Yes, holding the powerful to account sometimes means showing an empty chair to a TV audience to challenge them. But a publicity stunt does nothing to help voters trust political journalism.

First published in November 2019.

On her morning show this morning, Sky’s Kay Burley decided to highlight the absence of the Conservative chairman James Cleverly by giving him the “empty chair” treatment live on air.

“There’s an empty chair here. It was supposed to be filled by the chairman of the Conservative Party. Where is he? He’s probably 15 feet away from where I’m standing,” Burley said before listing a number of legitimate questions she had wanted to ask him, from Boris Johnson equating Jeremy Corbyn with Stalin in today’s Telegraph to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Grenfell Tower comments, the calls for the Welsh Secretary to resign over the conduct of a former aid, or the row over the government’s failure to publish a report on Russian interference in UK elections, etc.

Kay Burley insisted that Cleverly was probably only a few feet away from her studio at the time but had refused to come on air, and ended with a damning comment: “And yet, we have an empty chair...”

Arguably, not a good look on Day 1 of the 2019 General Election campaign.

Watch the moment Kay Burley empty-chaired James Cleverly:

Of course, James Cleverly and his fellow Conservatives (including political gossip website Guido) were quick to criticise Kay Burley and the empty chair, claiming that she was wrong to say that he had refused to show up in her show because he was actually being interviewed on talkRADIO at the time.

talkRADIO themselves tried to protect Cleverly in a tweet saying that “Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly was talking with Julia when Sky News presenter Kay Burley cut to an empty chair, claiming he was refusing to come on the programme.”

The Chairman of the Conservative Party was indeed being interviewed on talkRADIO from a studio located in Millbank where Sky News also broadcast their programmes, but his interview with Julia Hartley-Brewer did not start until 8:49am.

And the first thing Hartley-Brewer herself actually mentioned to Cleverly was Kay Burley’s empty chair as something that had just happened, rather than something happening at the same time as the interview – thus contradicting talkRADIO and James Cleverly’s tweets.

“You seem to be causing something of a stir. Kay Burley on Sky News just empty-chaired you, rather cross that you’re not going on her show. Why not?” Julia Hartley-Brewer asked James Cleverly.

“Well... We hadn’t booked in to go on her show, and I was sitting in this studio preparing to talk to you, as I’m now doing, and she said ‘I want you to come on my show now’. I like to think I’m a pretty decent multi-tasker, but I cannot physically be in two places at the same time,” he answered.

So, who is right, who is wrong?

Alas, the devil is in the detail. According to Politico’s London Playbook, James Cleverly was not actually booked to attend Kay Burley’s show this morning, whilst he was indeed booked for talkRADIO.

Politico’s London Playbook.

And if, as already mentioned, Julia Hartley-Brewer’s interview did not start until 8:49am, Kate Burley’s empty chair moment took place at about 8:45am. Literally less than five minutes before James Cleverly was due to being interviewed on talkRADIO.

The first tweet mentioning the empty chair was posted at 8:46am.

In a nutshell, it looks improbable that James Cleverly either would, or even could have been interviewed on Sky News this morning because, 1. such an interview was not in his public agenda, and 2. it would have been too tight to squeeze him on Sky News with so many questions to answer for before his planned interview on talkRADIO.

Cleverly is wrong.

It is one thing for James Cleverly to say “I didn’t go on Sky because it was too tight to do both media” and claim instead that “I didn’t go on Sky because I was booked in to do, and was doing talkRADIO, when Sky cut to an empty chair.” Cleverly was simply not live on talkRADIO when Kay Burley cut to an empty chair on Sky News.

Burley is wrong too.

Yes, holding the powerful to account sometimes means showing an empty chair to a TV audience to challenge them. But a publicity stunt does nothing to help voters trust political journalism. It will be pointed at as an explicit act of bias by the very people it was intended to challenge. It can only backfire and end up harming public interest journalism.🔷

Update: The Press Association reports that the media watchdog Ofcom may investigate Kay Burley’s “empty chairing” of James Cleverly after receiving numerous complaints. PA says that the complaints are understood to relate to Kay Burley’s claims and the empty chair gesture. “We are assessing these against our broadcasting rules before deciding whether or not to investigate,” a spokeswoman for Ofcom said.

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 6 November 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Gif of the empty chair on the Kay Burley morning show.)