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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:29 PM ET, 08/23/2011

Sky News spends big on Libya

Sky News’ Alex Crawford was the toast of broadcast journalism as she rode into Tripoli in a rebel-driven pickup truck. The resulting footage was early, riveting, and informative.

And by no means the byproduct of luck.

Sky News Executive Editor Chris Birkett noted this morning in an interview, “We’ve been there the whole time.” That Crawford was in the midst of the action at a pivotal moment, says Birkett, is “reflective of our investment in the news.” As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported, Crawford made important rebel contacts last March in covering hostilities in Zawiya, and those came in handy over the weekend.

So does that mean that Sky is going all-out on international news coverage?

Not really. Sky has something of a mercenary approach to news---it goes to the big stories, whether they lie within U.K. borders or beyond them. “We’re not so much committed to international news as we’re committed to where the big stories are,” says Birkett. Sky News is part of British Sky Broadcasting, a group that is controlled by the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp.

At the moment, Sky News has around 25 staffers on the ground in Libya, churning out breaking-news pieces on the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. That’s some resources there. Birkett says that the weekly costs of such a deployment are in the “tens of thousands of pounds,” which converts roughly to “tens-point-six of thousands of dollars.”

The expenses of covering the Libyan uprisings, plus the British riots, plus the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal help explain why Sky News is a money-losing venture. When asked about the property’s bottom line, Birkett responded like a guy who’s been in this business for decades. ”Our funding from BSkyB comes because we deliver huge reputational and brand value to the BSkyB platform.”

That reputation doesn’t get a lot of rest. Sky News is a 24-hour network, which is one of the reasons its people have squatted in Libya for the past six months. A network that thrives on talk, analysis, and opinion, says Birkett, may not feel the need to plant such a stake. “If you’re like us ---interested in hard, rolling news---pulling out of Libya was never going to be in our interest,” he notes.

Editors who work in the corporate world of Rupert Murdoch are famous for their close relationship with the top dog---frequently receiving calls and inquiries and nudges regarding coverage. Yet that’s a newspaper thing, not a broadcast thing, says Birkett: “There is a perception that senior executives of Sky News have a lot of contact with Murdoch. Editorially we have none.” He continues: “I’ve been here 11 years in pretty senior positions and there’s never been any pressure on us from the Murdoch family to do anything editorially.” He credits Britain’s tradition of impartiality in broadcast news for this editorial independence and cites Sky News’ coverage of the phone-hacking scandal as evidence of its rigor.

OK, so in what way does Murdoch influence Sky News? Birkett says that the boss’s instructions don’t come to his staff in the form of “stone tablets.” But there’s something very Murdochian in how Sky News sees itself in Britain’s news environment. Says Birkett: “You’ve got the BBC, which other countries don’t have, and it dominates the news landscape; it dominates the new media landscape, and we’re not part of that establishment.”

By  |  04:29 PM ET, 08/23/2011

 
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