Inside Sky's Election Campaign: Jon Bennett on the lure of covering election night

Inside Sky's Election Campaign: Jon Bennett on the lure of covering election night

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Thursday, 1st June 2017

“Election night is quite an addictive thing,” grins director Jon Bennett.

Bennett is a Sky News lifer, having joined the news organisation 28 years ago before it had even begun broadcasting. Now, he is taking the chair for a seventh time to direct the broadcaster’s election night coverage.

Working alongside Executive Producer Nick Phipps – the man who decides on how the story will be told – Bennett is tasked with making his vision a reality. “We represent the two sides,” Bennett explains. “His is the editorial and mine is the production. He is the one I don’t want to let down.”

For Phipps however, the differentiation is harder to spot. “The great thing about Jon [is] he’s got such a great editorial brain as well as being such a brilliant director.”

As director, Bennett’s brain whirrs with the sheer scale of the broadcaster’s offering, which this year includes live results streams from 250 declarations – beating the World Record they set in 2015.

The 250 declarations form the backdrop of the set from which Sky’s veteran presenter Adam Boulton will anchor the night’s show.

“In a very Sky way, we build our technology in sight of the cameras,” Bennett explains. “Behind Adam… and around the studio you will be able to see all the people within the building working on that product.”

That openness is key to Sky’s election proposition, and what, he believes, differentiates the broadcaster from the other election night offerings.

“It’s all real,” he adds. “We just put it in the studio so that everyone can see it… not all of it, but the front-end technologies that [we] are using.”

According to those who work with him, Bennett keeps a cool head on the night, even when things are going wrong.

“He doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't want to know the reason why. He wants to move on to the next [thing],” explains Head of Operations Jackie Faulkner who has worked with Bennett on every Sky election he has done.

“‘It’s only telly’ is an old mantra.” Bennett explains, “I have a rule which is that I don’t talk about anything that is just tempting providence.”

Outside of election season, Bennett is a rolling news director with some thousands of hours of breaking news under his belt.

“I absolutely always wanted to direct an election night,” says Bennett, “because you don’t know where you are going to go.”

Behind the scenes at Sky News' 2015 coverage
(Credit: Sky News)

Bennett and Executive Producer Nick Phipps do not know what will happen on the night and so must be prepared for all possibilities.

“We are across all the stories that could happen,” he explains. “We just have to have the expertise and analysis and journalism in the right places to tell those stories.”

What that story will be remains to be seen, as even in the past week, the Conservative lead in the polls has narrowed to only five points from 24 points four weeks ago. “The story will change again in the next two weeks,” Bennett anticipates.

At 10pm on election day, the polls close and the broadcasters unveil their exit poll –shared by Sky, BBC, and ITN. Until that point, broadcasters are bound by the Ofcom Code’s election guidelines which prevents them for saying anything which may affect the result. Once the polls have closed however, “anybody can say more or less anything they like,” Sky News’ Managing Editor Peter Lowe explains.

The exit poll results also give Bennett his first real glimpse of what the story of the night will be.

Phipps and Bennett, sitting in the gallery of Sky News, will get only 10 minutes warning of what the exit poll will say and so they need to be ready to cover the story – whatever it turns out to be.

“Theresa May has tried to frame [this election] as a Brexit election, and we are playing in that arena, [however] the election… is about covering the story, whatever the story is,” he says. “We are not writing the headlines now.”

For Bennett, the scale of Sky’s coverage indicates the distance that the broadcaster has travelled in the past 10 years.  “We are a breaking news service that reacts,” he says. “But we also cover set piece events, and that is where Sky has really changed over the past 10 years, really moulding ourselves as a heavyweight deliverer of big, proper, grown-up journalism.”

The aim, he says, is to make the informative entertaining. General election campaigns, Jon reflects, “may be a bit dry sometimes, but… these are the subjects that people are talking about. This is the end game… of all those conversations. It is the Wembley Final.”

“This is important, and it is important that we tell it in a way that is entertaining and engaging to the viewers.”

This interview is part of the RTS series Inside Sky's Election Campaign. For more interviews from key Sky News figures, visit the series homepage. 

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“Election night is quite an addictive thing,” grins director Jon Bennett.