Wednesday 20 June 2018

'I'll punch your lights out' - Sky News' Kay Burley is no pushover

As she covers the historic abortion referendum, Sky News' Kay Burley spoke to Donal Lynch about her colourful career

Kay Burley in the Sky studios
Kay Burley in the Sky studios
Sky News anchor Kay Burley at Dublin Castle on Saturday. Picture: Mark Condren
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

You know a story has gone global when Kay Burley sweeps into town to cover it. Sky's doyenne of live news has come to Ireland to ascertain the mood in the hours before the referendum vote and, as she travels from Co Clare to Dublin, sees "a divide between the city and country" and reckons the vote is "going to be incredibly tight" - predictions loudly contradicted by the exit polls a few hours later.

But being right is much less important than being entertaining and Burley's brilliant bluntness and plain-spoken questions make our own national broadcaster's referendum coverage seem almost stuffily British by comparison.

More than any other news anchor, she has the ability to make rolling live news interesting; in talking up the divide she is also drum-rolling the story.

She has happy memories of Ireland. It was here, a quarter of a century ago, that her former husband proposed to her.

"He did it in Stephen's Green and we went to Grafton Street afterward and bought the ring," she tells me.

"He was an A&E guy in the music business and there was lots of work here for him. I came along with him and wasn't expecting it, it was a lovely surprise. I fell pregnant quite soon after and had a boy, Alexander, who is 25 now."

Sky News anchor Kay Burley at Dublin Castle on Saturday. Picture: Mark Condren
Sky News anchor Kay Burley at Dublin Castle on Saturday. Picture: Mark Condren

Burley has long been one of the more controversial news journalists in British broadcasting, earning a reputation as a fearsome interrogator and what The Spectator called "the living embodiment of Sky, a cheeky, eye-rolling icon of populist telly".

Those eye-rolling moments have come thick and fast over the years. She once asked the girlfriend of serial killer Steve Wright if he would have committed the crimes had they had a better sex life.

She deliciously needled newly elected Labour leader Ed Miliband about his ousting of his brother David for the leadership of the party ("your poor mother!"). And her flaying of CEO Nick Varney in the aftermath of an accident on one of the Alton Towers theme park rides was riveting and cringeworthy in equal measure.

Does she ever come off air and think she went too hard?

"I'm sure I must have some regrets, we all have regrets all the time, but generally when I go to do a tough interview I'm very aware beforehand what I want to ask," she says.

"Take, for example, the Alton Towers interview - the chief executive there did a very good job, he managed to tiptoe through the raindrops. Those children went to a theme park to relax after having done their exams and left there in an ambulance, with some missing some limbs.

"If I'd been the mother of those children I would have wanted someone to have been tough on him. The company subsequently lost a court case for £5m so I think I did quite a good job there."

She says people still bring up her interview with Peter Andre "all the time". "We were both very surprised when he cried [about Katie Price's new husband potentially adopting Andre's children]," she says.

"He was on to promote his book. I rarely go through my questions with anyone beforehand, but he knew what was coming and I was surprised he was so overwhelmed, and I'm sorry about that."

Since we are speaking in the days after Harvey Weinstein has turned himself in, I wonder if Kay herself as ever had to deal with sexual harassment or her own MeToo moments.

"I've worked in newsrooms for 40 years and the atmosphere has changed significantly in that time. Over that time, men have changed all through society, not just in media.

"One time I was at a party and there was a man who ran his finger up and down my spine and I turned around to him and said, 'If you do that again I'm going to punch your f***ing lights out'.

"Not all women feel that they can approach the situation in that way but I'm a tough Wigan streetfighter and I'm never going to be bowed."

So is it British classism - a distaste with a working-class girl rising above her station - that has made her such a lightning rod for controversy?

"I'm not sure it's class so much as I think there is a different view of women asking tough questions in our society," she says. "But hopefully I've gone some way toward breaking that prejudice since I've done more live telly than anyone else in the world, and I'm flying the flag for older women."

Part of that has been putting her best face forward. She's been open about the cosmetic surgery she's had done - she has admitted treating herself to a £10,000 facelift for her 50th birthday and now she has topped it up with Botox.

She explains: "I did my research, as I do with everything in my career, and saw a number of different people before I decided on the person who would do it [the facelift], who is the best person in the world at it, and I actually counsel a lot of the women whom he looks after."

If her taste in surgeons is impeccable, she has an unerring instinct for a good line. Burley recently won Broadcaster of the Year in London, beating off stiff competition from the likes of Laura Kuenssberg, and quips: "I've never actually won anything except for being second in a colouring competition in school. That was for keeping between the lines," - she pauses for a beat - "which I have never really done as a journalist."

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