View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Publishers
  2. Broadcast Journalism
September 14, 2023updated 15 Sep 2023 12:52pm

John Ryley calls time on ‘supine’ royal reporting, Westminster gossip and GB News ads boycott

Ryley also said SNP and Lib Dems should be dropped from TV leadership debates.

By Dominic Ponsford and Bron Maher

Former head of Sky News John Ryley has called for colleagues to be tougher on the royal family and end their obsession with Westminster gossip.

He also warned that advertisers boycotting GB News represent a threat to democracy and said minority political parties should be dropped from televised general election leadership debates.

Delivering the RTS/Media Society Steve Hewlett lecture alongside BBC correspondents Lyse Doucet and Steve Rosenberg on Thursday, he warned that UK news broadcasters have become “supine”, “incurious” and “compliant” when it comes to reporting on the royal family.

Ryley, who stepped down from Sky News in May after 17 years in charge, urged colleagues to “start reporting on the royal family with the same rigour as they treat every story on the news agenda”.

He used the example of the coronation of King Charles in May to criticise the role of royal “spin doctors”.

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

“Buckingham Palace set out to totally dictate what could be broadcast. In a document marked ‘private and confidential’ – let me share it with you – the Palace imposed a series of extraordinary restrictions on the use of the video, the pictures of this rare national event.

Content from our partners
Pugpig named best media technology partner of 2024 by AOP
Cannes Lions: The world's best creativity all in one place
L'Equipe signs content syndication deal with The Content Exchange

“For example, on the TV no pictures of the new King or Queen could be replayed until they had left Westminster Abbey. And the royal spin doctors had the opportunity to censor any pictures from the coronation before they could be replayed on the day. 

“On social media, no clips of the coronation could be shown while the event was taking place – really? 

“Thus in one go Buckingham Palace denied a whole generation of Tiktok users and others from seeing the spectacle. 

“And the royal spin doctors dictated which clips of the footage could be shown in future broadcasts in what they called, with an Orwellian phrase, ‘a perpetuity edit’. 

“You won’t be surprised that similar controls were exerted over the coverage of the Queen’s funeral last year.”

Ryley said that royal spin doctors “freak out” if any members of the family are doorstepped by journalists.

And he questioned why the BBC and others “are shy to question the monarchy’s power and authority”.

He said: “Topics such as why King Charles didn’t pay any inheritance tax on the fortune he inherited from his mother or the fact the Duchy of Cornwall doesn’t pay capital gains tax should be examined properly. The reporting needs to be far more rigorous.”

He said better reporting of the royals would be in their own interests: “Greater openness is not about stripping the monarchy of its dignity or disturbing their personal privacy. It’s all about promoting a culture of openness that gives the public a truthful view of their monarchy. Remember in truth, there is trust, respect and unity.”

During audience questions, Ryley recalled that as recently as January 2022, on the day after the late Queen Elizabeth II stripped Prince Andrew of his military titles, “there was a royal pool happening up in Aberdeen just after a massive storm knocked down lots of trees.”

He said Sky phoned two other broadcasters in the pool and said: “We’d like you to ask a question for Prince Charles… about what his reaction was with his brother being stripped of all these royal titles.”

But they both said, he claimed: “Erm, we don’t really want to do that. That’s a bit awkward.”

Ryley recalled that James Matthews – now Sky News’ US correspondent – said: “‘Right, Sky will go and do that pool.’ And he doorstepped Prince Charles.”

Matthews “got a question in”, Ryley said, but “within a couple of hours I had an email in my inbox: ‘How dare your correspondent do that?’

“And then I got phoned. And then I was summoned to a meeting. Which I didn’t go to.

“They’re on the case! They want the story told in their way, and they don’t really want to engage with journalistic rigour.”

However, Sally Osman, a former director of communications for the Queen who was among the night’s attendees, commented: “I don’t recognise the characterisation that you’ve drawn of what it’s like within the palace.

“I certainly remember being on the receiving end of a lot of very, very tough questions.”

[Read more: BBC defends royal coverage amid ‘sanitised perspective’ accusations]

Political reporters obsessed with London, John Ryley says

Ryley also urged broadcasters to devote less time to covering Westminster gossip and more time to scrutinising political decisions that affect the whole UK.

He said: “A prime example of this took place in Britain during Theresa May’s time as prime minister when the broadcast news organisations became obsessed with the roles played by her two advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill in the general election of 2017 rather than the Conservatives’ controversial social care policy.

“It’s time the broadcasters focused on policy issues that mattered to the electorate and not some ‘here today, gone tomorrow ‘ spin doctor.”

He also condemned what he sees as excessive reporting of London issues, such as its ULEZ traffic restrictions.

This London-centric approach helped explain why, he said, broadcasters were taken by surprise over the 2016 Brexit vote.

SNP and Lib Dems ‘should be dropped from leadership debates’

Looking ahead to the next UK general election, which many expect to be called next year, he urged broadcasters to start working together to secure head-to-head leadership debates between Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer.

He said: “Voters need to see the prime minister and leader of the opposition debate the big issues facing the country at election time.”

But he said other parties were unnecessary for the debate: “Do we need a third party leader to take part? No.

“Does the electoral performance of the Lib Dems over the past ten years justify taking part? No.

“Are the SNP able to nominate a UK prime minister? No.”

GB News ads boycott an ‘insult to British people’

Ryley also rounded on agencies in the Conscious Advertising Network who he said are seeking to stifle freedom of expression and undermine democracy by boycotting GB News.

Brands such as Tesco, Kia, Ford and British Gas are said to be involved in the boycott.

He said: “This action represents a threat to free speech, putting the business model of this start-up in jeopardy. 

“Freedom of expression is vital to our democracy. The regulator Ofcom has been adamant broadcasters are free to include controversial or offensive content provided they reflect alternative viewpoints. And let’s be clear – the new news channels have been launched to satisfy an increasing thirst in the UK for a diversity of opinions. 

“It’s an awkward fact for some – GB News’s audience is growing. We should value a free and fair media that offers accurate impartial news and current affairs, that offers a plurality of news providers.

“The British public have the right to hear the full range of political perspectives. The advertising boycott of GB News should end. It is an insult to the British people.”

Topics in this article : , ,

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network