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Flying high in the Sky

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 15:07

A kiss from a glamorous actress, an awkward situation with a feisty catwalk model, a close encounter with a bodybuilding terminator-not to mention jetting around the world with prime ministers-are just some of the highlights of Jon Craig’s career as chief political correspondent at Sky News.

Once described by the New Statesman as “the best of the lobby hacks on TV”, Jon Craig is one of the most experienced broadcasters and print journalists on the circuit, having been a political correspondent for 28 years working on titles such as the Daily Express and The Sunday Times and presenting on BBC London.

Moving to Sky News seven years ago proved to be a defining moment in his career.  Today, the name and face of Jon Craig is known throughout households up and down the country-flashing up on television sets accompanied with a thundering, bullet-sounding noise.

The sudden appearance of this 6’2” tall man in our sitting rooms is met with intrigue-what’s happened now in Westminster?  For those in the village watching, especially in government, feelings of nervous curiosity for some, and excitable anticipation for others, immediately sets in-what story is he going to break about us now?

Sitting in Moncrieff’s Café, in the House of Commons, Jon Craig told Government Gazette about the workings of the Sky News team, his most memorable moments at what is one of the world’s leading providers of rolling news and the stories he has broken.

The differences between broadcasting and print journalism are vast, Jon said, who highlighted “team effort” as the main difference.  “The essential thing about the Sky News team is that we are very much a team, constantly liaising with our political editor, Adam Boulton, who is in many ways Mr Sky News.  On a newspaper, you can pick up a telephone, file a story, forget about it and it can appear on the front page or on any other page.  And on a Sunday newspaper, you can keep stories up your sleeve until towards the end of the week because the editor might have got bored with it by then.  Working in television, however, you need to take your colleagues, such as producers, cameramen and editors, into your confidence.  You rely on them because getting political stories onto television is a team effort.”

Sky News prides itself on its reach into the corridors of power with its tentacles extending all the way to the decision-making elite in Whitehall.  Jon elaborated on this:  “There is no doubt that Sky News is watched in Downing Street, every Whitehall department, the offices of every political party and by most Parliamentarians.  And you learn this very quickly!  I know they are watching because there are regular follow-up calls to stories I broadcast.”

But Sky News’ audience is not just confined to Whitehall.  “We have viewers all over the UK, all over the world”, Jon noted.  “We receive a lot of e-mails from people in Africa like when, for instance, we run a story on Robert Mugabe or Zimbabwe.  During the UK’s recent general election, I did quite a lot of broadcasting on Sky News Australia and Fox News.  In short, Sky News is very international and much more so than British national newspapers.”

During his four years as chief political correspondent at Sky News, Jon has broken numerous stories, one of which involved him doing an (almost) Olympic sprint!

Lord Levy’s arrest over the “cash for honours” investigation in 2006, Tony Blair’s controversial trade deal with Libya in 2006, Damian Green’s arrest in 2008 as part of an inquiry into Home Office leaks and Gordon Brown giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry before the election this year, are all Jon Craig scoops.

However, one of Jon’s most memorable breaking stories was in 2003 when he announced that there would be a leadership challenge to Iain Duncan Smith.  “Upon learning, from a source, that there was going to be a Conservative leadership challenge, I sprinted from the Members’ Lobby to the Sky News office at 4 Millbank and ran straight into the studio where I said, panting, that the plotters had got 25 Conservative MPs onboard and therefore there was going to be a challenge.”  Laughing about this incident, Jon recalled that the Sky producers liked his Carl Lewis efforts so much that they made a commercial of him gasping in the studio.  “That day I vowed never to run into the studio breathless again!”

Although there have been many, Jon’s two most notable moments at Sky News occurred during foreign trips.

The first was when he travelled with Gordon Brown to the Beijing Olympics.  On the last night of the Olympics, Jon and Kay Burley, a senior Sky News presenter, were on live for literally hours and interviewed everyone in the London 2012 delegation including Sir Steve Redgrave, Boris Johnson, David Beckham and Dame Kelly Holmes.  Summing up this experience, Jon said that it was an example of “raw, live television” which was “great” to have been a part of.

One anecdote that Jon mentioned stemmed from his interview with David Beckham at the Olympics.

A story doing the rounds in Beijing was whether there would be a Great Britain football team at the London Olympics and, if so, who would coach it with Sir Alex Ferguson being tipped as a possible contender.  The option of Sir Alex was put to Beckham by Jon who asked how he would feel about this given his ups and downs with Britain’s most successful football manager.  Imitating Beckham’s voice-and doing so convincingly!-Jon quoted Golden Balls as saying: “Oh, Sir Alex.  He’s like a father to me”.

This story was relayed to Gordon Brown by Jon on the aeroplane back from Beijing.  At the end of it the former remarked: “That’s funny, David Beckham said to me that if Sir Alex is the coach he wouldn’t pick me!”

The other memorable moment for Jon was when he accompanied Tony Blair on a visit to California.  During a press conference with the prime minister, which also had the governor of “The Golden State”, Arnold Schwarzenegger, present, Jon asked the PM a question about British foreign policy to which the Terminator “jumped in to protect Blair” believing the question was “disrespectful”.  As Jon remarked: “I was taken on by the Terminator!”

Shortly after the visit to California, there was a press conference in Downing Street.  Upon Jon standing up to ask a question, Mr Blair said: “Oh dear, I haven’t got the governor of California to protect me this time!”

Jon has also had his fair share of interviews with non-politicians as well.  One involved Naomi Campbell when he was doing lives outside Number 10.  On leaving the country’s most famous door, the catwalk model, who is not known to be an easy person to interview, was called by Jon to come over for a chat.  And to his “horror”, she came over!  Giving monosyllabic answers to his questions about what her meeting with Sarah Brown had been about, Kay Burley, back in the studio, began “prompting” him.  “Let’s just say it probably wasn’t my greatest ever interview”, Jon jokingly remarked.

And one of his greatest triumphs in an interview?  “Receiving an enormous kiss live on air from Joanna Lumley after I had finished interviewing her outside the Commons following the Gurkha vote.  What made this all the more memorable was that back in the studio Jeremy Thompson [another senior Sky News presenter] was laughing out loud!”

Speeding forward to the current political scene in Westminster, Jon believes that the main damage so far to have been inflicted on the Coalition Government has been “self-inflicted” citing Nick Clegg’s gaffe on the Iraq war and Michael Gove’s school buildings fiasco.

Regarding personal chemistry within the coalition, Jon observed that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are, by all accounts, getting on “very well” and “appear” to be getting on better than what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did.  He also commented that Liberal Democrat ministers are “loving being in power”.

But where the first splits could come, Jon said, is during the autumn party conference season where Liberal Democrat activists are likely to be worried about their “sliding in recent opinion polls” and the potential implications of this for the local elections next year.

When asked about advice for Westminster’s new boys and girls, Jon’s response was predictably humorous!  “Give me your number and e-mail address, please.  Get in touch.  Come and appear on Sky News!”

With a career in which he has covered and interviewed five prime ministers, seven Labour leaders, six Conservative leaders and six Liberal or Liberal Democrat leaders, Jon Craig’s presence in Whitehall is as deeply rooted as the Palace of Westminster itself.

Describing himself as “the man from Sky with his ear to the ground at Westminster”, this writer’s own summing of Jon Craig is simple: “When there’s a story knocking about, Jon Craig is sure to be about!”

Marcus Papadopoulos