Sophy Ridge, the woman changing on-screen politics

Sophy Ridge, the woman changing on-screen politics

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How did Sophy Ridge, the only female co-anchor on election night, breach that glass ceiling, inquires Andrew Billen

On election night in October 1974, the BBC’s anchorman, Alastair Burnet, announced a “welcome new addition” to the presenting team, Sue Lawley.

At least part of the reason for her welcome was that she was the first woman to play an on-screen role in a British election results studio.

Things have moved on, if not at breakneck speed. Emily Maitlis was again booked to be on the BBC’s set on 8 June. And, for the first time, a woman, Mishal Husain, was to play the Robin Day/Jeremy Paxman inquisitor role.

On ITV, Julie Etchingham was due to anchor – but only on day two.

Sky News alone billed a woman as an anchor on the night itself. Enter Sophy Ridge, two-heading it with Adam Boulton (he in Osterley, she in a studio on Abingdon Green by Parliament).

She followed Etchingham who, in 2005, when she was at Sky, also co-hosted with Boulton. I would not belabour the point were the role of women in politics not Ridge’s ­special interest and the subject of her new book, The Women Who Shaped Politics.

In its foreword, she writes of being misidentified by male MPs, once for a fashion journalist and once for a weather “girl” (Ridge’s terminology).

There will be no mistaking her seniority on election night.

“When you are younger and watching the election, it is like it is these giants doing it, so I feel quite excited,” admits Ridge, sitting with me in the café below the media centre in Millbank.

She is 32 and has crept to the forefront of political coverage rather as Theresa May did to the top job in politics, through quiet tenacity and something indefinable that goes beyond mere competence, strays into character territory but never quite enters the treacherous charisma zone. 

After reporting from the lobby for Sky, she took over the Friday edition of Sky News Tonight and then, in January, the Sunday-morning political slot, refashioned in her image, made less metropolitan and rechristened Sophy Ridge on Sunday

Her first interviewee was May, who said it was good to have a woman presenting one of these shows. It was a triumphant interview.

May had not announced her Brexit strategy, but, by dogged persistence and ruthless, Brian Walden-style paraphrasing of May’s answers – plus, she says, game-planning with her “whizz-kid” producer Tom Larkin – Ridge got the exclusive.

I don’t think every single interview has got to be a hard-hitting fight on policy.

This was going to be a hard Brexit that put immigration control above membership of the single market.

“I think, when you’re doing the interview, it’s worth just sticking on something and not moving to the next question. The people that I look up to in the way they interview, are those who just listen very carefully to the answers and then home in on something that they know is a story.”

She seemed completely nerve-less on that first programme. Was she?

“I’d be lying if I said I was completely without nerves, but, at the same time, I think the best advice is: just try not to look down. If you have too much of a realisation of where you are, it all becomes a bit too much.”

It was not the first time she had had a one-to-one with May. She had requested an interview with her for her book when May was still home secretary, and was eventually summoned for an hour’s conversation at No 10.

The resulting interview was notable for May’s insistence that she was a feminist, and that, growing up, there had never been any suggestion that her sex placed boundaries on what she could do.

Ditto, Ridge, brought up in a teachers’ house in south-west London, rather than an Oxfordshire vicarage; she says she cannot remember a time when she did not consider herself a feminist.

The interview was sufficiently intimate for a couple of answers to be ripped off by The One Show presenters in their interview with May at the start of the campaign: that Mr May took out the bins; that a researcher told Mrs May in a lift that it was her shoes that got her into politics. Both non-exclusives made headlines the next day.

“Alex Jones [The One Show co-host] posted a picture of my book on Instagram, so I think she looked at it for research but, I guess, if you’re being interviewed all the time, you’re going to have a few of the same sort of ­stories cropping up,” she says good-humouredly.

Did she approve of The One Show’s soft approach?

“I’m with the view that not every interview has to be the same. I don’t think every single interview has got to be a hard-hitting fight on policy.

“I’ve got no problem with her and Philip May doing a slightly softer interview. Basically, I think that the more access we get to a politician, the better, as long as it’s not been used as an excuse to not do the other interviews as well.”

She describes the lack of a proper leaders’ debate as personally disappointing, but says the besetting problem of political interviews – their predictability and caution – is exacerbated in an election.

In a Sophy Ridge on Sunday early in the campaign, she interviewed the normally robust-on-Corbyn Alan Johnson and Anna Soubry, a former TV presenter whom May sacked.

Both were tediously on-message, and the usually fun Soubry told Ridge off for criticising her quick resort to the Conservatives’ “strong and stable” slogan (prompting from Ridge a strong defence of her colleagues’ mockery of it).

“I feel that we, as journalists and as politicians, have a responsibility to make politics accessible, because otherwise people will just switch off. I think part of that is politicians actually being prepared to just be a bit more direct with what they’re saying. 

"And also, perhaps, journalists feeling that they can give people a hard time when they deserve it – but, also, sometimes trying to have a conversation with them as well.”

We agree that the one time politicians do relax into candour is when the results start to come in. This should be Ridge’s night to shine, and it would not be the first time.

In 2015, she reported at about 3am that Ed Miliband was going to resign. Contacts, she explains.

She is clearly a journalistic natural, although she says that, growing up in Richmond upon Thames, her family – two teacher parents and a younger brother – was no more than averagely interested in politics. 

She went to The Tiffin Girls’ School, a state grammar in nearby Kingston, where she says she enjoyed working hard. At 16, she took work experience at the Richmond and Twickenham Times.

“That gave me the bug. I did some court reporting, little stories like interviewing the firemen at the local fire station and vox-popping people at Gunnersbury station. I thought, ‘This is great. This is what I want to do.’ I think it was that moment really that turned me into a journalist.”

At St Edmund Hall, Oxford, she studied English, became passionate about long Victorian novels, and ended up with a second-class degree but bylines in The Oxford Student. Paul Nicholas, the deputy managing editor of News of the World, gave a talk.

She asked him for work experience, which she did in her final year. From there, she was accepted into the paper’s graduate training scheme. Her parents, she claims, were delighted.

At the time of the crash, she was made consumer correspondent. Readers’ letters brought insight. “There’s actually a lot of people who are choosing between heating their homes adequately and buying a meal for the family.” She tries to remember that in her journalism.

“I sometimes wonder whether the amount of scrutiny that’s given to a particular story over others is because some things are viewed through the lens of a middle-class London bias – house prices, top rate of tax, stamp duty on homes over £1m, or whatever, as opposed to things such as tax credits.”

She applied for a job advertised by Sky News for a political correspondent in 2010. At her second interview, she was interviewed by the then-political editor (and her future election-night co-anchor) Boulton, of whom, she wisely attests, she is a great fan.

What really marks her out as an interviewer is her doggedness and unflappability, never looking remotely hurt by a put-down.

Her confidence as an interviewer comes, she says, from what Sky’s Kay Burley calls “flying hours” and from preparation.

The people that I look up to in the way they interview, are those who just listen very carefully… then home in on something that they know is a story

She is a formidably stubborn interviewee, too, I can promise you. She will not tell me her parents’ names, nor that of her husband (beyond that he is called Ben and works for a national newspaper). She says this is because she just regards herself as a “hack at heart”. Anyway, it does not take me long to work out who he is. He gets the occasional Sophy Ridge exclusive.

Social media abuse (which might be a good reason to keep her life private) does not, she says, keep her awake at night.

And those MPs who mistook her for a fashion journalist? “It’s water off a duck’s back to me. I think it’s more funny than anything else.

“I remember, when I first started at Sky, a couple of people thought that I was there to do their make-up, but I don’t feel that being a woman has in any way held me back in my career. I think it’s probably the reverse.” Why the reverse? “I think that because, if you are a woman doing political journalism, then you’re a rarer breed, so people remember you more.”

It is hard to ask this delicately, but I wonder if her career itself might not reflect a certain sexism, or at least lookism, in her chosen medium.

Sky News is not Fox News, nor Sky Sports News, but it does have its share of presentable blondes.

The election-­night partnership of ageing man sans matinée-idol looks and an attractive woman nearly half his age is as old as Reggie Bosanquet and Anna Ford.

“Well, I don’t think I look that similar to other Sky newsreaders. I think we all look quite different. I mean, Anna Botting, Kay Burley, you know, Gillian Joseph, Anna Jones, I feel we’re all quite different.”

But when Boulton did Sunday mornings, I don’t remember his face all over the screen in the title sequence.

“I guess that the thought process behind that was that it’s a kind of personality-­driven show, like just trying to differentiate it from the rest of our output – feel a bit younger, fresher, more irreverent, perhaps, than some of the traditional Sunday-morning political shows.”

Rather than flaunting her? “Well, I don’t see it like that, definitely.”

As viewers will have noticed, Ridge is pregnant: her baby is due in August. She is not sure how much time she will take off but the Sky News PR who is sitting close by says the channel has a good record of employing working mothers, some part time.

“Look, I don’t really know what to expect, I’ll be completely honest, because it’s my first.”

The presenter who always does her homework, is learning that it is not just snap elections that are hard to prepare for.


Sophy’s saga

Sophy Ridge, 32, political presenter, Sky News

Married to a newspaper journalist ‘called Ben’

Born 17 October 1984, Richmond upon Thames

Parents School teachers

Education The Tiffin Girls’ School, Kingston upon Thames; St Edmund Hall, Oxford (BA English)

 

2007 Trainee, News of the World

2009 Consumer affairs correspondent, News of the World 

2011 Political correspondent, Sky News

2015 Senior correspondent, Sky

2016 Presenter, Sky News Tonight on Fridays

2017 Sophy Ridge on Sunday launched

 

Awards Words by Women (2016); Nominee for RTS Young Journalist of the Year (2013)

Exclusives Ed Miliband’s resignation (2015); Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in 2015 leadership contest

On her election-night co-host Adam Boulton "I’m sort of in awe of his huge brain but I think he is actually very kind, as well"

Reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety

Watching The Island with Bear Grylls; Gomorrah

Wrote The Women Who Shaped Politics (2017)

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