Rupert Murdoch, Sky’s biggest shareholder until shortly before its £30bn takeover by the American cable colossus Comcast, it had always sought to innovate and challenge the BBC. Now, under the watch of Comcast’s media arm NBC, which is rooted in American liberalism, there are questions about what makes Sky News distinctive.
“Sky is broadly indistinguishable from the BBC,” an industry source says. “Little wonder Rupert Murdoch is said to refer to it as ‘BBC-lite’.”
The original disruptor
When he launched Sky News, Murdoch aimed to disrupt the BBC and reinforce his political influence. Auntie was forced to come out fighting. In 1997, it launched the rolling news channel, BBC News 24.
Since then, Sky News has gone on to develop a reputation for high quality and innovative coverage, although it has always made losses and its survival has been repeatedly threatened. In 2018, as Murdoch made a second doomed bid for full control of Sky, its then-chief executive Jeremy Darroch signalled that the news channel would be shut down to secure regulatory approval for the takeover if necessary.
“It was more important in the overall mix of the company when we were launching, in the early days,” he said. “It had a lot of brand presence. It was an area we could build in. I wouldn’t describe Sky News as critical to the business today.”
In Comcast’s hands, the importance of Sky News – and its £40m annual losses – to the overall business is a moot point. As part of its takeover of Sky it agreed to guarantee to support those losses for a decade at least, as it sought to match concessions that were eventually offered by Murdoch.
At Comcast’s vast scale, the bill for Sky News is a rounding error. However the permanent revolution in television brought about by streaming is already prompting calls for the overall Sky deal to be unwound or radically reshaped.
Some investors already believe Comcast’s huge broadband network should be split from its media assets, which include not only Sky but NBCUniversal in America.
Activist investor Trian Fund Management took a stake in Comcast last year and branded it “undervalued”.
The broker Redburn last week suggested that Sky should sell its telecoms arm to Vodafone, creating a simpler NBC-Sky combination that could be spun off from Comcast as a separately listed media giant. The tectonic shifts in global media do not go unnoticed in the Sky News newsroom. Comcast has already abandoned plans for a joint NBC-Sky global channel.
“I didn’t have confidence in the long-term future of the news network under Comcast,” a former Sky News worker says. “I was really happy working for Murdoch. I believed in his absolute dedication to the cause of news provision.”
A reputation for innovation
While turning a profit has always been a challenge, Sky News is not showing any obvious signs of decay. The broadcast channel reaches 170m across 138 countries on TV, with more than 46m users per month visiting digital platforms. Over the past year, it reached 28pc more people across its TV, website and smartphone app for the year to April.
In the age of disinformation, Sky News has sought to retain its audience by sharpening its focus on data.
A new data and forensics unit – overseen by the former BBC and NBC News presenter Matthew Price – has been forged, while Sky News’ long-serving economics editor Ed Conway has become data editor. A greater importance has also been placed on climate change through the daily prime time news show.
Yet attempts at more daring innovation – such as the global channel – have struggled to get off the ground.
And while some lament the lack of Murdochian swashbuckling, less attractive parts of his legacy at Sky News remain.
Sky News Arabia – a joint venture between Sky and the Abu Dhabi royal family that attempted to rival al-Jazeera – has also created headlines for the wrong reasons. The 24-hour Arabic channel was drawn into a propaganda battle in the Middle East over the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Australian Sky News, still part of Murdoch’s empire, meanwhile serves up Fox News-style polemic.
Crusade against ‘wokeness’
GB News rejects comparisons with Fox News despite its planned crusade against the “woke” politics of the modern Left. It has hired experienced anchors Alastair Stewart and Simon McCoy, and regardless of its place on the political spectrum signals a shift away from the global outlook of the BBC and Sky News.
Rather than attempt to battle Sky journalists for the latest story in Syria or the Middle East, GB News will attempt to seize ground in the UK regions.
It has been hiring journalists from regional newspapers, TV and radio in an attempt to better reflect views and stories from outside of the capital.
Parts of the population believe GB News can provide an answer to criticism at the BBC and Sky News for being too metropolitan and London-centric in its perception of the UK.
The question will be whether the news service spearheaded by veteran broadcaster Andrew Neil can make Sky News or BBC change tack.
An obvious response from the broadcasting incumbents would be to step up investment beyond the M25.
Sky News flirted with launching a regional news service two years ago, but the idea has gone quiet since the pandemic struck.
Sky News Local was to build on the national rolling news channel with bulletins and in-depth online coverage for the nations and regions.
It sounded out the media watchdog Ofcom about opening up local news to new competition amid complaints that the voices of big cities were not being heard by the media and politicians.
The overarching question will be whether GB News’ mix of news and talk show formats will challenge Sky News’ more traditional rolling news output.
Jamie McGowan Stuart of Enders Analysis says the differences in programming styles may be enough to prevent Sky News and GB News from being drawn into direct competition.
“Conceptually they’re quite different – one is rolling news coverage across the day, the other opinion-led discussion with more emphasis on prime time – so the two aren’t in direct competition,” he adds. “But they do sit very close to one another in the EPG, within the same genre, and will compete for a declining quantity of overall broadcast viewing.”
John Ryley, the head of Sky News since 2006, may feel little need to launch an immediate response to GB News until there is clear sight of the impact on his audience.
Yet dismissing the foray could prove perilous. Sky News may have been the challenger once. Now it must protect its territory from a new breed of British broadcaster.