Katty Kay is one of several high-profile journalists to have left the BBC over the past 12 months. Now, following a stint at scandal-hit Ozy Media, she’s back.
“I had several conversations with several very interesting news organisations,” says Kay when I ask her why she decided to return to her former long-term employer.
“In the end, it was the prospect of what I could do at the BBC, in terms of new forms of content, podcasts – helping the BBC with what is a very real expansion into the American market.”
In her previous role as an anchor for BBC World News, Kay – UK-born, with a polished English accent – established herself as the face and voice of the broadcaster in North America.
In her new job, as US special correspondent for BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial arm, Kay will continue to anchor coverage of some big events, like the mid-term elections. But she’ll be largely focused on other projects.
Kay, who is also a regular contributor to MSNBC’s Morning Joe, plans to write a weekly newsletter, host an interview-based podcast, and she’ll also be working on documentaries – the first of which will examine “the fate of democracy in the United States”.
She suggests that changes to voting laws across the US could lead more people to believe “the election [is] stolen from them” in 2024.
“You have serious people in this country at the moment talking about the prospect of a civil war,” she adds. “Or talking about the prospect of California seceding from the union. That’s – I haven’t seen that in the 25 years that I’ve lived in this country… I’d like to dig into that and see: How robust is American democracy at the moment?”
Ozy? ‘I think I’ve said all I want to say’
So, I ask Kay, why is everyone leaving the BBC? (Okay, not everyone, but the BBC has lost some high-profile journalists of late – Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel, Andrew Neil and Andrew Marr, to name a few – and The Times claims it is facing a “talent exodus” and “brain drain”.)
“I know some of them individually and I don’t know all of them individually,” says Kay when I reel off the list above. “I’m sure they each have their own reasons for the career decisions that they’ve made. I left a year ago. It’s not that I don’t love the BBC. I love the BBC. I’m deeply committed to the BBC’s objective news reporting.
“I imagine if you went back to snapshot ten years ago you’d probably find five people left then. I mean, people leave at various stages of their career depending on what they want to do… But I bet you none of them would say that it was because they didn’t like the BBC.”
Kay appeared to have left the BBC last May with some regret. She told Axios at the time: “It took a really special place to get me to leave a special place.” She first worked for the corporation in the early 1990s and had been a Washington-based correspondent since 2002.
Kay left the BBC to become senior editor and executive producer of Ozy Media, a news and entertainment business founded in 2013 by former TV anchor Carlos Watson. Kay and Watson had already worked together on a podcast called When Katty Met Carlos, a BBC and Ozy co-poroduction.
In September last year, months into Kay’s employment, Ozy was plunged into scandal when a New York Times report called into question its audience figures and suggested that a boss at the firm had impersonated a Youtube executive on a conference call with Goldman Sachs.
Kay swiftly handed in her resignation. In a tweeted statement, she said: “I have resigned from Ozy Media. I had recently joined the company after my long career at the BBC, excited to explore opportunities in the digital space. I support the mission to bring diverse stories and voices to the public conversation. But the allegations in the New York Times, which caught me by surprise, are serious and deeply troubling, and I had no choice but to end my relationship with the company.”
How, I ask Kay, does she reflect on the episode now? “I think I’ve said all I want to say about that period,” she responds, before referring to her resignation statement.
Did she feel personally misled? “I think I’ve said what I wanted to say about that. I read the news piece and decided to leave.”
Does she consider Watson to be a friend? “I met Carlos through the BBC. They introduced us. He was on my news coverage a couple of times. I think it was for the Trump inauguration back in 2016. That was when I first met him.
“And then the BBC was keen for us to do a podcast together, which we did, and I really enjoyed doing. It was always interesting to present our podcast together. I enjoyed the topics we did. I enjoyed presenting with him. I haven’t been in touch with him since I left the company.”
After briefly closing itself down in October, Ozy was reborn and is still operational. Does Kay wish Watson and Ozy well? “I don’t follow what they’re doing at the moment and I wouldn’t want to wish anyone not well. I think that’s all I have to say.”
‘News, not views’: The BBC’s US ambitions
Kay’s reappointment at the BBC is part of a wider digital push by the British broadcaster to better establish itself in North America.
The corporation plans to more than double the size of its 18-strong digital news team and will soon be recruiting for 20 new roles in the US and Canada.
After my interview with Kay, I asked the BBC for some more detail on its plans. Jennie Baird, who recently joined BBC Studios from News Corp as executive vice president and managing director of digital news and streaming, said over email: “The aim is to enhance our news coverage and to invest in new formats and the kind of digital storytelling today’s connected news consumer has come to expect.
“There will be more analysis, data journalism and original investigations, as well as additional capacity to offer live coverage of key moments – all with the high level of quality and accuracy that’s the signature of BBC News.
“In a world increasingly flooded with misinformation, the BBC’s increased focus on data and analysis will help more people find facts, as opposed to just opinions (or worse).
“Today’s news consumer is hungry for impartial journalism that allows them to make up their own mind about a story. News, not views, if you like.”
The BBC is already one of the most viewed and trusted news websites in the US. How much bigger can it be? “Just over 10% of our audience comes from the US and we definitely think there is scope to grow this further,” says Baird. “It’s a large market and one in which BBC News really stands out from other news sources.
“The growth we’ve seen in recent years shows the demand from US audiences for fact-focused and globally minded quality news and we plan to continue investing in content which appeals to this audience.”
‘There’s a real commitment to do it. There’s money behind it’
Kay says that better establishing the BBC in the US is “something that I have myself been keen to help with as long as I’ve been at the BBC in America.
“But I think now there’s a real commitment to do it. There’s money behind it. There are exciting new products to do it with. And there’s a determination on behalf of top executives of the BBC, both in London and in America, to make this happen.”
Kay admits there has “always been this slight frustration that we haven’t expanded as much as we could do into North American markets”.
“There is a huge demand in the United States for news that is impartial, reliable, trustworthy,” she says. “And I think there’s an audience that wants really good, informative, straight reporting.”
She adds: “There’s a real fondness for some British things [in North America]. There’s a fondness for the Queen. There’s a fondness for Harrods and the Beatles. And I’d say the BBC was in that category.
“People loved the idea of us. Now I would say they actually see our content and they see our news and they see what we’re making. And so the fondness has been backed up by more access to our content.
“I made sure before I came back to the BBC that this was a real push with commitment from the top executives at the BBC.”
Quickfire questions with Katty Kay
Dream interviewee? Michelle Obama
Favourite book? Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Musician or band? Bob Dylan
TV programme (apart from your own)? The Bureau
Tea or coffee? Coffee
Magazine? The Economist
News website (apart from the BBC)? The Guardian
Career low point…? “Ooh, I was fired. That was not great. I was anchoring a TV show [World News America], actually for the BBC, and they wanted another anchor.
… and high point? “And the high point actually then followed that [two or three weeks later] when I became the political correspondent for that programme and covered the 2008 election. Which was a blast.”