For Sky News, the 2017 General Election is all about getting out of London.
As part of the RTS Inside Sky’s Election Campaign series, Sky’s Head of Politics, Specialist and Business Journalism Esme Wren, who is overseeing the broadcaster's election coverage, reveals her plans for covering the surprise General Election.
For the broadcaster, getting outside of London is key to covering the campaign, after lessons learned from the Brexit and 2015 General Election coverage where the opinion polls were out of touch with the final result.
Wren believes that all broadcasters were perhaps guilty of not speaking to enough people on the ground. “Maybe if we’d been slightly more in tune with actually how the wider British public felt about it, [the result] wouldn’t have come as such a surprise,” Wren admits.
To overcome that, the 2017 General Election coverage sees a bigger-and-better return of Sky 150, which put live streams in 150 counts across the country in 2015. This year they are expanding that to 250 counts – no small task with only seven weeks to organise the coverage.
Sky 250 will be available not just on Sky News’ live broadcast, but also on the Sky News app. "That’s exciting for us because that means that wherever you are in the country… you’ll potentially see your result coming in live,” she says.
The project employs students overnight who will get an opportunity to be part of the live national broadcast.
Lewis Goodall, Sky’s newest correspondent, is also out on the road in the #LewisLorry (Wren concedes it is actually a van: “We do get complaints… It’s me… I called it a lorry”). He is travelling to around 30 specially selected seats and talking to voters in the area.
As a journalist with over 10 years at Sky News under her belt and time on the BBC’s Newsnight, Wren is envious of Goodall’s cross-country roadtrip, which sees the correspondent talking to unexpected candidates, such as Mr Fishfinger, who is running in Lib Dem leader Tim Farron's constituency, and wants to 'batter' the politician.
Getting out of London has been an ongoing effort, and forms a major part of Sky’s 2017 coverage, although Wren admits they cannot compete with other broadcasters in terms of regional resources - both ITV and the BBC have bureaus around the country. Instead they are employing locals. “We are very much trying to get those people who are in that area all the time, who remain there when the campaign buses role out of town,” she explains.
Having that local knowledge, she says, helps to differentiate Sky’s coverage from other broadcasters, which is key to their work. “We’re all chasing the facts, that’s what journalists do, but the way we bring those facts to life and to light is key for us. I always say to the campaign teams, ‘Don’t get tunnel-visioned into covering [just one party].’ You’re covering stories.
“Rather than just being led by some sort of lead by the campaign buses, we’ve got to stand back and think, ‘why do we keep going to the North East with the Tories?’ It’s because they sense that those seats are vulnerable. They feel confident that they could get such a swing that those seats which would have been unheard of, are all of a sudden in the game.”
That swing towards the Conservatives is one of the most striking things about the 2017 election. Lewis Goodall recently filed a report from Wales where he spoke to the sons of former Welsh coal miners who are considering voting Conservative for the first time.
The swing is part of a larger trend. Wren remembers the 2015 election, where David Cameron made a number of trips down to the South West in a successful effort to turn a number of yellow seats blue.
For Sky News, covering the snap election is not about following every twist and turn of the campaigns, it is about identifying the broader themes and asking the questions that the public want answered.
“We try to identify where our specialist strength is, and what traditionally tend to be those core areas in elections: health, education, the workplace, the economy, jobs and employment and so forth,” she explains.
Sky is keen to avoid a repeat of the referendum promise of £350m a week to the NHS which vanished in the weeks following the campaign. “It’s our duty to the audience to say, when they make these claims… can they commit to that?”
However the broadcaster is well placed to respond to the sudden changes of the high-speed campaign.
With only seven weeks to organise coverage of Theresa May’s snap election, it took Wren just 24 hours to get their plans in place for the coverage of campaigns - something she attributes to the broadcaster's "smaller, tighter" teams which make rapid responses to a fast-changing news agenda a possibility. However accuracy is always more important than speed. “Being first is important, being right is key,” says Wren. “There’s no point giving information if it is not correct.”
Accuracy is vital to overturning the increased public mistrust of the media and journalists particularly. “The key thing is that we find those facts, we ensure that there is trust in our specialists, that we get it right, that we give a full explanation, and hope our longevity and trust in the brand kind of punches through that [distrust].”
While the BBC and Channel 4 have their own fact-checking services, Sky has decided not to have a dedicated unit. “We don’t need a fact-checking team,” Wren states emphatically. “Our specialist teams are the best fact-checkers.”
The presenters, she says, draw from a range of data including past statements from the parties and political leaders, and well as their voting records and their track record in terms of keeping their word.
Likewise, ensuring that all of the parties get a fair showing on screen is key. Beyond the main parties, Sky is keen to ensure that smaller parties, like the Greens and UKIP, and regional parties like the SNP get covered.
That is why it is a shame, she says, that the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn have ruled out appearing in Leaders’ Debates. Sky was instrumental in the campaign for debates in 2010, however Wren says, “it has been clear, not least from 2015 and now in 2017, that the Prime Minister does not want to participate in that.”
Instead Sky is pushing for each of the party leaders to participate in programmes where their policies are examined at length by one of the Sky representatives in front of a live audience.
“We would very much like that to happen in 2017, but plans haven’t been confirmed,” she explains.
As unexpected as it was, Sky has found itself in a strong position to cover the 2017 General Election, and in their coverage Wren has been very clear about their aims:
“Ultimately it is about being absolutely transparent about what we’re trying to do, and ultimately holding authorities, politicians to account, but also at the same time trying to hold public opinion to account as well, and make sure that is challenged. That is what our daily endeavour is.”