Behind-The-Scenes At Sky’s 24 Hour News Channel

What really goes into the round-the-clock coverage we watch every day

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It’s just after 9am and Isabel Webster, the host of Sky’s flagship morning news show Sunrise, is finishing up a five-hour shift just as most of us are knocking back the last of our Pret lattes and stumbling bleary-eyed into our offices.

“I’ve just moved house and gained an extra 15 minutes in bed. I get up at 3.45am now. That’s the middle of the night, there’s no two ways about it,” says Isabel, who, in a dark blue dress and on-air make-up looks like she should be about to walk the red carpet rather than stifling yawns in a TV studio on an industrial estate near Osterley.

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You may be one of the 107 million homes that spends the first part of each morning getting ready for work with Isabel and her co-star Eamonn Holmes on in the background, but you’re more than likely unaware of the sheer amount of moving components 24-hour news has to juggle.

The hub of any news programme is the gallery – a spaceship-like bank of screens from which every aspect of a live show is put together. Ronan Hughes, Sunrise’s producer, can be likened to a circus master, calmly, but hurriedly conferring with his presenters through their earpieces, while making sure the interviewees and field-reporters are ready to go live (a selection of small screens show guests nervously adjusting their hair). On the main screen Eamonn is busy washing down a sandwich with gulps of coffee in the few seconds before he’s back on camera and launching into a discourse on Renée Zellweger’s new look (“I’m a producer. I want Renée Zellweger in my film. Who’s this woman?”).

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The Zellweger discussion may seem like throwaway content, but the day’s stories are carefully considered in the daily 8am meeting that gathers together 15 or so of the station’s section editors, including political correspondents nursing their coffee over conference call from Whitehall.

Senior news editor Dylan Dyronfield is the man whose job it is to bring potential news items to the table, reading from a sheet of print-outs as he self-consciously rubs the back of his neck. It’s a tense meeting, containing men and women at the top of their departments who each have their own particular queries about exactly why each story should be covered.

Head of newsgathering Jonathan Levy presides over the meeting, giving Dylan the go-ahead to cover a story about escaped foreign criminals loose in the UK, following the murder of Alice Gross in August (the 14-year-old's suspected killer, Arnis Zalkalns, was a convcted of murder in his native Latvia before arriving in Britain).

Later, Jonathan smiles when we ask about the extent to which more titillating, less-newsworthy stories are covered or dragged out in an attempt to win ratings – a tension that has existed in the news industry since papers first began, and exacerbated greatly by the heightened competition of the digital age.

“We’re careful with that because it’s news after all… you can do a lot of things to get ratings but it’d be a race to the bottom,” he says, before adding that some stories – such as today’s investigation into foreign criminals – do warrant longer, sustained coverage.

“We do think about the ratings when we look at making investments in longer running stories… we want to make sure the audience is suitably interested for us to invest more in it than we would otherwise.”

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A collection of desks surround the live studio on the ground floor. Much more than part of the set, this is the hub of the newsgathering department, with strained-looking young men and women speaking in clipped, hushed tones about the day’s stories. Dylan is worried there aren’t enough visuals to accompany the story on foreign criminals, quickly explaining that in television news, a story lives and dies on how it’s presented: “We’re a visual media, so we think very hard about how a story will look. It’s quite difficult to tell a story without pictures, especially on a television channel.”

When it comes to breaking news, there are often no accompanying visuals, with the presenters given little more than a few prompts in their earpiece to riff on. “Anyone can read the news, but it’s when the shit hits the fan that you most need to hold it together,” Isabel claims, citing the beheading of American journalist James Foley as recent example of a particularly difficult story to tell the nation at the same time as she was finding our herself.

 
Should any of the day’s stories venture into happenings abroad, the channel’s foreign affairs editor Sam Kiley will be called upon to offer his two cents. Describing his job somewhat modestly as “arming people for reasonably intelligent conversation in the boozer,” Kiley made his name reporting on wars for The Times before becoming Middle East correspondent for Sky, writing a book on Afghanistan and moving onto his current role (as Kiley describes it “my background is all foreign war and horrible shit holes”).

“The really powerful drug,” Kiley says, “is to be where history is happening. Even still, you grow out of the excitment of being exposed to danger very quickly. The threat to life is real, you’re not bungee jumping".

It’s a threat that has seen a number of friends and colleagues killed over the years, including Sky cameraman Mick Deane who was shot by a sniper in Cairo in 2013. Contemplating that, it is easy to see why Kiley is glad his work increasingly involves analysing news from the comfort of the studio, rather than flying to the world's most dangerous locations.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Dylan continues to frantically search for images to accompany the immigrant criminal story while yet more news comes in from sources across the world, a process that goes on and on, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Up in the gallery the mid-morning team has replaced the Sunrise crew. On the monitors Isabel and Eamonn can be seen taking off their microphones, joking as they take a break before preparing to do it all again at 3.45am tomorrow.
 

HBO's The Newsroom: The Complete Second Season is available now on DVD & Blu-ray

 

 


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