Doctor of Laws
Thursday 23 July 2015 at 1.30pm - Orator: Professor Terrell Carver
Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor,
Many of our guests here today will remember all too well the sad events of the early hours of 31st August 1997. What might have been a quiet weekend at the end of summer was transformed by a tragic car crash in Paris into something far more dramatic and memorable. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was an emblematic moment of our age. Moreover, it was an event unlike any other hitherto, transformed by modern technology that offered instantaneous and comprehensive coverage across the globe. It demanded prompt, direct analysis; it demanded full, immediate treatment. On BBC News, Nik Gowing, called in after just two hours sleep, fronted the broadcast for seven hours: around six in the morning UK time he announced to the world that Diana had died of her injuries.
The death of Diana was not the only occasion on which Nik found himself anchoring such a momentous and unexpected event. On Tuesday 11th September 2001, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks took place in New York and Washington. Once again, Nik was at the helm for the BBC, coordinating coverage of a day that unfolded in startling and very uncertain directions. It was another milestone in what is to this day an on-going and extremely distinguished career.
Nik came up to Bristol in October 1970 to read Geography, but his career trajectory was already set. As a schoolboy he had his own TV studio set, albeit with an orange-box camera and a set of toilet-roll, pre-zoom lenses. Here was someone who knew what he wanted, and never took ‘no’ for an answer. While the now-iconic geographers Peter Haggett and Michael Chisholm were inspirational, the action was really elsewhere: just up the Whiteladies Road at the BBC studios, where Nik was doing shift work, newsroom and technical services, and also spinning ‘vinyls’ as they were in those days. He would do just about anything that would get him – eventually – to his goal: Foreign Correspondent. Speeding through the streets of Bristol on a Honda 150 motorbike – bulked out with a 1970s tape recorder – was good practice for the perils that lay ahead. Unsurprisingly he skipped his graduation at Bristol to hustle his way up to what was then a small black-and-white screen. We are lucky to have him with us today to receive his degree in person.
Nik joined ITN, becoming Diplomatic Editor at Channel 4 News, and going on, in 1996, to work for the BBC. By May 2014, he was the longest serving presenter on the World News. He covered the formation and subsequent crushing of the trade union Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s, for which he won a BAFTA award. Perhaps rather more to the point, he was later awarded a Medal of Honour for helping to bring democracy to Poland, not least by snipping up video tapes, winding them round human ‘mules’, and getting the footage out to the West. He was there at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, eye-witnessing the final messages within the Politburo and the calls for orders from border guards that went unanswered. He scrambled westwards to the Brandenburg Gate and reported first-hand from the East German side. He saw the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and detailed the developments in Bosnia as the former Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s – which contributed to another BAFTA win for Channel 4 News.
What skills did he bring to such activities? Anchoring is clearly an extremely challenging role, one that requires a number of distinct attributes: calmness, an aptitude to juggle different feeds, and the ability to respond flexibly and swiftly. Perhaps, above all, it needs a capacity to engage with viewers in a meaningful manner. As Nik said, ‘When I’m looking at that camera, I’m thinking about who’s out there. I’m always thinking about the audience…what is known, what we know, what they need to know, so that at the end they will have a much more complete picture of the way the world is’. When asked, on one occasion, about his qualities, Nik suggested that he was ‘inquisitive, determined, relentless, and probably never fully satisfied’: in short the kind of characteristics we might hope to find in any successful Bristol graduate.
It would be mistaken to focus simply on the practical dimensions of Nik’s contribution to news coverage. He was one of the first journalists to understand the importance of changing media technology in the modern era, with instant global coverage in a plethora of different forms. A world where all news is global; where all news is immediate. Nik was quick to argue that such technology – for example in the form of mobile phones or the internet – offered a fundamental challenge to traditional centres of power and authority. Stories would circulate much faster than they had in the past: the news would be much harder to control and contain than had once been the case. The implications for governance were profound: social media challenges the orthodox assumptions of power, its distribution and its stability. There is considerable potential for far-reaching change throughout society. He developed this thinking in the earliest days of the internet with a fellowship in 1994 at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His book Sky Full of Lies and Black Swans (for Reuters and Oxford University) sets this out in fine, scholarly style. He is currently Visiting Professor in Social Sciences and Public Policy at King’s College, London.
Nik’s philosophy of journalism, and wise counsel for journalists is this: ‘I don’t think one story is more important than another: by the nature of what we put on the air everything is important.’ Successful journalism, he suggests, means never taking ‘no’ for an answer, and never ceasing to ask awkward questions. Nik has done exactly that, and continues to do so.
Madam Pro Vice- Chancellor, I present to you, Nik Gowing, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.