Beth Rigby on grilling Boris Johnson, why GB News is "a good thing" and a year of "politics on steroids"
The Sky News political editor sits down with Lauren Morris for The Big RT Interview to chat season 2 of Beth Rigby Interviews and more.
When Beyoncé released Renaissance – her hit studio album inspired by disco, house and post-1970s Black dance music – in July 2022, she probably knew it would be welcomed by her millions of fans, added to party playlists across the world and climb the music charts with its floor-filling lead single Break My Soul. I doubt she'd have guessed it would become the soundtrack for Sky News political editor Beth Rigby's stress-busting runs during a summer of British "politics on steroids".
"I just got obsessed with it," she says. "I kind of had that on a loop. I would pound the pavement and I live in East London, so I'd run along all the canals and down to the Olympic Park and up through Victoria. I found a great way of releasing the tension."
Unsurprisingly, the journalist has been incredibly busy since moving into TV in 2016, but it was the past year in particular that pushed Rigby to her limits. "We had three prime ministers in seven weeks from Boris Johnson's fall to Liz Truss and then Rishi Sunak. It was the most bonkers political period I've ever covered."
While Rigby spent that period attending press conferences and grilling MPs with an interview style she describes as the "Jeremy Paxman, 'Why is this b*****d lying to me?' approach" as Sky's political editor, she was also switching gears to host her chat show Beth Rigby Interviews.
We're meeting via Zoom to chat about its second season, which launched earlier this month – although, upon realising that we're both from towns in Buckinghamshire, we spend the first five minutes comparing notes on Marlow pubs ("I used to go to the Cross Keys – did you go there?").
Although chatting to Rigby is one of the most interesting interviews I've done that week, I realise it's very unlikely that the feeling is mutual when we discuss the upcoming season of Beth Rigby Interviews.
"We've just interviewed a guy called Festus [Akinbusoye] and Festus is the first Black Police Crime Commissioner in Bedfordshire. I just interviewed him today and that was fascinating. It was all about what it is like being a Black man and a Conservative. What was his view of knife crime? Why was it disproportionately happening to young Black men?"
From comedian David Baddiel to Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner, the chatty, bubbly TV presenter says that her team are picking guests that tell stories "relevant to people but away from the [news] churn".
"We're sometimes trying to not just pick guests for the moment or what's in the news that week, but instead, we're trying to get beneath the headlines. We're trying to do with politicians, not the normal knock-about of a political interview or morning round as we see on BBC Breakfast or Sky News Breakfast, but an interview which tries to uncover the truth.
"When we did Angela Rayner, the kind of 'what was the truth?' about that was how far will Labour go and how far will the Labour left go in order to win power? Angela Rayner has been key to the Corbynista project, she was a vanguard or standard bearer on the left of the party, and yet the year kicked off with Sir Keir Starmer saying, 'I'm not opening the spending chequebook and there's no more money.'
"Would Angela Rayner go along with this or would she challenge him? And in this interview, the most newsworthy thing was what Angela Rayner didn't say."
As for the journalist's favourite interviews from the show, she struggles to pick one, with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose six-year detention in Iranian prison came to an end last year, being up there with First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska and former US National Security advisor Fiona Hill – but also Dame Emma Thompson.
"She talks about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which I love for so many reasons, and to sort of talk to her about female sexuality and doing that role... Emma Thompson is such an effervescent character and she says what she thinks."
While technically a junket interview for the film, the pair's conversation took a different route. "We ended up having a very interesting conversation about pornography and female sexuality and how she felt things were stacked up for her daughter and her daughter's generation. And then we talked about migration because she has an adopted son who was an immigrant and we talked about the Rwandan policy."
"That was one of those interviews where it's someone that has something to say about the world, but you don't necessarily know the direction it might go. I love that one."
However, the person she's enjoyed interviewing the most – and has interviewed the most too – is Boris Johnson, whose time as prime minister came to an end after two years in September. "I used to call it the Boris Johnson rollercoaster because you couldn't get off, right? You were there on the ride, adrenaline-fuelled, totally emotionally and mentally exhausted and it kept going on.
"The reason why I liked interviewing Boris Johnson was that he would often deflect but he was interesting to the viewer. People like watching Boris Johnson or they hate watching Boris Johnson , but they feel something when they watch Boris Johnson."
She adds that carefully prepared interviews would sometimes be thrown depending on which Boris Johnson she'd get that day. "He might be being tricksy that day and not want to answer the question, he might try and run down the clock. He might be a bit more candid. He might be defensive, he might try to be amusing, he might try to be flippant – so you never knew where it might go."
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Johnson's premiership came to an end last summer after a series of events, from the resignation of Tory Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher following misconduct allegations, to Johnson being fined over breaching COVID regulations during the pandemic.
The Partygate scandal first came to light nearly a year after Rigby's three-month suspension at Sky News for attending colleague Kay Burley's 60th birthday party and breaching social distancing rules. Did this place her in a difficult position when grilling Johnson once she'd returned to the show?
"I have talked about it quite a lot," she says solemnly. "Look – I went to an event, I thought it was OK, I shouldn't have gone really, I felt very bad about it. I apologised, I was taken off air. I offered my resignation because I understood that there were implications both with colleagues that had been upset and for me doing my job."
"What I found when I came back was that I made a mistake, owned up to it, faced consequences for it and at that point you come back in and you do your job and you learn from it. Politicians make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. I think the issue for Boris Johnson over Partygate was the way in which the story escalated.
"At the end, when he said, 'When the herd movies, it moves,' I got the sense from him that he didn't feel that what had happened to him had been kind of fair. But in the end, even if you win a massive majority, you serve at the pleasure of your parliamentary party and the party decided that he had to go.
"As journalists, our job wasn't to cast judgement on him. Our job was to report the story and that's what I always try and do. It's not our job to editorialise the story, it's our jobs to report it."
We know that's not the approach taken by all TV channels, with the likes of TalkTV and GB News bursting onto the news landscape – however, Rigby doesn't think that's a bad thing. "The first thing I'd say, and I think [Sky News head John Ryley] would say this as well – competition is good. It's always good to be kept on your toes. It keeps you hungry. It makes you restless. It makes you a bit insecure.
"There's nothing wrong with any of that. You never want to be comfortable. The thing is, we're doing different things. GB News is primetime programming, its primetime stuff is opinion-led news, right? Sky News, we do something different. It's about being a quality journalist channel, where we're giving the news without opinion, that the view is trusted and our trust ratings are really strong at Sky News, according to Ofcom figures."
She continues by pointing out that they're not just competing with linear television programmes anymore with the growth of multi-platform journalism. "I'm apparently on TikTok and my son keeps saying to me, 'My friends keep seeing–' I mean, I should log on to TikTok to find out what my son's doing on it but we're on TikTok now, the figures are really good for TikTok.
"I think GB News has been a good thing and I think TalkTV has been a good thing. It's good to have innovation."
As for who she wants on the show in the future, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, are on Rigby's list, as well as Harry Potter author JK Rowling. "I'd love to interview her. I think she's so interesting. She's so accomplished. She has interesting things to say about the world, tonnes is written about her and she doesn't say much. She's a global superstar, my children love her books, she's a mega star."
Just as she asks for my dream list of interviewees, her face, sporting its trademark black bob and red lipstick, suddenly disappears – we've reached Zoom's frustrating 40-minute limit. Luckily, Rigby is happy to jump back on the call to wrap up our chat, which we do by reflecting on the wild political year that was 2022.
"It was like cramming in a decade's worth of politics almost into a year. You don't expect the prime minister to change – that's a once in five-year challenge for a political editor. That's a general election, they're huge moments, and to have that happen in such quick succession was an incredible privilege."
Looking forward, Rigby says that the political world will "calm down a bit" this year. "But you know, already the parties are onto an election footing and we're going to have a load of action against next year, I imagine.
"That's part of the joy of being a journalist – you kind of get addicted to the news. So I might complain about it but I don't know if I'd want to change it really."
Watch Beth Rigby Interviews... on Thursdays at 9pm on Sky News, or catch up with the Beth Rigby Interviews... podcast.
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