Alison Smale

Doctor of Laws

Friday 17 July –  Orator: Dr Mark Allinson

Mr Vice-Chancellor Alison Smale

Our honorary graduand today, Alison Smale, was present in Berlin on 9 November 1989 to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which more than any other symbolised the collapse of a social and political order which had shaped half the world since 1945. She was also present in New York on 11 September 2001, a day whose ramifications have made the world a much more dangerous place. And today, Mr Vice-Chancellor, our honorary graduand, so used to arriving in parts of the world at times of turmoil and high tension, comes to Bristol.

But for Alison Smale, this is a return visit to the city and the university from which she embarked in 1977, as a graduate of German and Politics, on a career in journalism, via a Masters programme in journalism at Stanford for which she won a hotly contested scholarship, and thence to foreign correspondent posts with two of the principal international news agencies, first United Press International, and from 1981 the Associated Press, before joining the New York Times in 1998.

Had Alison searched for the terms ‘globalisation’ or ‘Globalisierung’ in a dictionary in 1977, she would probably not have found them. Yet the news industry in which she has spent her career has been indelibly shaped by globalisation during the past thirty years or so. Back in 1977, CNN, the pioneer of rolling international news channels, had not yet been created and satellite communications were in their infancy. By contrast there is now a global community for news, via the web, television and international publications. And at the heart of this is Alison Smale, since 2004 managing and as of this year executive editor of the International Herald Tribune.

The International Herald Tribune was perhaps one of the first publications anywhere in the world to appreciate the importance of an international perspective on the news, with a history dating back to 1887 as the European edition of the New York Herald and distribution from London to the continent by air since the 1920s. Under its modern title, the International Herald Tribune has expanded by leaps and bounds. Published just in London and Zurich back in 1977, the paper is now distributed electronically to 35 presses around the world to appear in 180 countries. While many newspapers are available to buy around the world, and the web has given even the most parochial publication a global presence, the International Herald Tribune is one of a small handful of daily newspapers which can truly be called international, since it is built by editorial teams in America, Europe and Asia.

Though the paper is closely allied with the New York Times, Alison exemplifies its international focus by occupying the key editorial role from her base in Paris, ensuring that the Herald Tribune combines a variety of international perspectives rather than simply being an American paper printed abroad. Indeed, the company’s mission statement proclaims that: ‘We are cognizant of every country and captive of none.’

Alison Smale, described in a profile earlier this year as ‘surely the most powerful British female journalist working outside of London,’ has a background eminently suited to bringing an international perspective to the news and to analysis of world affairs. As a graduate of German, and also entirely fluent in French and Russian, she brings to her work the advantage of being able to understand much of Europe at first hand rather than through the medium of translation. For Alison, as for all our language graduates, this linguistic excellence enables her to get under the skin of people in the different countries she visits and writes about, and places her in a powerful position to do business as a senior executive in a major international company.

This linguistic talent means that Alison is able to read and appreciate the discourse of the written word of numerous societies in its original meaning, a benefit of which she was aware even as an undergraduate when researching a year abroad essay on the cultural sections of a variety of West German newspapers.

In a recent interview she commented that she ‘learnt very quickly that by learning languages I could escape the boring life I had been living as a child in England’. The life that followed can have been anything but boring, comprising postings to Bonn, Moscow and Vienna, and enabling Alison to develop deep insights into the political and cultural workings of a variety of countries in central and eastern Europe during the 1980s.

There could have been no better preparation for reporting on the dramatic changes which overtook eastern Europe at the end of that decade and for commenting on the restructuring of post-communist Europe during the 1990s, as well as frontline reporting from the wars which convulsed Yugoslavia during its protracted collapse. Alison is now able to draw on this wide experience in the regular essays she writes for her paper in which she can take the long view of European development, doubtless fed also by her training in the culture, heritage and politics of Europe, which are the hallmarks of Bristol’s degrees in modern languages generally, and of our degrees in Politics and a Modern Language in particular. Bristol degrees involving German have also proved fertile ground for other journalists of international repute, among them notably Misha Glenny and Katya Adler.

Working in communist eastern Europe in the 1980s and observing the progression of these countries to democracy also provided a key training in the importance of sound journalism based on the principles of truth and accuracy, in contradistinction to the misleading and secretive world of media dominated by ideologically driven one-party states. Alison’s journalism seeks not only to present an international view of the world, but one based above all on truth. In a recent interview with Bristol’s Nonesuch magazine, Alison commented that ‘truth is really important. We’ve been given language for a reason. Use it precisely.’

Mr Vice-Chancellor, this year you set out the fundamental parameters of this University’s approach to internationalisation, with a series of goals to ensure that the University of Bristol is a ‘global university’, in which we shall ensure that our students are prepared for the globalised world, and that academic staff can provide advice on global issues, based on research which ‘knows no boundaries’ and which addresses the ‘central, integrating questions’. This University has also taken a lead in the Worldwide Universities Network.

As a graduate of the University, Alison Smale demonstrates the qualities and the outlook that arise from this international perspective, and in her daily work contributes to the meaningful exchange of ideas and perspectives in the international community. It is entirely fitting, therefore, that we should mark her achievements at this ceremony.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Alison Smale as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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