Behind the scenes of Election Day TV coverage with Kay Burley

The Sky anchor speaks to RadioTimes.com about how election coverage has changed over the years, standing out from rival broadcasters and her reliance on Tangfastics

Kay Burley Sky News

With the general election almost upon us, the whole country is on a knife edge, as the major parties make their final pitch to voters and leaders hope they’ve done enough to secure the keys to Downing Street.

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But it’s not just the political parties who will be frantically making last minute preparations. The country’s political journalists and pundits are also getting ready for what is the busiest day in their calendar, with all major channels set to provide detailed and comprehensive election night coverage.

When it comes to covering general elections, Kay Burley is more experienced than most. The Sky News anchor covered her first in 1979 and has been involved, in some form or other, in every election since. Of course, the nature of election coverage has changed quite drastically over the years, as she explains to RadioTimes.com.

“I think the way that elections are being covered is very different now,” she says. “Because when I first started it was just a local newspapers, national newspapers and local radio.

“There wasn’t even breakfast telly so you couldn’t even get the analysis the next morning if it was a late count. Whereas now you can have moment by moment analysis and you can see the declarations on Sky whenever it happens.”

Burley says that her employers are always keen to innovate when it comes to new ways of covering elections. She points out that although Sky were unable to host a leader’s debate this year – they couldn’t get all the major leaders in one room at the same time – it was them that first introduced the idea to the UK in 2010. And she claims it’s great to see how the debates have developed over the years to the point where people now expect them to happen.

Going forward, Sky is looking at many ways in which it can develop its coverage further – although Burley remains tight-lipped about exactly what form these developments will take.

“We’ve got some pretty innovative ways of covering general elections coming up,” she says. “And it doesn’t involve the swing-o-meter – that’s so last season darling!”

She adds that Sky always needs to keep an eye out on what the other channels are doing, claiming there is a friendly rivalry between the major broadcasters. What works for BBC or ITV, she explains, might not necessarily work for Sky (and vice versa) so each channel has to play to its strengths.

“Our strengths are being first, fast and accurate,” she says. “We want people to know that at any time they switch on, people know what is happening in that election result.

“So not only will Dermot (Murnaghan) be speaking, not only will Beth (Rigby) be speaking or Sam Coates, but there will be the ticker at the bottom of the screen, and analysis from our economic editor Ed Conway. If you tune in for ten minutes you’ll know what’s going on.”

Despite the changes in coverage over the years, Burley reckons that the elections themselves haven’t changed all that much; fundamentally, she claims, they are always the same.

As to her biggest challenge – it too, remains the same.

“Always being on top of your brief,” she says, when asked about the hardest aspect of covering elections. “I always need to know as much as I possibly can.”

She adds, “I always need to do 100% of the research. I’m only ever going to need 10% of it but I still need to do 100% of it, because you don’t want to get caught out, especially on live telly.”

This particular election campaign has been marred by a number of controversial talking points, and one that has frequently cropped up, especially on Twitter, is that of perceived media bias. Burley says, however, that accusations of this nature are not something she worries about.

“If I was biased I’d get sacked!” she says. “I’ve had lots of complaints to Ofcom over the years, as have many of my colleagues, and as far as I’m aware none of them have been found against me. So, I think that I’m probably treading that tightrope quite well.”

She claims her approach to an interview does not change regardless of who her subject is, even when it comes to politicians with reputations that may precede them.

“I’m just hard on all of them,” she claims. “Whether they are known for telling porkies or not I’m going to give them a hard time and if they know their brief then they’ll get away with it … and if they don’t they’re going to be exposed.”

In terms of election night itself, Burley describes the atmosphere in the newsroom as tense and exciting. She says lots of information which needs distilling comes in all the time, which means experts are constantly brought in.

At times, Burley has been on air from 9 at night right through to 9 the next morning, before having a couple of hours sleep and going straight back on air again. It’s thrilling, she says, but you have to wonder how she and her co-presenters don’t burn out half-way through the night.

“The clue to that is Tangfastics,” she says. “My producer generally has a bag of Tangfastics, a bag of Percy Pigs and a bag of Fruit Pastilles, and sometimes I want to eat them all at once, but he won’t let me!”

When it’s all over, she says it’s important to take some time to unwind, although admits “you keep buzzing for a while”.

“I will work until midday either on air or off air, and then I’ll take my team out for lunch and then we’ll all go ‘thank goodness that’s happened’ or ‘here we go again’ if it’s a hung parliament. Maybe one or two glasses of wine should help us all relax.”

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Come the morning of 13th December, we’re sure Burley won’t be the only one in need of a glass of wine or two…