There is a divide in Britain, one that cleaves us apart more sharply than Leave vs Remain, north vs south, or moody Owen Jones vs needy Owen Jones.
Our real national fault-line is Kay Burley. The Sky News presenter is everywhere right now. She was named Broadcast Journalist of the Year by the London Press Club last week, beating out the tough, brilliant Laura Kuenssberg, and was the subject of a 3,000-word profile in the Times, a deliciously candid conversation about facelifts, menopause and being ‘the high-heeled hellcat of Hounslow’. Yesterday, she debuted on Andrew Marr and stole the show, not least when she flicked through the Sun on Sunday and treated viewers to a racy close-up of Brazilian model Barbara Fialho. Her live news instincts kicked in and she flipped to the back page sharpish.
Burley is a barometer of sound judgement, a Rorschach test for separating out the good-humoured from the prigs. There are people who adore her and there are those who are wrong – hopelessly, churlishly, miserably wrong.
I’m firmly in the adore camp. A few years back, I was introduced to a colleague and told she had previously freelanced at Sky. Our first conversation went roughly like this:
Her: ‘Hi, I’m Ro–’
Me: ‘Hi. Did you work with Kay Burley?’
Her: ‘Um, yes.’
Me: *excited squeal*
Her: ‘Are you a fan?’
Me: ‘I think she’s Madonna meets Margaret Thatcher meets Xena: Warrior Princess.’
Her: ‘I’d call that a fan.’
A few days later, an envelope appeared on my desk. Inside was a signed photograph of Madge-Maggie-Xena. I’m not saying I keep it in a diamanté and glitter frame but I’m also not not saying that.
— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) April 17, 2014
Gay idolises strong, sultry woman. No news there. It’s more than that, though. Burley, and the polarised responses she inspires, is a case study in class and elitism, in who should get to speak to the nation, how they ought to do it, and who patrols the parameters of broadcast news.
One of her most admirable qualities is her ability to piss off all the right people, seemingly without trying. Burley is – that dread rebuke of the bland and mediocre – ‘controversial’. Across three decades as the perfectly styled face of Sky News, she has earned a reputation for plain patter, unvarnished questions, and a direct style free from the affected stuffiness of so many newsreaders. Her critics accuse her of dispensing with the staid conventions of British broadcasting, and she has — more than almost any other on-air talent, Burley has made the repetitive crawl of rolling news interesting. Armed with nothing more than her wits and a dozen Michael Kors outfits, she is the living embodiment of Sky, a cheeky, eye-rolling icon of populist telly.
Too cheeky and too populist for some. There was the interview where she left Peter Andre in tears; the Ed Miliband grilling that laboured his doing in of brother David (‘Your poor mother,’ Burley purred wickedly); and the time she asked Steve Wright’s girlfriend whether he’d have become a serial killer if things had been livelier in the bedroom. Krishnan Guru-Murthy she is not.
It’s like watching a bomb disposal in progress. You can never be sure whether she’s going to save the day or cut the wrong wire and blow everything to hell — but you can’t stop watching.
And can she be tactless? God, yes. Tact won’t get you anywhere in TV news but scooped by the competition and beaten in the ratings by a Murder, She Wrote re-run on ITV 2. Plenty of broadcasters are tactless – facile, crass, and rude – but Burley seems to attract disproportionate censure. Her sort always do. You can be as snide and insouciant as you want provided you went to Oxbridge and are, preferably, a man. Burley is a working-class Wigan lass done good, so she is not ‘fierce’ or ‘irreverent’, she’s nasty and thick. So is anyone who gets up the noses of those who have their beaks permanently aloft.
Those of us who come from a similar background to Burley don’t wonder at her hardness, determination, and ambition. Those are not bad qualities where we come from. They place Burley in the pantheon of council estate divas – alongside Julie Burchill, Betty Boothroyd, Cilla Black, Pat Phoenix and Lynda Lee-Potter – who shine their way to the top and burn the untalented entitled along the way.