Adam Boulton: Sky's political editor on the channel's relaunch
Sky once had rolling news all wrapped up. But now it faces stiff competition from BBC News 24, and its re-launch last year faltered. At least it can count on the constant presence of its renowned political editor, Adam Boulton. He talked to James Silver
It's late morning on College Green and rent-a-quote MPs are being interviewed on camera, watched by bemused French schoolchildren and tourists choking the narrow pavements in the sunshine. Upstairs in the Sky News offices at No 4 Millbank, Westminster's media hub, the channel's amiable political editor, Adam Boulton, a blond bear of a man who can ad-lib on air for hours, is heading to the Lobby for the morning briefing.
When he returns half an hour later with some "useful logistical information" about the PM's whereabouts that afternoon, Boulton, who once continued broadcasting in Downing Street while covered in fresh snow, settles behind the studio desk ready forLunchtime Live with Kay Burley and the first Prime Minister's Questions after the Easter recess. Burley's shoes makes a clip-clopping sound as she walks imperiously across the new state-of-the art set in Osterley, west London. "Blimey," mutters Boulton to the gallery, where the producers and technicians sit, "Kay means business."
PMQs is a distinctly underwhelming affair and it's followed by seemingly endless tributes to the Queen on her 80th birthday from the party leaders, which Sky are carrying live. By the time Tory Leader David Cameron is halfway through his, Boulton is rubbing his eyes and slumped in his chair. But the moment Burley crosses to him for a comment, his hangdog expression dissolves and he snaps back into life, talking 19 to the dozen, with his trademark authority, entirely without notes. After that, he shambles round the newsroom, a touch dishevelled, pen-in-mouth, talking to other hacks.
Boulton, who has been known to work 20-hour days, has been with the channel since its launch some 17 years ago. At the age of 47, he has become the elder statesman of British TV political journalism. He's also credited with pioneering the cult of the "personality" reporter, being the first to deliver live commentary over pictures and rapidly unfolding news stories. Before Boulton, political correspondents were confined to rigidly scripted packages within the main bulletins. Sky was the first UK 24-hour news channel, and Boulton's distinctive "freewheeling" style has spawned a generation of copy-cats.
Over lunch in a Westminster restaurant, I goad Boulton by pointing out that he may be the longest-serving TV political editor of the current crop, but his terrestrial television counterparts - the BBC's Nick Robinson and ITN's Tom Bradby and Daisy McAndrew - serve far bigger audiences. He admits it rankles a little. "There was a survey recently in Broadcast that said I was the third most influential political guy on TV and I was slightly taken aback by that," he says.
"Audience size is a fact of life and I have had opportunities to switch to the terrestrial channels. But against that there is such a thing as quality of audience, and 24-hour news in general has a fairly well-informed audience so you don't need to go back to basics. There's also amount of air-time [on busy days Boulton is on air constantly, and hosts breaking-news specials as well as regular weekly slots] and the scope of stuff that you can do. In the end, I think I would find appearing on one or two bulletins a day, particularly in the present atmosphere of very highly produced news, quite frustrating. I like the idea that I can get across several stories in a day.
"ITV News is much more selective in the news that it covers and the style of the way it covers it, so a lot of the daily political news is basically between ourselves and the BBC. I think that, certainly in the early stages of a developing story, we will tend to move more quickly and more sure-footedly into the story, with all the decisions taken at the sharp end." He can't resist a dig at the corporation. "The BBC can sometimes be quite slow to pick up on the significance of something, until they have had several meetings where they have been told it matters."
Sky's multimillion-pound relaunch last October - which saw it move to new premises with a revamped schedule featuring appointment-to-view programmes presented by, among others, Eamonn Holmes and the former US state department spokesman James Rubin - has come in for a fair amount of flak from the press. Boulton is keen to answer the critics. "The most important thing about the relaunch was the transfer to the new headquarters and what is clearly one of the best, most up-to-date and imaginative presentation studios that has ever been done," he says.
"That said, I think there is a general acceptance that not all of the new programme ideas necessarily worked. Inevitably we fell in love with our own building and presentation and to a certain extent blunted the newsgathering side of our operation. My strong feeling is that that is only temporary. There will be a natural evolution in the style of programming back towards the newsgathering end of things. What I think we've now got to do is use some of the good things about those built programmes but to switch them back strongly onto the breaking news agenda."
Does he think the sniping at Holmes and Rubin, in particular, has harmed the brand? "My own feeling is that Eamonn is an experienced and well-liked breakfast presenter and when I look at the agenda on that programme I don't see a particularly radical shift away from what we were doing anyway. As far as Jamie [Rubin] goes, when you start doing a new job it always takes you some time to find your feet. Within that programme he does bring a certain amount of expertise, enthusiasm and knowledge, which I think is becoming increasingly clear as he feels more comfortable presenting it.
"It's been a difficult last few months, there's no point in denying it," Boulton concedes, "but within the narrow world of media journalism it has been overplayed, saying we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I don't think we have done. I do think our fundamental strength is our newsgathering front end, and that has seen a very significant investment in it over the years. We have got some of the best correspondents anywhere."
Arch-rival BBC News 24 has nosed ahead of Sky News in terms of audience share of total viewing in multi-channel homes in the BARB ratings. In February, News 24 posted a 0.6 per cent share to Sky's 0.5 per cent. What's more, Sky News, a "lean and mean" outfit with a total annual budget of £35m to News 24's £40m, now has to contend with the BBC's strategy of dedicating more resources and some of the corporation's biggest news stars, including Huw Edwards and Ben Brown, to its news channel.
Boulton, naturally, does not accept that this will mean Sky will be doomed to play second fiddle to its public-sector rival. "No one is denying that the BBC is far and away the most powerful exerciser of broadcast power," he says ruefully, "and so long as it's funded in the way it is, effectively it will be able to move into pretty much any market it wants and outspend people in the commercial realm. But the BBC has never been a great innovator in television news. If you look at most of the major developments - coverage of politics, breakfast TV news, 24-hour news - it has always been the competition that has set the pace and the BBC has then tried to use its might to occupy that space.
"If Sky News can manage to concentrate on output, on straightforward, quick coverage of events, I don't think we are doomed to be squeezed out forever by the BBC. I think there is an issue at the moment about those people who are going digital who are in Freeview homes and are small "C" conservative, traditional BBC viewers. I don't think that's true of the next generation. I think people under 35 associate Sky News very strongly as a TV news brand."
Boulton, unsurprisingly for a BSkyB employee, feels that the BBC is rather too powerful anyway. "My concern about the BBC is that if they have life too easy they will become the fattest cuckoo in the nest and everyone else will be squeezed out. I think that news or, indeed, the media thrives through competition. It is not particularly healthy for democracy where the dominant media output is dependent on a direct handout from the Government. In the interests of democracy, people should be concerned about the scale and the power of the BBC. I think they should be much more concerned about that, frankly, than about the scale and the power of News Corp, because in real terms in this country one dwarfs the other."
The Corporation, he continues, should be regulated externally by Ofcom rather than by the present board of governors. "If we accept that we have a pluralist media, it is a mistake to have one law for the BBC and one law for everyone else. I think we should consider how long the licence fee is going to be the best way of funding it. I really think people should look at the damage of market-distortion that an entity as big as the BBC is capable of causing.
"Gordon Brown says to me: 'Sky are always so quick and there are so few of you who turn up [for interviews]. Why can't the BBC be like that?' I always say, 'Well, Gordon, you're the one who in your manifesto says you are going to go on generously funding the BBC.' Personally, I take nothing away from the BBC's history, it has forged broadcasting, but if it ended tomorrow I don't think it would be the end of quality TV or of quality news in Britain."
George Pascoe-Watson, the political editor of The Sun, also part of the News Corp family, recently claimed in an interview that "being in print [journalism] in politics is 10,000 times better in every respect than being in broadcasting."
What does Boulton make of that? "I thought George had been trying to get a job in television," he jokes. "TV by and large has much better access. We're in the front-row seat and have to witness the event rather than get in a huddle afterwards with the one TV bloke who happened to be there. We have to look our quarry in the eye. We can't make up a front page about the PM or Leader of the Opposition without talking to them or getting people on camera. I've been on doorsteps with print reporters waiting for someone to come out, and I've actually had print reporters say: 'What are you going to ask him?' as if it is our job to be the front line and theirs to be the secondary media."
Moreover, at his monthly news conferences, Tony Blair habitually invites the TV political editors to ask questions first. "Sometimes that can be quite annoying, because it tends to mean your question is confined to the issue of the day, which is why all of us try, if it warrants it, to come back with a follow-up.
"It's slightly different when we're on tour abroad, because then [the PM's official spokesman] Tom Kelly quite often calls the people who ask the questions, and he sometimes gets notions in his head that someone has been behaving badly so they don't get called. We did one ridiculous press conference in India when he didn't want any of the TV to be called at all, and so he called rather surprised newspaper hacks who hadn't thought of questions."
Despite working in Westminster for two decades, Boulton, who is set to marry former Downing Street "gatekeeper" Anji Hunter in July, counts few politicians as friends. "I do think what I do is different from what politicians do," he explains. "I have no political ambition at all and I do to a certain extent separate myself from them. I am not a great winer and diner, which is probably another reason why I am in TV and George Pascoe-Watson is in print. Of course, a lot of people in the present government are Anji's friends and, on occasions, in a supportive Prince Philip role, I've been known to socialise with them."
Boulton's affair with Hunter - who is now communications chief at BP - was front-page news in 2002. Both were married with children and the relationship reportedly blossomed on an official visit to Paris. Boulton says that finding himself in the media spotlight comes with the territory. "I've never complained about media coverage of that. Although that relationship largely developed after Anji left No 10, it would have been impossible for us both to have continued in our old jobs, as it were. I think society is better where people are prepared, if necessary, to be held to account for their private actions, than a society where, because they were deemed to be prominent, people were protected."
It isn't the first time that Boulton has found himself in the headlines. "During the 1987 election, I was on the front pages because Dennis Healey punched me two days before the election. [TV-am host] Anne Diamond asked him a question about his wife's private medical operation, which was on the front page of The Sun. He chose to deal with it by blowing his top, turning on me saying: "And you're a shit, too." Unfortunately, he did it in front of [gossip columnist] Nigel Dempster so there was very little chance of keeping a lid on it.
"My home was door-stepped. I remember thinking: 'You can hide from this, but you are a journalist and you have on occasions door-stepped people, and therefore you have to meet these things head-on.' That said, it's not my thing to seek feature-style publicity about my beautiful home, dog and children. We won't be inviting Hello! to the wedding!"
Boulton becomes rather cagier when discussing his by all accounts whopping salary - as much as £500,000 according to some reports. "I'm paid a lot less than Radio DJs," he says, in a reference to the recent leaking of BBC stars' salaries. "When there was that argument at the BBC about news presenters being paid too much, my attitude was good luck to them. If people are the public faces of the organisations for whom they work and they are deemed to be doing a good job, then I have no problem with them being paid well."
Boulton was born in 1959 and has masters degrees from Oxford and Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. He was political editor of TV-am before setting up Sky News' political unit in 1989. He has presented a range of specials and discussion programmes on the channel, including Sunday Live with Adam Boulton and, during elections, The Boulton Factor. He has also interviewed a number of cultural icons including George Lucas, Spike Lee and Woody Allen.
Boulton has been highly critical of Downing Street's spin operation, particularly in the early days under Alastair Campbell, describing its treatment of the press as "mendacious" and "arrogant". What does he make of the widely held perception that Brown is much less concerned with presentation than Blair? He laughs. "I would say Brown and the people around him are the thinnest-skinned group of media-sensitive individuals you could meet anywhere. I sometimes get letters from them outlining grievances about things I said about Gordon Brown two years ago."
He's suddenly very serious. "There's a real problem about whether Brown has the aptitude to be a front-man to the extent we expect our prime ministers to be - to respond to events at the drop of a hat, to be easy in their social dealings with people, to know how to handle situations. Brown has not done a serious TV interview for two years. He'll do responses to Budgets, but not a sit-down, take-everything-that's-around kind of interview, which Blair, Cameron, and, up to a point, Straw and Prescott do. I do think that in the 21st century, if you want to be a national leader, you need pretty strong communication skills and I have yet to be convinced he has those."
By the next general election Boulton, whom the BBC has attempted to lure away from Sky, will have spent more than 20 years in his current post. Where would he like his career to take him next? "What I want is for Sky to go on growing and prove that there is a genuinely independent rival force in British TV news. That said, if an offer comes up and it sounds interesting and challenging, it would be good."
Such as? "About the only job I'd like to do at the BBC is Sue Lawley's. I would like to do Desert Island Discs. I think she's great. I'd much rather do that than be the political editor of the BBC." He's certainly not the front-runner for the post. But perhaps Mark Damazer, Radio 4's Controller, should take note.
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