Over the past few weeks that I have been immersing myself in the world of Sky News, something has become clear: if you want to get ahead at Sky, you can.
That message rings out again when I talk to Nick Phipps. Phipps is the Election Night Editor of Sky News’ 2017 Election results show – a position he first held in 2014 for the Scottish Referendum, and then at every major national vote since.
His turn in the hot seat came about because he asked for it.
“I spoke to [Head of Sky News] John Ryley,” he recalls, and asked the Sky boss for the opportunity. “He very kindly said OK.”
That’s not to say Phipps hadn’t earned his shot. An ITN trainee after university, he worked his way up that organisation as a producer in Antarctica and during the war in Kosovo, and Programme Editor of both ITV Lunchtime, and ITV Evening News, before he moved to Sky News. At Sky he has, he laughs, “produced virtually every part of our output – except Sunrise.” Phipps was also part of the team that jetted off to Abu Dhabi in 2011 to help set up Sky News Arabia.
This year, Phipps has reunited with election night Director Jon Bennett to steer Sky’s election night coverage through the night of the election counts.
“Jon and I very much work as a kind of… seesaw,” he explains. “I’m constructing [the narrative of the night] on the fly, and Jon is then making it all happen.”
On election night, Phipps sits at the centre of a vast web of information coming in from across the country, as he plucks the relevant strings at the right moment.
“You’re feeling a bit like a massive computer,” he explains. While one part of him is absorbing what is happening on the screens in front of him and in the studio behind him, he is also listening to Sky’s psephology experts Michael Thrasher and Isla Glaister on the talkback panel, and paying attention to what the team monitoring Sky 250 – the broadcaster’s live streams from 250 declarations around the country – is saying.
“If you try and intellectualise it too much, you’re too late,” he laughs. “You’re just reacting, making decisions.”
Naturally, working like that can mean that sometimes things are missed, however on other occasions, it can put the broadcaster onto a story that no one else has spotted.
Phipps recalls 2015 when a sudden switch from a significant Welsh count that was about to declare, to a fairly unknown Scottish count, gave Sky the first glimpse of what Phipps describes as “that SNP steamroller.”
“It was probably a bit ugly on screen… it just went ‘krrrr, here we are in Scotland’, …but it was just one of those moments. I remember looking at the screen and neither the BBC nor ITV were live on it. I punched the air.”
Planning for all the possible stories that election night might throw up has been Phipps’ task since Theresa May called the snap election in April.
“We really are covered for even the extremes of eventualities,” he says, explaining that Sky will be live in over 300 constituencies on the night. “We just have to put in place the guests, the live locations, the graphics sequences, to cater for whatever could happen.”
In normal news programming, an Output Editor like Phipps is responsible for planning the entire show, however that structure goes out of the window on election night. “What we can do,” he says, “is build our first hour, hour-and-ten-minutes…”
It is after that first hour, when the polls close, that Sky News can release the broadcasters' exit poll and Phipps gets an idea of what the story of the night would be.
In 2015, polling up until election day indicated that it was going to be a tight race, however the exit poll that came out on election night indicated a clear Conservative win – which then proved greater still as the night progressed. “We had made an arrangement with Sir Gus O’Donnell, who used to run the Civil Service,” Phipps recalls. “He was going to be with us actually on election night and the next day to talk about the possible coalition negotiations.”
However, when the Conservative lead became apparent at 10pm, the story changed. Instead they got O’Donnell on just after 10pm and let him get some sleep.
The Exit poll is, for Phipps particularly, one of the key moments of the night. “That’s the moment when the plane [that is Sky News] takes off, then you are flying.”
The exit poll gives the first clear outcome of what the result will be, and that is just as important for the politicians as it is for the news broadcasters and viewers at home. Phipps recalls that, after the 2015 exit poll, a colleague saw Labour’s Harriet Harman and her aides “head in hands.”
“That is the impact that this stuff has,” Phipps exclaims. “Whatever one’s politics, [that election had] the excitement of a story that people were going to be genuinely shocked to hear about.”
Phipps, and the Sky News team, are determined to cover the election as well and as fully as possible, despite the short lead time.
“Being able to do an election night properly is the dividing line between being a proper news organisation, and not being,” he believes. “We’ve just really settled on this idea which we have communicated through our last few elections, which is about being out there at the counts, [with] pictures from hundreds of places.
“While others may be sitting in a studio, we are out there doing news on the fly.”