Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Kay Burley profile: A cut above her critics

Despite the brickbats hurled at Kay Burley down the years and more so over her exhaustive coverage this week of the birth of Prince George, it doesn't look as if Orange Blouse-gate is likely to topple the news rookie from Wigan who became a Sky stalwart

Kay Burley pictured at the Sony Radio Academy Awards at The Grosvenor House Hotel on May 13, 2013 in London
Kay Burley pictured at the Sony Radio Academy Awards at The Grosvenor House Hotel on May 13, 2013 in London

Jeremy Paxman must get it all the time. After all, isn't he notorious for his stubborn refusal to select an obviously different shirt on day two of a Newsnight mini-marathon in order to prove that he has changed his clothes and is therefore a slick professional who doesn't smell?

Ah, no, hang on -- he's not notorious for any such thing. In fact, he's been wearing essentially the same shirt for about 35 years, give or take a pin stripe. And no one's batted an eyelid. But then he's a man. So that's alright then.

Kay Burley, on the other hand, is a woman. So perhaps she should have been more careful before fragrantly parading two similarly coloured tops on consecutive days of reporting on the Royal birth for Sky News this week.

Pilloried by viewers who were convinced she hadn't changed -- a notion perhaps bolstered by her exhaustive stints in front of the camera filling hours and hours of pre-announcement airtime -- Burley was forced to explain that, although yes, she had been blooming knackered, she had found time to slip into a fresh outfit. One of her blouses was from upmarket Hobbs, the other from mid-price Dorothy Perkins.

Upon this revelation, ads for the Hobbs top popped up almost immediately alongside website coverage of the suspiciously similar garments. Kay, the adverts informed us, had teamed her tangerine top 'with slim-fitting trousers, one black and one white for a versatile look that suited the weather well'.

Not all online commentators were impressed.

"Her teeth are awful, a terrible colour,'' remarked one. Another, having seen snapped photos of Burley re-applying her lipstick between live links, felt that "touching up her make-up in public is a very ill-mannered thing to do''. Presumably they felt Burley should have flown in a portable dressing table, complete with vanity screens, for between take nose-powdering. That is surely how Robert Peston escapes similar criticism.

Kay Burley must be used to the attacks by now. Which doesn't mean they won't bother her; while most female news presenter have had to defend their wardrobe choices at some point (remember the brouhaha over Emily Maitlis' too glamorous [ie, pink and sleeveless] top in the BBC's Mark Zuckerberg documentary two years ago?) the focus on this patently un-newsworthy aspect of their news-focused careers must grate.

Especially in Burley's case, when it's just one example of the numerous verbal grenades hurled on a regular basis, by both viewers and the media.

In fact, the blouse furore followed a brief flurry of controversy she'd been embroiled in just hours earlier, simply for not predicting that among the flag-waving crowds she was asked to vox pop about the pending birth would be a joker who would shout: "It's a black boy.''

Burley also has the dubious distinction of having topped UK Twitter trends in May 2010, due to the 'Sack Kay Burley' tweets which followed her lively encounter with David Babbs, executive director of political activist group 38 Degrees, just after the General Election. Burley interrupted Babbs' concerns about a coalition government by suggesting, rather forcefully, that his march past Westminster "will make no difference whatsoever''. Jostled by a large lively crowd of hecklers, one of whom shouted "Sack Kay Burley. Watch the BBC. Sky News is sh*t!'' she pushed gamely on, and rounded off the piece.

In other words, she demonstrated exactly the kind of tenacious spirit that Paxman and John Humphrys are so roundly applauded for by their peers, and in a bear-pit atmosphere that neither risk. For some reason, however, her forthrightness and exposition of personality did not meet with the same approval.

One wonders if Chris Bryant MP, who informed her she seemed "a bit dim" after she confronted him over his views on phone-hacking a few months later, would have said the same thing to her Sky News colleague Adam Boulton, had he too demonstrated scepticism regarding Bryant's version of events. Her own response? ''I've got a Bafta in my loo for my coverage of 9/11, so I don't think I'm dim."

The barbs must hurt Burley --she's not made of stone -- but it appears she's damned if she's going to show it. Like the toughest kid in the class who won't back down despite being surrounded by a braying mob poking a stick at her, she keeps her chin up and her countenance sturdy come what may. It's not for nothing -- nor for being 'a bit dim' -- that she's the longest serving female newsreader on British TV.

Sky News' Northern Ireland reporter David Blevins says her professionalism and ability to stay calm in the midst of chaos is remarkable; he co-helmed coverage of George Best's funeral with her and remembers standing outside Stormont in monsoon conditions when the team suddenly lost all power with 90 seconds to go before going live.

Eighty seconds of pure panic ensued, before an engineer managed to get them back on air with 10 seconds to go. Blevins threw on his headphones then heard Burley, next to him, say "Good morning, welcome to Sunrise live from Belfast'' in a voice so cool and unruffled you'd have thought she'd spent the last 10 minutes being fed grapes on a chaise longue.

Born of solid northern stock -- she's a Lancashire girl -- the 52- year-old anchor has worked her socks off since she was a 17- year-old cub reporter on the Wigan Evening Post. Always determined to make journalism her trade, and to go as far as she could, she's collected a few battle scars throughout her career, but so far she's only gone in one direction: up.

She joined the popular TV-am in 1985 after moving through local radio and TV, and within two years was fronting the Breakfast Show.

Ex-Sunday Times Editor and political pundit and presenter Andrew Neil saw something he liked, and brought her into Sky just a year later. She's been a Sky stalwart ever since, at the helm of numerous major events, including the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami, the 2005 General Election and, of course, the birth of Prince George.

Viewers got to see a more vulnerable side to her in 2007 when she was a contestant on ITV's Dancing On Ice. She was as competitive as her public persona might have led audiences to expect, but it emerged that she was skating for MacMillan Cancer Care in memory of her mother, whom she lost to breast cancer when she was 32, just a few months after the birth of her son.

Later she said: "I just couldn't comprehend that the woman who had been there with me during every step of my life, from walking to talking to my first job and then my big move from Wigan to London, was leaving me.''

She also revealed that breast cancer runs in her family. Being high risk herself, she hasn't ruled out a double masectomy as she wants "to do everything I can to see my son have children''.

Life hasn't been a breeze for Burley. She dotes on 20-year-old Alexander but split with his father, football agent Steve Kutner, when her son was just a year old. She has been divorced twice but never married George Pascoe-Watson, who was the political editor of The Sun during their five-year relationship. She has hinted though, that he was her one big love, saying after their split in 2009: "Sometimes you feel as if the bits of your heart are scattered under the fridge and you have to gather them together again.''

She's obviously aware of her critics but they don't seem to have cut too deeply into her self-belief. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," she says.

It doesn't look as if Orange Blouse-gate is likely to topple Kay Burley.

A LIFE SO FAR

* Born: December 17, 1960 in a council estate in Wigan, Lancashire.

* Family: Married Steve Burley, aged 19, divorced a few years later. Her son, Alexander, now 20, was born during her one-year marriage to Steve Kutner, Frank Lampard's agent.

* Career: Longest serving female newsreader in the UK. Her first reporting job was at the Evening Post and Chronicle in Wigan at the age of 17. In 1988 she joined Sky TV and is currently an anchor for Sky News...

* She says: "If you're a good journalist, you ask the questions that people at home want to know the answers to. Sometimes it gets me into trouble."

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