John Ryley home isolates to cover the biggest story of his career
Preparations to celebrate the life of Harriet, my wife, at a memorial service in West Oxfordshire dominated the first half of March. Peritoneum cancer. Aged 58, Harriet died at Christmas.
Honest eulogies, festoons of flowers, elaborate afternoon tea, and the wonderful choir from St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, were all sharply halted with only five days to go when the chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, made clear that all gatherings, “big or small”, should not go ahead.
The decision to postpone the service was painful. Hard. Sir Dave Brailsford once told me, “leadership is doing the things you don’t want to do”. So right. It has felt strange that Harriet and I are not watching together the effects of the killer epidemic of Covid-19 on Britain as we had with so many other big stories since the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
“Here, everyone dies alone,” observed our chief correspondent, Stuart Ramsay, reporting from the wealthy Italian region of Lombardy at the heart of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak.
His reports from the overwhelmed hospitals in Cremona and Bergamo sounded a desperate warning to other countries already struggling to cope with the virus. Stuart’s powerful reporting was seen around the planet and demonstrated the value of eye-witness original journalism.
The Italian foreign minister, watching the coverage, wrote on his Facebook page: “It should make us understand that this is not a game and that there are people who are dying, and women and men who are risking their lives to save others. I repeat: ‘Stay at home.’”
Working from home has been a true test of character and connectivity. Chairing our daily 9am leadership team meeting – sometimes from work, sometimes from home via video link – has exposed my lack of technical prowess and impatience – and others’ taste in decor.
I’m very lucky to lead a capable, battle-hardened team of senior people. A “remote” day can disappear in an intense whirlpool of conference calls and emails. Everything takes longer. Relentless.
I’ve held a series of conference calls with almost every member of staff to outline our approach on safety and well-being and what is expected editorially. It’s really good to have the heft of a big company supporting us.
I urged the output editors of the TV channel to take, in their entirety, the live news conferences held by the decision takers and experts. On big running news stories, these live events are the bread and butter – the sine qua non – of a non-stop television news channel providing news, information and context.
The biggest challenge has been the absence of people. A large number of staff have already followed government advice, quarantining themselves for up to two weeks.
We have taken steps to mitigate the impact of this, reorganising our newsgathering and production. Almost all our digital content and some of the TV schedule is produced from home. It will be transformative, shaping all of our futures, this protein molecule with its layer of fat.
When the whole country first came together at 8pm to applaud the NHS workers a few neighbours stood on our doorsteps to clap. It was heart-warming to see a widower in his seventies take part. He’s at high risk and has been told to self-isolate for 12 weeks.
We’ve texted one another over the past few weeks. He is not a fan of the phone call.
But I do predict the old-fashioned telephone call will fight back against social media after this crisis ends.
On the first Saturday of the lockdown, I spoke at length to a dear old friend, Chris Shaw, the editorial director of ITN.
I first met Chris 30 years ago, working on the ITN News at 5:45 at Wells Street, its uncorporate headquarters.
Chris and I agreed that the Covid-19 pandemic was the biggest story of our careers – so far – and a great opportunity for independent, responsible public service journalism.
John Ryley is Head of Sky News.