The one we'll remember: Ode to Sky News

2nd March 2018

Rupert Murdoch promised us 10 more years of Sky News last monthalmost three decades since he announced plans to found it. But the next chapter of Sky News might not be the Sky News we know now. The pledge comes as part of 21st Century Fox’s ‘firewall’ remedies to ensure media plurality should his takeover of Sky be approved by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

This means the establishment of a fully independent, expert Sky News editorial board made up of two existing independent directors of Sky and a third member nominated by the Sky independent directors who would have “senior editorial and/or journalistic experience”.

Of course, none of this might soon matter. Just as Fox had its entertainment business – including the 39 per cent of Sky it already owns, along with the 61 per cent it hopes to acquire – primed, boxed up and ready to be sold to Disney, American TV conglomerate Comcast swooped in on the 26th, offering an all-cash deal for Sky.

Brian Roberts, Comcast’s chief executive, has indicated that he would keep Sky News – an “invaluable part of the UK news landscape” – broadly the same as it is now, with its “existing brand and culture”.

So, whether it’s Fox, Disney or Comcast with a controlling stake in Europe’s set-top boxes, the future of Sky News is still uncertain. And as many commentators, politicians and media moguls look forward, we thought now as good a time as any to chronicle the Sky News story so far.

Key dates

1988

Rupert Murdoch and Alan Sugar announce the signing of a 10-year Astra satellite lease, putting Sky at a competitive advantage to its rival BSB, who had won the UK satellite broadcasting licence in 1986. Murdoch used Luxembourg-based satellites instead—beating BSB to air.

1989

Sky Television launches with Sky News, the UK’s first 24-hour news broadcaster. Murdoch hailed it a ‘revolution in choice’. Penny Smith and Alastair Yates were the first Sky News presenters seen on air. With print news still making money, this was the first indication that Murdoch’s motivations were far more varied than profit. Famously loss-making, many called for the channel’s retirement, but the newsman was quoted as being happy with its progress—due to overriding reasons of prestige and politics.

1992

BSkyB makes its first profit. As for the news channel, Murdoch said:

“Sky News, has quietly, if expensively, become the first building block of what we envision will become the premier worldwide electronic news-gathering network anywhere. Ask anyone in Europe, and particularly the BBC and you will be told that Sky News has added a new and better dimension to television journalism.”

In the following years, the channel broke several domestic and global stories to its growing audience: the death of Princess Diana, the September 11 and London terrorist attacks of 2001 and 2005—winning an international Emmy for its coverage of the latter.

1997

Sky News remained unchallenged in the breaking news market until BBC News 24 broadcast its inaugural bulletin in 1997. Irked, Sky objected to the breaking of its monopoly, complaining that a number of British cable operators had been incentivised to carry the new channel.

1998

The European Commission ruled in 1998 against Sky’s claim that BBC News 24 was unfair and illegal under EU law. Since then, the two have competed for the attentions of an increasingly news-hungry public—bringing the 24-hour news cycle from its American heartland to British shores.

2007

Their rivalry reached fever pitch in 2007, when Sky’s agreement to provide its basic channels to Virgin Media expired at midnight. The day before the cut off, Sky published a letter in national newspapers, accusing Virgin of bad corporate practice. In turn, Virgin Media blamed Sky for tyrannising them and inciting consumers to switch. Thus, at the stroke of midnight, in the place of Sky News read ‘Sky Snooze Try BBC’ on audience’s screens—infuriating Sir Richard Branson who demanded the message be removed.

Biggest controversies

James Forlong, 2003

A report claiming to show the live firing of a cruise missile in the Persian Gulf – with specific emphasis on the pressing of a big red button labelled ‘FIRE’ – was proven false by the BBC, who actually did accompany the vessel in question – HMS Splendid – to the Iraq war. The rebuttal, in the form of TV series Fighting the War showed that missiles were not, as popular belief and Bond films would have it, controlled by a big red button, rather a left-mouse click.

Questions were raised about Sky News’ credibility, Forlong was suspended and committed suicide later that year. The channel was fined £50,000 by the Independent Television Commission.

Kay Burley, Pamela Wright, Kirsty Wigglesworth, 2008

Not the proudest year from one of its founding presenters, as Burley asks the wife of the Suffolk Strangler if a better sex life might have quelled his murderous tendencies. Later, pictures emerge of her ‘strangling’ photographer Kirsty Wigglesworth—provoked, apparently, by a hard blow to the face with a camera.

Adam Boulton, Alastair Campbell, 2010

A peculiar turn of events transpired in the purgatorial hours following the 2010 General Election, which saw the end of Labour’s 13-year stint in government, but – with the first hung Parliament in decades – no clear successor.

Adam Boulton was interviewed alongside No. 10 spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as the three largest parties scrambled to form a coalition. After several incendiary comments about his voting preferences, Boulton exploded—the two nearly coming to blows live on air. Boulton’s behaviour was one of the most complained about episodes in Sky News history.

Kay Burley, Joe Biden, Chris Bryant et al, 2010

A big year for Burley. February saw her bring ‘90s heartthrob Peter Andre to tears after she aired comments from the father of his stepson – footballer Dwight Yorke – about Andre’s plans to adopt. Burley followed up with the news that Andre had “sobbed on my shoulder”.

On Ash Wednesday, Burley mistook Vice President Joe Biden’s ashes on his forehead for a bruise, telling viewers he had “walked into a door”.

The channel’s adherence to UK broadcasting regulations (mandating unbiased, impartial coverage) was brought into question, although ultimately confirmed, during the 2010 General Election. Commenting on the protesters on College Green in Westminster at the height of coalition talks, Burley told the camera: “Lots of demonstrators shouting ‘fair votes now’ – not sure what they mean by that” and “They don’t like the Sun, they don’t like us, they don’t like Rupert”.

That September, in the gathering waters of the News International phone hacking scandal, Burley asked Labour MP Chris Bryant to cite information that the practice was ‘endemic’ in other newspapers. Bryant retorted that had if she had “listened to the debate” or “read the report” in question, she would find the information there.

Kay Burley, golden retriever, 2015

And finally, during coverage in the wake of the November Paris attacks, Burley tweeted a photograph of a golden retriever with the caption: “Sadness in his eyes”—to widespread mockery.