■ Want to be a top newshound? This Sky broadcasting legend, 58, got to the top via Percy Pigs and surviving the Libyan desert
How did you start?
I did work experience on the local paper, decided I wanted to be a journalist and wrote to more than 70 newspapers up and down the country asking for a job. I did an NCTJ training course — which is still a good route today, as it’s the recognised training qualification — and started as a junior reporter on the Evening Post & Chronicle in Wigan, typing in the opening times of local chemist shops and attending fetes and doing ‘how big is your carrot?’ stories.
One day, I was sent on a story where a lady had not taken her washing in for a couple of days and her neighbours had rung the paper so I was dispatched. I arrived at her house to find the police had arrived before me. It was a double murder — and she and her friend had been shot. I was 18, it was my first big story and I remember being terrified. I ran to find a phone box, rang the newsdesk to tell them and arrived back to find the national press had descended. I’ve been a journalist for 41 years and I’ve been with Sky for 31 years but that was the day I learned that news, by its nature, is generally bad.
What’s your advice to anyone who wants to be a print or TV journalist?
You’ve got to really want to do this job. I’ve travelled around the world and found myself in a Winnebago with 14 blokes and no washing facilities. I’ve also faced a 14-hour drive across the desert in Libya and I’ve often worked 20 hours a day. I always pack almonds in my bag for energy or eat Percy Pig sweets when I need a sugar rush.
What’s the best advice anyone gave to you?
Thirty-five years ago Sir David Frost told me: ‘You need to dress appropriately at all times. You are invading someone else’s living room and if you look the part, they’ll listen to what you say.’ I had an MEP who turned up for an interview the other day dressed in a hoodie and tight white jeans — and I thought, ‘Have respect for the audience.’
How do you overcome nerves?
I get an adrenaline rush, particularly before a really big live event, but I don’t get nerves normally. The trick is, don’t pick up a cup of tea or glass as your hand will shake and betray your nerves. I was interviewed live by Boris Johnson recently, just before he became prime minister, for Cancer Research UK. Boris was asking me a question and I picked up a glass of water and thought, ‘If I drink this or put it on the table, my hand will shake and everyone will see,’ so I had to rest the glass on my knee for the rest of the interview.
What was your lowest point?
Covering the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. It took us a long time to get there and when we arrived at the hotel there was no power but we had to broadcast live the next day. Then the rains came again, the satellite dish was soaked and wasn’t working, so we used my hairdryer to dry the connections just before we broadcast. We were there for several days and I couldn’t understand what the sweet smell was — but then it became more pungent and I realised it was the people who had been trapped and died in their homes. That moment of realisation was utterly heartbreaking and will stay with me forever.
How tough is life on the road?
I’ve gone over the top of my wellies in floodwater and had to stand there for another 12 hours with soggy feet. I’ve had to ask people if I could run into their gardens to have a quick pee and, last year on set, the sound recorder gave me a pack to loop on to my belt — and I didn’t have a belt. So we were on the green outside Westminster and I had to pull my tights down and stuff the pack into my tights. So I was showing my bottom to the world as the team circled me and protected me with coats and umbrellas — with me saying, ‘If I see this on social media, you’re dead!’
Any other major wardrobe malfunctions?
I was interviewing David Cameron and Ed Miliband in the studio for a huge general election set piece, and I’d chosen a stunning Roland Mouret dress — then minutes after we went on air, my bra strap broke. I walked behind the back of the set and the stylist had to pin my bra to my dress with seconds to spare.
What’s the trick to getting up early in the morning?
I’m preparing for 4.30am starts for my new breakfast show and I’m sure I’ll be getting into the car in pyjamas at some point. But use three alarms, don’t put them on snooze and as soon as the alarm goes off put your feet on to the floor and stagger to the shower. Then, because I’m northern, I have three pints of tea.
Let us into a broadcasting secret, please…
If you see me sitting down in a smart blouse, I’m wearing trainers and trousers under the desk.
Mistakes — have you made a few?
I make mistakes all the time — and it’s how you recover from them that’s important. I once called a demonstrator who had hit my cameraman with a stick ‘a bit of d***’ but I didn’t realise my microphone was live at the time. Then, of course, Twitter’s head exploded.
Salary: Juniors start at £21,000
Regular hours? First thing at morning to last thing at night, with a can of diet drink in your hand to keep you going when you’ve not eaten
Short and sweet advice: Work hard, play hard and be kind
‘You only get one chance to make a first impression’
■ Kay Burley@Breakfast is on Monday to Thurday, 7am to 9am, from October 14 on Sky News