It was an opportunity for revenge on an over-mighty colleague that proved just too good to ignore.
When a group of resentful junior production staff at Sky News heard star presenter Kay Burley boast about plans for 60th birthday celebrations which would break strict lockdown rules, they didn’t hesitate to pounce – and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to her being banished from the air for six months, her reputation severely tarnished.
As the £600,000-a-year presenter yesterday started an African safari holiday, away from the British spotlight, The Mail on Sunday can reveal the full story of how Burley was the unwitting architect of her own downfall and how she was ambushed in what has been described as the ‘perfect inside-job coup’.
The plot by colleagues – long disgruntled by her imperious ways – began when they overheard her talking in advance about last weekend’s night on the tiles, which culminated in her and three other Sky News journalists partying at her home in Knightsbridge, Central London.
Sky News presenter Kay Burley has agreed to be off air for six months after breaching coronavirus rules. Pictured: Kay Burley hugging and Beth Rigby (center in red) at Ms Burley’s 60th birthday party on Saturday
They secretly recruited a paparazzi photographer to take pictures of Burley breaking lockdown rules and created an encrypted email account to leak the story to the media.
For years, Burley, who turns 60 on Thursday, has been the queen of Sky News, having been part of the team since the channel first broadcast in 1989. Hugely professional and respected by her bosses, she has, however, attracted envy among colleagues. Words such as ‘divisive’ and ‘untouchable’ are used about her – as they so often are about successful people.
And so it was that nine days ago, at Sky’s vast headquarters in Osterley, West London, that Burley was sharing her excitement about her plans to celebrate her birthday, leaving colleagues in no doubt that she would be dining inside a venue with people from outside her own household.
She was overheard explaining that she would be visiting the Century members-only club, a celebrity haunt near Piccadilly Circus, with a group bigger than six.
‘It was a case of boom, this could really bring her down,’ says a source. ‘They thought, “If she gets caught, that would be the end for her.” ’
Burley named certain people she had invited, including Beth Rigby, Sky News’s political editor and Burley’s best friend since joining the channel from The Times in 2016.
ESCAPE: Kay Burley’s 60th birthday rule breach was leaked to the media in an email sting by her own Sky TV colleagues. Pictured: Burley in Heathrow Airport, en route to an African safari, on Friday as the shamed £600,000-a-year presenter is pictured flying off into exile
The plotters acted swiftly. Just over 24 hours later, photographers from the top celebrity paparazzi agency Eroteme were in place outside the club, waiting for Burley and her chums.
The group also included Sky’s North of England correspondent Inzamam Rashid and presenter Sam Washington. They spilled out on to the pavement outside the discreet venue, shunning social distancing rules. Some prepared to go home, while others discussed where to continue partying.
Burley, dressed head-to-toe in black, and Rigby were even seen embracing. According to the latter, it was a hug goodbye, for which she subsequently apologised.
While others also left the party, a smaller group reportedly went on to the Soho restaurant Folie (French for ‘madness’, ‘stupidity’ or ‘folly’) whose stylish owner Guillaume Depoix had appeared on Burley’s Sky show earlier in the week.
A hardcore group of four, including Rashid and former Sky News Royal correspondent Paul Harrison, who now works for the controversial Chinese electronics giant Huawei, allegedly went for an after-after-party at Burley’s home.
By early Sunday morning, Burley’s nemeses had been given the incriminating photos they needed.
They set to work with an account they created for the occasion with ProtonMail, which describes itself as the world’s largest secure email service.
Founded by former researchers at CERN’s large hadron collider, the Swiss-based company uses sophisticated encryption which means emails can’t be shared with third parties and guarantees anonymity to the sender behind the unencrypted email addresses.
DAMNING: The full, verbatim email, complete with minor grammatical errors, that sealed rule-breaking Burley’s fate
The conspirators emailed The Sun last Sunday – amusingly using firstname.lastname@example.org as their address – with details of the presenter’s ‘crime’ and attached the photos. However, the newspaper decided not to publish the story. The reason for this is not 100 per cent clear.
The Mail on Sunday has since been passed a copy of the email, which said: ‘Kay Burley was bragging about breaking Tier 2 lockdown restrictions for her 60th Birthday party last night.’
It went on to describe the events of the evening, including how the party split into a table of six and a table of four at Century, in an apparent bid to skirt the Rule of Six, and how Depoix ‘broke the law’ to let the group continue their celebrations at his restaurant.
The damning email concluded: ‘Four people then went back to Kay’s Knightsbridge pad. There are pictures.’
Dismayed that The Sun had not taken the bait, the plotters then gave the story to Westminster gossip website Guido Fawkes. The rest of the media duly followed, with the story becoming front-page news on Wednesday.
Burley was swiftly relieved of her duties and taken off air for six months, on full pay, while her Sky bosses were forced to apologise.
Miss Burley (centre, hugging someone) and Miss Rigby (in red) are pictured after dinner at the Century Club on Saturday
Inzamam Rashid (centre), Sam Washington (right), and former royal correspondent Paul Harrison (left) also attended
Meanwhile, those behind the operation to take her down are celebrating – albeit at a social distance from each other.
With Burley now in Africa, her friends are determined to find the snitches. ‘There is a hunt for those who did this,’ assured a newsroom source. ‘It was a set-up which not only brought Kay down but badly damaged the station as a whole.
‘It has all been an absolute embarrassment.’
Last night, Tory MP Nickie Aiken – whose Central London constituency includes both Soho and Knightsbridge – criticised the ‘incredibly selfish’ actions of Burley and her colleagues, given that Covid rule-breakers are blamed for rising infection rates that could plunge the capital into the economically ruinous tier 3 next week.
‘Who do these people think they are?’ Ms Aiken told The Mail on Sunday. ‘These Sky presenters need to understand the consequences, and the consequences are people going out of business.’
Bosses at Sky News, including its highly regarded director of content, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, are said to have been furious at the breach.
Meanwhile, editor at large Adam Boulton was public in his disdain for the behaviour, retweeting criticism of Burley, including a comment calling her and other guests at the event ‘morons’.
I’m told that his views of Burley go back decades to the time when they both worked on the ITV breakfast show TV-am. Then, he was the bigwig political editor, and she was the up-and-coming ‘girl’ reporter.
A Sky source added: ‘The network has had a great year – the viewing figures have been good and the team have been commended for doing such a good job of covering coronavirus.
‘Now this happens. It is totally unfair on the rest of the staff.
‘What’s more, they are furious she has been given six months off on full pay. What sort of message does that send?’
Fewer are more angry than Ms Nicolotti Squires, a former executive at rival news organisation ITN, where she edited Channel 5 News. She is said to have a ‘strained relationship’ with Burley.
Others, though, are big fans. Burley is an extraordinary networker, with media executive Rebekah Brooks, and broadcasters Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, among her close friends. She is also pals with Frank Lampard and his TV presenter wife Christine, having known the Chelsea manager since he was a teenager. Burley was married to Lampard’s agent Steve Kutner and the couple have a son.
Although her on-screen persona is stern, in private Burley is engaging company. It is little surprise that her guests were reluctant to call it a night when the first part of her birthday celebrations ended.
For a while, I became part of Burley’s gang, after meeting her at various events.
As a member of that circle, I recall being overwhelmed with affectionate compliments and regularly invited to join her nights out with a group of about ten people.
Paul Harrison was usually there, as were some hunky co-stars she met on Channel 4’s Celebrity Hunted, with whom Burley would freely flirt. We would start at Archer Street cocktail bar in Soho where Burley was guaranteed the best table, and we would finish around the corner in the gay bar Freedom. There, she was well-connected enough to make sure we had the best spot, and copious amounts of alcohol. Either she paid for it or it was given free – I certainly didn’t see a bill at the end of the night.
FRIENDS: Burley, right, with Sky political editor Beth Rigby, left, Burley’s best friend since joining the channel from The Times in 2016
So what now for Burley?
Following an internal investigation on Thursday, Sky News said that bosses ‘expect all team members to fully comply with the Covid restrictions. All those involved regret the incident and have apologised’.
They added: ‘Following our review of what took place on December 5, we have agreed with Beth Rigby and Inzamam Rashid that they will not be on air for three months, and we have agreed with Kay Burley that she will not be on air for six months.’
Minutes later, Burley confirmed that she would ‘step back from my broadcasting role for a period of reflection’.
She added: ‘It doesn’t matter that I thought I was Covid compliant… the fact is I was wrong, I made a big mistake, and I am sorry. Some dear friends and colleagues – some of the most talented and committed professionals in our business – have been pulled into this episode and I regret this enormously.
‘I was one of the founding presenters on Sky News. No one is prouder of our channel’s reputation, the professionals on our team, and the impact we make. I very much look forward to being able to continue my 32-year career with Sky when I return.’
According to some at the station though, this may not be in the form she is used to. One insider believes she is ‘unlikely’ to get back her breakfast show, which she launched in October last year, when she returns in the spring.
Airing on both Sky One and Sky News, some believe that the ratings have been very poor.
‘There is a feeling of relief and that bosses now have the opportunity to dump the show and put her somewhere else,’ they added.
Others simply believe she will never return now her authority has been undermined.
One colleague observed: ‘How can hypocrites such as her, or Beth Rigby, ever hold a person in power to account again without being ridiculed?’