Political sketch: Sky News is the only winner in this war

The news isn't sticking to the timetable, and it's ruining everyone's fun.

It is axiomatic in military circles, and down the British Legion Club, that there can only be one winner in a war and this week that prize goes to Sky News.

Anyone watching events unfold in Tripoli over the past few days knows that the Osterley upstart has led the way both in style and substance. The BBC rightly makes the point that it must be the people on the ground who make the final decision on whether to put themselves in the way of danger just to give us viewers the vicarious thrill of being up with the action, but being first in our business still counts.

Thus the appearance of Alex Crawford in the centre of Tripoli as the insurgents broke through was one of the most impressive moments of the conflict's coverage.

Alex, who has won many awards for being in the right, most dangerous, place at the right, most dangerous, time proved once again why this is not just luck.

The BBC's defence sounded a little hollow as it excused being absent during the storming of Gaddafi's palace, seen live on Sky, because its man was getting something ready for the six o clock news!

The real culprits for this diminution of the Corporation are not Sky, of which more in a minute, but the pesky foreigners who are simply not sticking to the script.

As we embarked on the Libyan adventure we made it quite clear that this was just another extension of the Arab Spring, but the timetabling of this event seems to have been ignored by the participants who determined to turn it into the Arab Summer with almost no attention being paid to pre-booked holidays and other August-type plans.

The rot had set in earlier in the month when those not already on the continent and apparently without the wherewithal to get there decided on some late-night, if rather unorthodox, shopping. This, you may remember, required Prime Minister Dave, after a couple of days to think about it, to quit Chiantishire for the slightly less attractive delights of Croydon. Indeed, MPs were forced to return from exotic spots throughout the world for half a day to remind those of us at home we had not been forgotten.

But no sooner had Dave embarked on holiday number two than the Libyans, perhaps emboldened by events in North London,decided to continue their revolution right through August.

Dave, who hardly had time to unpack his bucket and spade for his staycation in the West Country, was forced back on the overnight bus again to appear on the steps of Number 10 to tell us Libya was in his thoughts. He then got back on the bus and returned to his holiday.

And of course this is what lies at the heart of Sky's summer success: the holidays.

Not that it's been much of a year for the Sky brand until now. Its bosses the Murdochs, pere et fils, have spent recent weeks caught between the attentions of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run and Plod of the Yard. Indeed the attentions of Plod may well be the reason for the higher and higher octaves achieved by Murdoch the Younger which may yet give him a new career as a countertenor.

How different from this very day two years ago when in all his pomp and circumstance he turned up in Edinburgh at the annual TV-fest (why Edinburgh? Cos it's the holidays, stupid) to lecture on the media to the rest of the great and the good.

"The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit", said the man who at the time was in charge of the News of the World, which you may remember had discovered "one rogue reporter" with his mitts on several people's mobiles, now translated into a roomful of rogues, more mitts than the haberdashery department at Peter Jones and much of the phone book of Central London.

But all good things come to an end and the Sky News end of the Murdoch empire should enjoy its success while it can for the holidays are finally over. Spotted in all his splendour yesterday was none other than the wonderfully-titled Word Affairs Editor of the BBC, John Simpson himself.

John, remembered by many as the Liberator of Kabul - not least by the BBC correspondent who was living there - hove into view in Tripoli having spent, he told us, 48 hours getting there. Whether the 48 hours were from the borders of Libya or his holiday home were not clear.

Normal service has been resumed.

By the way, has anybody seen Gaddafi?

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.