Doctor of Laws
Tuesday 10 February at 2.30pm - Orator: Professor Sarah Childs
Sarah Montague is, of course, nationally known as one of the voices of the BBC’s Radio 4 flagship Today programme. Although you may have also seen her on Newsnight, BBC 1 News, BBC breakfast, or heard her recent series The Educators.
I first met Sarah in 2005. It was 6:50 am. She asked me about women and the general election. Nothing came out of my mouth. ‘You have to say something’, I thought. Which I did - after she smiled encouragingly at me – revealing a Madonnaesque gap in her front teeth, that one viewer had kindly written in and suggested his dentist might fix.
If many of you regularly wake up to Sarah, students will – if my students are anything to go by - catch up on iPlayer. Students are not very keen on early mornings. Nor was Sarah. Her University friends remain astounded that her alarm goes off at 3:30 am. That she is live from 6 am. One friend had to climb into her bedroom to awaken her for her finals - not that she ever admitted this to her parents. Do not despair: your children’s tendency to remain in bed until the afternoon is merely a phase.
I want to formally welcome Sarah to the Wills Memorial Building and to her first Bristol graduation. As was often the fashion in the 1980s, students were not so enamoured by such traditions and parents apparently were less invested in such ceremonies, although she’ll be going to her daughters’.
Sarah’s route from Bristol to the BBC was via a biology degree: a girl who could do sciences, though she admits to rarely attending lectures. It is too late for today’s graduates, but you might tell younger siblings: you really should attend lectures – you will have regrets later when you imagine what you might recall if only you’d gotten out of bed.
Post-Bristol, Sarah spent a couple of years in the City realising that she didn’t really like it. Given she was made redundant and sacked, including by a friend, twice, the City didn’t agree with her either. She did some travelling. A period at home to lick her wounds – you may think they have fled the nest...
Ambitious, not wanting to fail – and crucially, finally able to admit that she wanted to be a journalist – Sarah offered her coffee making services to the tiny TV station on Guernsey. Her first interviews left her ‘flying’. She’d not been a student journalist, but she fully believes that ‘you can’t fail if you love what you do’ and that you should ‘believe that the world is your oyster’. Her first day on national TV wasn’t the best: an obituary feature with the ‘wrong’ picture.
What is it that gets Sarah out of bed so early? Being called at no notice to Lehman Brothers on the day it crashed; to Afghanistan for a repatriation ceremony: extraordinary, sad, but gripping; and presenting BBC world’s Hardtalk since 1997. One memorable interviewee: an unknown Belgian doctor - the first to identify AIDS in the heterosexual population in Africa; the same doctor who also identified Ebola.
I get the sense that Sarah would be tempted to return to television. It is something in the way she speaks about the exhilaration of talking over pictures as both she and the viewers see them for the first time - of making it all seamless. It’s the privilege of some fascinating new idea to get her head around every day.
Sarah is undoubtedly a role model for women in the media; embodying / signalling the ‘new normal’. It is a responsibility that Sarah has come to take more and more pride in. She was the ‘only woman’ for over a decade on the Today programme. This is a status and moniker she’s been very, very happy to give up. Today is a radio show notable for large personalities and a masculinised interviewing style and when there was only Sarah, there was always the risk of the ‘older man, younger woman’ dynamic. Work patterns are now truly random. Sometimes you even get Sarah and Mishal. The first time, some people noticed and celebrated – I cheered from my bed. For others it passed by unnoticed. Sarah’s ‘new normal’ once again.
Sarah may have looked ‘a little bit BBC2’ for TV. Not groomed enough. Her first pregnancy made it onto the Telegraph’s front page – a little presumptuous of this new presenter perhaps? But her Today programme longevity is unambiguous evidence that this – and I quote – ‘phenomenally lazy’ Bristol student excels in what she loves doing: news presenting. And I have to say, I’m always cheered up when I hear Sarah’s deep and rather dirty laugh so early in the morning
How does Sarah’s career speak to you as new graduates of this University? That the friends you met on the first night– in Sarah’s case, armed with a bottle of martini – are likely those that are still there three decades on. That you will always fondly recall the Bristol pubs, clubs, cafes that you frequented. Summer evenings at the Avon Gorge hotel, perhaps. Of student living, maybe in Redland and Clifton – I hope yours was less damp than Sarah’s. Of reggae clubs in St Pauls - though this probably dates her.
And what of us, those who taught you? Sarah reminds us – in a salutary fashion - that one day our paths may cross again. She was once knocked off her bike on Park Row...looking up she saw one of her lecturers scurrying away. Years later, there on her running order was his name. Only her professionalism prevented Sarah from telling the country. That this was the Bristol professor who’d pushed her off.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Sarah Montague as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.