Jennifer Susan Murray OBE
Doctor of Laws
16 July 2004 - Orator: Professor Richard Hodder-Williams
Our previous Chancellor was wont to observe that Bristol was famously a great city from which to sail forth. He was probably thinking of John Cabot sailing off to the New World in The Matthew as much as our own graduates who set forth today. If I too can think a little laterally, but in a more modern context, some of the institutions with whom we work closely in this great city, such as the BBC, are also successful launchpads. Indeed, it was at the BBC in the Whiteladies Road that Jenni Murray, as it were, cut her milk teeth mediawise. A product of one of the many great grammar schools in the north of England, Barnsley Grammar School, she graduated with a degree in French and Drama from the University of Hull before beginning her career in 1973 on BBC Radio Bristol. She then shifted to BBC TV South. From there she went to London, first on BBC Newsnight, then back to radio to Radio 4’s Today programme in 1985. Wisely she gave up the dawn chorus slot for the post-prandial Woman’s Hour in 1987, later to be retimed in 1991 as a precursor to elevenses. More recently, she has become presenter for The Message, a programme that takes a serious look at media matters, widely defined.
It is for her work on Woman’s Hour, however, that Jenni Murray is, of course, best known. In 1999 she was awarded the OBE for her contribution to radio broadcasting, and in March this year Woman’s Hour won the Television and Radio Industries Club award for the best radio programme. But not everybody rates Woman’s Hour highly. Recently a columnist in The Spectator referred to “that very annoying programme Woman’s Hour (one minute being militantly gynaecological, the next giving recipes for butternut-squash soup)”. It seems to me that there are often very good reasons to annoy some people and a programme aimed at women that doesn’t touch on the gynaecological will surely have severe deficiencies. I guess that butternut-squash soup has long been off the menu.
Women’s Hour was started in 1946, by a man, four years before Jenni Murray was born. It is now 58 years old, reaches 2.68 million people each week (that’s 2.68 million different people who listen for at least several minutes) and counts one man for every two women (including me if I am travelling in the car). One out of every fourteen people in the country listening to the radio between 10.00 and 11.00 in the morning listen to Women’s Hour. There is no denying its potential impact.
Jenni Murray’s vision for Woman’s Hour would inevitably generate some critical response. Because it continues to address issues that arouse deep emotions, often cause embarrassment and divide people. As long ago as 1948 Dr Josephine Butler had given her talks on the menopause, incurring the wrath of the channel controller of the time who advised: “we do not wish to hear of hot flushes and diseases of the ovaries at 2 o’clock in the afternoon”. But, of course, very large numbers of people did, although Jenni was usually sent out by her mum on an errand when too racy a topic occurred.
We should, perhaps, remember that the average age of Radio 4 listeners is 53 (not at all far from Jenni Murray’s age) and they grew up in the later 1960s and early 1970s, in a radical era of the Beatles, recreational drug-taking, the sweeping spread of the Pill, the events of 1968, and the great age of convention challenging satire. I am reminded of Michael Flanders’ observation at the time: “Satire squats hoof in mouth under every bush. The purpose of satire is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and half truth and our job is to put it back again”. Jenni Murray may not be in to satire but she is certainly happy to strip of the veneer of comforting illusion and half-truth. And so, of course, are her listeners. For they are of her age and share many of her values. They are not geriatric defenders of some long gone conservative Eden.
As people debate the meaning of public service broadcasting in the run-up to yet another examination of the role of the BBC, Woman’s Hour, as guided by Jenni Murray, epitomises its ideal virtues. She has her strong views; she has her emotional side, which occasionally flows over into the broadcast herself; but she has the calm and balanced tones and approach of the best interviewers. That is what you hear. In London, Jenni Murray is a dynamo. She lives in a taxi, rushing from project to project, meeting to meeting, always on the phone or talking or chairing or broadcasting. Before the programme itself, as the adrenaline rises, there can be a certain frisson in the office, where fools are not much suffered and needful questions require quick and accurate answers. Imagine being at the receiving end of that glance over the glasses! And what comes out in the end? An interview that is mellifluous, informative, probing without being intrusive, the very acme of public broadcasting. And afterwards, there is a post-programme blues. For a short time. And then the energy re-emerges, and there is kindled the fascination with the next set of interviewees, however grand, however humble, each treated as important in their own right. The taxis are summoned again.
There is a second Jenni Murray. Like most of the best radio journalists, she has not been afraid to replace the short interview with the longer, matured book. You, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, will be familiar with Frank Zappa’s observation that “most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read”. Jenni Murray is clearly into some other kind of journalism. For she can clearly write, she interviews and draws upon the wisdom of highly articulate people, and is read quintessentially by those for whom the written word is important. Two books stand out. The first Is it me or is it hot in here? A Modern Woman’s Guide to the Menopause developed from very personal experience, but it also reflected her concern for what was high on the priorities of many of her listeners. Her second, That’s My Boy, also grew out of her own concerns. Both were conceived in need, deeply researched, and delivered with style. “This is not an academic tome”, she firmly wrote. That is true, but, given an afternoon, the wide range of sources could be listed in footnotes and a very decent offering for some Research Assessment Exercise would be prepared. Earlier this year she was appointed a visiting professor in the University of Westminster, whose Department of Journalism and Mass Communication was ranked top in the last three Guardian annual surveys of university media courses. It is difficult to think of Jenni Murray as a professor (she is too down-to- earth) but there us much to be learned from her writings.
There is, finally, a third Jenni Murray. One might guess it from her childhood. As she herself has recorded, “I fell out of trees, had to be dragged from near drowning after being the only one to take the dare to walk across the ice on a filthy duck pond, came off a fantastically speedy, home-made go-kart whilst racing downhill, and grazed my knees with alarming regularity from frequent falls in our games of cowboys and Indians”. This is the Jenni Murray who now has a farmhouse home in the Peak District, gets up late, used to ride horses across the moors, potters in her garden, and has a great love of for animals (her eldest son is studying to be a vet). At one point, the family had four dogs, two cats, two horses, a snake, a spider, a parrot, a cockatoo, stick insects, a rabbit, quails, ducks, chicken, pigs and sheep! Her human family was rather smaller, but no less loved. Watching boys play rugby when you neither embrace the game’s niceties (there are some) nor comprehend why people would want to engage in such a violent game voluntarily, is an indication of love and pride. For twenty years she lived with a partner, finally cast off some of the ideology of the 1960s and married him in 2002, reversed parenting roles with equanimity and success, and expressed no little criticism of those women who chose the alternative unthinkingly…unthinkingly.
Is Jenni Murray a feminist? Her inspiration was the redoubtable Barbara Castle, a great champion of women’s interests. “Jenni”, she once said, “I worry about the silly things these young feminists say. I don’t mind whether I am the chair, the chairwoman, or the chairman … so long as I am in the chair!” Just so. It is interesting to note that the sub-titles of her two major books are A Modern Woman’s Guide to the Menopause and A Modern Parent’s Guide to Raising a Happy and Confident Son. I think she is a better judge of her own philosophy than are many commentators. Much of the focus in Women’s Hour now is on issues of masculinity and the emerging movement for men’s rights. Modern and thinking; those are the adjectives that describe her best. Those reflect the qualities that public broadcasting needs and Women’s Hour (and, indeed, The Message) almost always displays.
Much water has flowed under the media bridges since Jenni Murray arrived in Bristol in 1973. Many individuals will have been touched personally by an item on Woman’s Hour; many will have been moved, or enlightened, or challenged by listening in; others will have enjoyed the personal commitment and advice from reading her writings. It, therefore, gives me great pleasure, Mr Vice-Chancellor, to present to you Jenni Murray OBE as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.