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While clouds of speculation hang over the very existence of Sky News, the network is claiming to be free of the profound gender-based inequalities that the rival BBC is accused of perpetuating.

With Comcast and 21st Century Fox now set for a bidding war for the ownership of Sky, the future of the rolling news channel has become a key issue for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which is reviewing Fox's planned acquisition.

Sky News's director of content, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, tells The Drum of "how important" it is that Sky News is preserved and speaks of its record in giving women senior roles and fair pay. "Here at Sky News everyone is paid according to their experience and the role that they do rather than their gender and I’m pretty confident that we’ve got that right," she says.

Nicolotti Squires, who is also joint number two at Sky News, claims that with the BBC gender pay gap scandal running high on the news agenda and female BBC journalists having formed a solidarity group to defend their position, women at Sky News are not agitating for better conditions. "That’s not happening. People aren’t coming up to me and saying that, no."

She also highlights how Sky News's growth on mobile platforms is bringing more women to a service that has traditionally skewed heavily towards men. Whereas the television channel attracts a 1.6 million audience that is still 59% male, that figure falls to 55% for an online audience which is considerably larger at 2.6 million.

100 Women

Nicolotti Squires is speaking ahead of a a significant Sky News live broadcast, 100 Women, which will air on Wednesday, hosted by the channel's figurehead presenter Kay Burley. It is part of Sky News's attempt to wrestle with a "really hot topic" that encompasses the Trump presidency and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the MeToo and Time's Up women's movements, and – UK at least – the payment of women in the media.

The hour-long debate, which will go out at 4pm and be repeated at 8pm, will feature contributions from a panel that includes businesswoman Kate Hardcastle, actor Michelle Collins, Sandhurst commander lieutenant colonel Lucy Giles and Liv Little, founder of Gal-Dem magazine. But it is the potential input of lesser known audience members that excites Nicolotti Squires. "I thought 'Why don’t we get 100 women together from all kinds of walks and stages of life and find out if they think there is gender inequality?'," she says. "Rather than hearing from the same old people or experts it would be quite nice to hear from ordinary people."

Sky hasn't always been able to talk confidently on its record on gender. Less than seven years ago the company was beset by a deluge of negative headlines over macho culture at Sky Sports, resulting in the firing of star presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray after they were recorded making sexist comments about a female assistant referee and a Sky colleague.

That wasn't helpful to the reputation of a company that has enemies in media and politics because of its association with Rupert Murdoch, who founded it 29 years ago.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry might have been seeking to exploit the memory of the scandal when she – disingenuously I thought – accused Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan of "sexism" when he skewered her for not knowing the name of the French foreign minister in 2016. She said he was using "pub quiz questions" which he wouldn't put to a male politician.

Nicolotti Squires, who moved to Sky News a year ago after previously working as editor of Channel 5's news and head of output at ITV News, says that Sky has invested in getting more women into senior positions and putting more women in front of the camera as guests.

She cites Sky's Women in Leadership programme, which was launched in 2014 with the aim of achieving 50-50 parity in senior roles across the company. "In 2016 it was at 31% and now in 2018 we are at 39%, so things are moving in the right direction," she says. "But I have worked a long time in this business and I have often been the only woman in the room at a certain level and I am long forward to the moment when we are equally represented."

50-50 interviewee split "attainable"

The monitoring of Sky News interviewees by gender and ethnicity has led to significant change in the voices represented on the platform. "I’m really pleased that at Sky News in November and December 37% of our interviewees were female," she says. "I would like to see it higher but our initial target was 35, so we are surpassing that."

In sectors such as business and politics these targets are harder to reach, she says. "There aren’t as many female experts as male." But both Adam Boulton's All Out Politics show and business programme Ian King Live have increased their proportion of female interviewees to 36%. "By requiring people to log these things, whether it’s the gender pay gap or representation, you make people think about it in a way they wouldn’t have done before. We will now reset the target for the coming year."

Nicolotti Squires says a 50-50 gender split in interviewees is "attainable", and that Sky News has achieved gender parity in guests on its newspaper review show, Press Preview.

The choice of Burley to present 100 Women was an obvious one, she says. Burley has been with the channel since the outset and lays claim to having more hours on live TV than anyone else in UK broadcasting. "Kay is one of the faces of Sky News and is one of the faces of working women. If anyone’s talking about making it in what was traditionally seen as a man’s world, she certainly knows about it. She's also got a really good way with people."

The director of content also highlights Sky News's roster of female foreign correspondents, including Alex Crawford, Amanda Walker, Cordelia Lynch and Siobhan Robbins. Besides Burley, there are female presenters through the schedule, from Sarah-Jane Mee, the co-host of Sunrise, through to Jayne Secker, Anna Botting and Anna Jones. She also points to people behind the camera, such as Sarah Whitehead, head of home news, and Esme Wren, head of Westminster.

But Wren is leaving to become editor of BBC2's Newsnight and it might be said that the BBC has more women in higher roles than Sky, with Fran Unsworth now the BBC's director of news, and the likes of Wren and Today editor Sarah Sands at the helm of flagship shows.

Reporting on rivals

The BBC director-general Tony Hall has claimed that the BBC has not discriminated against individuals on the basis of their sex, while he admits the organisation must do more to close its glaring gender pay gap. But the 170 BBC Women group has accused the broadcaster of a "longstanding breach of trust" and a "culture of gender discrimination". 

Nicolotti Squires claims that Sky News has taken no pleasure in reporting the difficulties of a rival."I don’t think there’s any schadenfreude, I don’t think there’s any great joy in other newsrooms that the BBC is in trouble so let’s go and pick over it. Because the position they are in is one that’s been required by the government because they are funded by public money," she says. "I’m not saying that you’d find the same thing in other news organisations, I don’t know because I haven't seen any figures outside of Sky News."

She praises the BBC for its high levels of transparency and the depth of news coverage of its own difficulties. "I take my hat off to them in terms of the amount of reporting they have done on what happened. It was quite extraordinary seeing (BBC presenter) Carrie Gracie being carried live on the BBC News channel criticising the BBC."

Sky, like other major employers, will shortly be required to produce its own gender pay gap data. Nicolotti Squires says she does not know what these company-wide numbers will show. But she does argue that private businesses benefit at the bottom line from having more women in senior roles. "Boards that have more women on them actually make more money," she says. "Parity doesn’t just make ethical sense it also makes good financial sense."

The current Sky board, chaired by James Murdoch, has eight men and three women.

The company, and with it Sky News, may soon be under different ownership. On this prospect, Nicolotti Squires is cautious. “All I can say is the company line, that Sky and 21st Century Fox are working with the CMA, the CMA has made its preliminary findings and they put forward some remedies, and 21st Century Fox has put forward some remedies and it will play out," she says.

But while the commissioning of 100 Women had "nothing to do" with the CMA review and the takeover process, the landmark project is a demonstration of the network's value in the UK news ecology, she argues. "Programmes like this show how important it is to have Sky News out there debating these important topics."

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell