Beth Rigby says Laura Kuenssberg is like a racehorse - and she's more like a pit pony - 'she is willowy and tall, I'm short and stocky'
She's frenemies with Laura Kuenssberg and has a reputation for holding MPs to account. Sky's new political editor Beth Rigby tells Susannah Butter about box sets, Brexit and her marriage to a man 17 years older than her
After five minutes talking to Beth Rigby it's clear why Sky News chose her as its new political editor. She's quick, funny, and has a knack for juggling multiple topics. One minute she's telling me that her friends call her partner Angelo 'Saint Ange' because he does most of the childcare; the next she's describing herself as a workhorse pit pony. "If Laura Kuenssberg is a racehorse, like the head of BBC Westminster said she is, I'm more like a pit pony," she grins. "She's tall and willowy, I'm short and stocky."
Rigby (who isn't actually stocky or short) moved to Sky three years ago from The Times and has risen fast. She won respect for challenging Boris Johnson live on air over his insistence that the Prime Minister could go back and negotiate Brexit with Brussels.
When I meet her at Sky's Millbank office she is rummaging for her wallet so that we can go out and get a much-needed skinny latte - she's running on only five hours sleep after staying up until 1am writing about Brexit. Her desk is barely visible under piles of papers, a card for a friend who's just had a baby and a copy of Stella magazine, where she was recently declared a style icon. "I was so overjoyed by that I put it on Twitter," she says, punching the air.
She's wearing dark-pink lipstick, which she says is her signature, and a high-necked black dress with tiny white flowers on it. "It's from M&S," she tells me proudly in what she calls her "estuary accent" - she was born in Essex, grew up in Buckinghamshire and her parents are from "dyed-in-the-wool Labour seats in the north".
Since Rigby moved to TV she says the industry has changed massively. "And when I started at the lobby for the FT in 2010 there were only two other women. Laura Kuenssberg becoming political editor at the BBC felt like a change because it is one of the biggest jobs in political journalism, Then there's the all-female Newsnight line-up and me becoming political editor. There's still a long way to go but it is progress.
"Having more women affects the story choices," she continues. "Would we talk as much about domestic violence if we didn't have female journalists? Maybe not. Papers and broadcasters now recognise the need to represent the population more fairly."
Rigby, who was women's officer while studying social and political science at Cambridge University, is part of a female lobby group run by Kuenssberg. "I texted Laura to say I liked her Brexit documentary. She called me when I got this job. We're friendly but we compete - we are frenemies."
The lobby reminded her of Cambridge. "I'd been at a grammar school and when I went to university I met people I'd never come across before. I didn't know how I fitted in and the lobby was like that too. Six months in, I started to break it. I was there because I really liked politics and wanted to find stories."
Sky has an equal-pay policy and its gender pay gap is 11%, below the national average of 17%. "I don't know what Faisal (Islam, her predecessor) was paid, but I'm happy with how I'm remunerated. The gender pay gap will narrow further as more senior women are put into jobs. Having children can slow you down - taking time out, juggling new responsibilities. It did for me."
The idea of going on television used to terrify Rigby. "But if you find something intimidating you should hold your nose and do it, otherwise you are never going to progress," she says. "I'd force myself to do punditry while I was at the FT and I'd watch it back like this," she covers her face with her hands, looking through her fingers.
Sky approached her in 2016. "I thought if I don't move to TV now I never will. I was approaching my 40th birthday and wondering what was next. There is a lot of ageism in TV and I thought that as I got older I'd miss the boat."
She has always liked clothes and enjoys having her make-up done for work but says, on a more serious note: "There is clearly a whole different level of presentation around a female journalist on television to a man.
"I felt self-conscious when I started and I've started having more facials since going on TV, paying more attention to what I eat and exercising more. Once you hit 40 you have to eat like you don't exercise and exercise like you eat."
Would she consider a facelift like her Sky News colleague Kay Burley? "Do you think I need one?" she cackles. "Ask me again in a few years when my chin goes. I'm probably too much of a wimp for the procedure."
Sky suits her, she thinks. "The BBC is like this massive oil tanker, chugging along," she mimes one with her hands. "Sky is this little speedboat zipping around. It's lean and they expect a lot of us but it's rebellious. I like that because it fits me. I'm not going to speak in received English or fit a certain mould. I drop my 'g's."
It was Burley who gave her one of the best pieces of advice. "I'm sharing a trade secret here. When you are presenting, think of someone you like. I'm looking down the camera but in my mind I'm talking to my dad, thinking that if he goes down to The Feathers later, will his mates understand what I said about Brexit?"
When she did that Johnson interview she was thinking of her daughter. "Boris was referring to the phrase David Gauke came up with, 'slaying the unicorn', and it resonated because my daughter loves unicorns - I was thinking 'don't slay them'."
Rigby's working day begins at 7am. "I lie in bed," she pauses for dramatic effect. "With my beloved phone. It's great because Angelo isn't on social media so he doesn't know what I'm doing." She does the school run - her son is nine, her daughter is seven and they go to the local state primary. Rigby is already "having a working-parent nightmare" about how the school open-day season to decide which secondary school her son will go to clashes with the party conferences.
Her daughter used to kiss the TV when Rigby was on but now both children are "nonchalant" about her job. "My son asked me to stop talking about Brexit. But they know more about politics than the average children - they even know who Dominic Raab is."
Life admin happens on her commute. Today's to-do list for her "bus office" includes paying for her children's school trips. From 10am until 10pm she's in the office and often works later at home. "I have loads of coffees," she says. "I get as much sleep as I can and exercise as it's good for my head space. You need separation between your work and home. Being friends with MPs is not my life at all."
The only drawback to her job is "not having time to watch box sets in the week". She has just rewatched Luther because a friend was too scared to watch it alone and calls Game of Thrones "medieval Hollyoaks".
Angelo gave up his job as a graphic designer three years ago to be a stay-at-home dad: "That's how we make it work." They met at a northern soul night at the 100 Club. "It finished at 6am, that's how cool I was. Angelo is 60 but he looks much younger. I was 28 when we met, and when he told me he was 45, I said I cannot go out with him, he was too old." His parents are from Naples and he asked her recently if they should get their children Italian passports. "I told him he could. I'm too busy to sort that out."
She doesn't express personal opinions on politics. "There's been a disconnect between the public and the fourth estate and I want them to feel I am neutral and balanced." But what does she think will happen with Brexit? "I'm relaxed about not knowing because none of the politicians seems to. I think there'll probably be a leadership change, then a general election."
Education was important to Rigby's parents. "It was their way through everything. My dad's dad was a plumber, his mum worked in a factory but he got a scholarship to Cambridge and became a businessman. My mum was a headteacher. Occasionally she would take me into school and I'd see her being a superstar. My dad is my biggest fan. He tells me, 'I saw you on Sky News'. I go: 'I work there'."
Her mother died in 2007 of lung cancer, aged 62. "She had three children and worked and was my best friend, so when I lost her it was really hard, and hard for my dad." Then, in 2016, Rigby's older brother Alex died of thymic carcinoma, leaving behind a young family. Her other brother, also older, is a yoga teacher in Bali and "so ripped at the moment, it's annoying".
After university Rigby moved to Portugal to teach English. "It was good for me - I cut the apron strings."
When she returned to the UK she says she was "at the right place at the right time", getting an internship at the FT through a friend from Cambridge.
She considered a career in academia, doing an MA in Latin American studies at UCL while working as a journalist but realised she preferred journalism.
Her colleague Adam Boulton was political editor for 25 years. Does she see herself in the job for that long? She considers her answer: "I will keep going as long as my pit pony legs keep pulling me along."
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