Katty Kay, Calibrating Britney for the Beeb
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007; C01
Katty Kay was looking over the lineup for her BBC newscast, which was packed, as usual, with serious global news: The Iranian president making provocative remarks on his country's nuclear program, followed by surging violence in Somalia and a report on a British terror trial.
Glancing to her right, she saw a "Just In" headline on CNN: "Britney in Rehab."
Bemused, Kay tapped out a message, without details, to her editor in London: Should they mention the suddenly bald pop tart? Not at all, Steve Reilly replied.
Moments later, a second message from Reilly appeared on her computer: "Ah, just saw that she has entered rehab. Yes we will do it."
They did it in all of three sentences, for viewers don't turn to her nightly "BBC World" telecast for the latest Britney Spears high jinks. They expect Kay to take them to countries and delve into subjects that barely rate a mention on American newscasts.
"For our niche audience, if you want this stuff, this is the only place to get it," says Kay, who has lived in Washington for a decade. And the audience is no longer quite so niche: Kay reaches more viewers in this country than most cable news hosts. But unlike, say, PBS's "NewsHour," she must calibrate her content for a global audience.
The three-year-old "BBC World" is seen by 1 million Americans, about 80 percent on PBS stations (including Washington's WETA at 6 p.m. weeknights and WHUT at 7), and much of the rest through the cable channel BBC America. Around the world -- it does not air in Britain -- the half-hour newscast claims to reach 65 million viewers each week.
Kay, 42, brings a European perspective to her job, a no-nonsense demeanor to the anchor chair and a fresh perspective on the familiar. She is conversant enough with Beltway politics -- and witty enough on the air -- to be in demand as a pundit on Washington chat shows, but she also understands the animosity toward America.
On trips home to London, Kay says, "I almost got to a state where you didn't want to say you lived in America." Kay would find herself defending the United States, arguing that friends were being intellectually lazy by allowing their distaste for the Iraq war to turn into a condemnation of an entire country.
But the war also helped fuel her broadcast's popularity. "There is some sense in the States that people haven't been getting the full picture," Kay says, especially among those who feel "the administration hasn't always been quite straight with them."
During the run-up to the war, Kay says, "some of the reporting became jingoistic," and she noticed "the extent to which the administration was being given something of a free pass." By contrast, she says, "the British media has always been very questioning of the motives for invading Iraq, and of the situation after the invasion."
Now, though, she sees her American counterparts catching up: "The people no longer buy the line that the press should be cowed into not reporting what they're seeing because the administration might say they're only reporting bad news."
On this afternoon, with less than 90 minutes to airtime, the war shakes up her carefully crafted lineup. An anchor on BBC's British cable channel is holding up copies of the Guardian and the Sun, which are reporting that Prime Minister Tony Blair plans to pull about half his soldiers from Iraq in the coming months. Kay has a new lead story, and scrambles to arrange an interview with a correspondent in London.
The Beeb has confirmed the pullout through unnamed British sources, but shortly before airtime Kay rewrites her "cue," or introduction, to tout a last-minute confirmation that one of her reporters obtained from the White House.
She cautions that the Somalia report should not slip too deep into the broadcast. Kay considers Africa "massively undercovered" in the United States and feels a personal connection to the continent because her first job, as a BBC radio reporter in 1990, was in Zimbabwe.
Kay has always been something of a nomad. As the daughter of a British diplomat and a mother who specialized in archaeology, she spent her childhood in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco and Peru. She studied modern languages at Oxford.
After stints for the BBC in London and Tokyo, Kay moved to Washington in 1996, later jumping to the Times of London bureau here before returning to the BBC. This is the longest she has lived in one place, which marks her as an "oddball" in her family. Kay's parents live in Cyprus, and she has one brother in Hong Kong, another in Nairobi, and a sister in Qatar.
Kay has appeared on such programs as "Today," "Meet the Press" and the "Chris Matthews Show." She is married to a BBC veteran, and their three older children (they also have a 1-year-old) attend public school in Georgetown. Kay says they sound very American -- "It's almost as if they're speaking a foreign language" -- when they're with their friends.
Compared with the pacing of U.S. newscasts, Kay's program has an unhurried feel. Her interview with Tehran correspondent Frances Harrison, who says Iranians have been "brainwashed by the state media," underscores the value of reporters who live in the countries they cover. And where else would you learn that the U.S. State Department has reiterated its call for democracy in Fiji?
The broadcast is put together with what Kay's producer and cubicle mate, Paul Werdel, calls "smoke and mirrors," with Werdel doing everything from scanning the wires to booking guests to feeding taped pieces to London, where the broadcast originates. Kay applies her own makeup before slipping into the studio.
"Although Katty is one of the most glamorous anchors in the Western world, when you look at us, we don't look glitzy," says Justin Webb, the bureau's chief radio correspondent and Kay's principal substitute. "There is a yearning among a lot of Americans, of both political persuasions, who are just sick of glitz."
Some politicians are taking note. Kay has interviewed the likes of Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Howard Dean and Trent Lott, but has had little luck with Bush administration officials. When she asked White House adviser Karl Rove for a sit-down during the 2004 campaign, he declined on the grounds that "there are no votes in Wales."
As the Spears episode made clear, "BBC World" doesn't deal exclusively with global policy issues. Kay has chatted up Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and considers the culture here a subject of international fascination. "For all the anti-Americanism around the world, people have this love of Americana," Kay says.
But just as she begins to sound like an honorary Washingtonian with perfect diction, there are reminders that Kay sees our culture through foreign eyes. When State Department official Karen Hughes told women in Saudi Arabia that it was a shame they weren't allowed to drive, Kay instantly saw the problem: "Saying it to a group of Saudi women is going to come across as patronizing. For me, it was no surprise they were upset that an American diplomat was telling them how to live their lives."
Despite her comfortable perch here, Kay doesn't expect to stay in the United States for another decade. "I like trying new things," she says. "You only have one life."