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When Kay Burley decided to hold a 60th birthday party for 10 people last weekend, she was also looking forward to a pre-Christmas safari holiday before knuckling down to cover the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine and the conclusion of the Brexit process – two of the biggest stories of her decades-long career.
Instead, she is in for a much longer break. After a week of controversy and internal drama at Sky News, her employers concluded that her celebrations broke the coronavirus rules – and meant she should be off air for six months. While she will still be paid throughout her absence, there is no doubt that Burley would rather be on screen.
The process that led to her temporary departure – as well as those of colleagues Beth Rigby and Inzamam Rashid, for three months each – began on Sunday, when journalists at the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Guido Fawkes website became aware of Burley’s party and the possibility that it was in breach of London’s tier 2 restrictions.
The Daily Mail seemingly did not follow up on the tip-off, and the Sun was apparently unable to confirm it. Meanwhile, Guido Fawkes contacted the manager of Folie, the second of the Soho restaurants Burley visited, which reportedly told the outlet she had gone there to pay a bill.
By Monday morning, news of the party had percolated through to some staff at Sky, and alarm bells were ringing. “It just seemed like an accident waiting to happen,” one on-air journalist said.
When the story finally emerged on Guido Fawkes, while the Guardian was also seeking to confirm it, Burley tweeted that she had “briefly popped into another restaurant to spend a penny” – but Sky, which had no further comment on Friday, did not seek to dispute the claim that a group of four had gone to Burley’s home after their night out.
Executives at the broadcaster see her intervention – as well as a subsequent tweet appearing to contrast reporters with lions that “kill for food not sport” – as disastrous. “It would have been much better if she had kept her counsel,” one said. “Suggesting it was just a case of needing the loo was bound to make the internal process more complicated.”
On Tuesday, as she sought to figure out her path through the crisis, Burley was in touch with Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News UK, which publishes the Times and the Sun, about the story.
By that evening, the team working on Burley’s breakfast programme were expecting her to be absent for six months – but even as Burley is understood to have been withdrawn from an entry to the prestigious Royal Television Awards and two of the attendees at the party signed non-disclosure agreements, Sky insisted no decision had been taken.
Colleagues of Burley’s said the subject was consuming private messaging threads and internal discussions. By the time Sky’s veteran anchor and former political editor Adam Boulton started retweeting criticism of Burley – including a post calling her and other attendees at the event “morons” – a mood of black humour had set in.
After Boulton warned that the episode had raised concerns about the “credibility of our journalism”, staff WhatsApp threads bemoaned “a piss-up turning into a crisis”. On one such thread, a staffer posted a link to Boulton’s comments along with a gif of a figure walking calmly away from a raging explosion, with the caption: “Adam just now.”
Complicating matters was Burley’s status within Sky, where she is contrastingly viewed as a fiercely loyal friend and colleague with an enthusiastic fanbase – and an occasionally abrasive figure who can be unfriendly to those outside her circle.
“The group at the party really summed it up,” one person said. “You had people there from up and down the organisation, which speaks to the fact that she’s not grand. But at the same time there’s a lot of sympathy for them when they’ve also wound up being responsible for something that was ultimately down to her.”
By Friday, at least externally, the storm appeared to be calmed by the news of Burley, Rigby and Rashid’s planned absences – not officially termed suspensions – and profuse apologies from all three. “I have great respect for Kay Burley and Beth Rigby as journalists,” the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, told Times Radio. “They’ve apologised, they’ve come off air. I think that is a suitable response.” Sources at Sky News are at pains to emphasise that all will be welcomed back when their punishments are over.
But for some within the organisation, a sense of injustice lingered. “It remains astonishing to me that somebody paid more in a month than some people here get in a year should be given what is, in one sense, a six-month holiday. Meanwhile, the rest of us are still here, picking up the pieces.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: How Kay Burley’s Covid rule breach led to turmoil at Sky | Media