Doctor of Laws
Tuesday 17 July 2012 at 2.30 pm - Orator: David Alder
It was Graham Greene who said:
‘Perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction.’
Of course, as Mark Twain said:
‘Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.’
Perhaps no one in this room today is more qualified to underline that point than Kate Adie, to whom we are awarding an honorary Doctor of Laws in recognition of her profound contribution to journalism.
Kate is the ultimate professional, her seemingly fearless approach to reporting in the most dangerous of circumstances led to the quip that the mark of a good decision is perhaps boarding a plane at an airport where Kate Adie is alighting.
Kate was born in Northumberland and was brought up by her adoptive parents in Sunderland where, according to her autobiography, ‘life was a sunny experience, full of meat paste sandwiches and Sunday school’. It was from these beginnings that Kate then went on to read Scandinavian studies at the University of Newcastle. Kate admits to having somewhat neglected her ‘A’ levels and points to an energetic headmistress who, in Kate’s words, managed to get Kate into university via the academic cat flap.
While at university, Kate fully embraced all of the extra-curricular activities on offer and says she was involved in every society going. Indeed, it was during Kate’s second year that she received a telegram from her Professor that simply read: “Are you still one of my students?” This had the intended effect.
Kate describes her time at university as experiencing ‘an intellectual firework display’, and recalls with joy having seen some of the great thinkers and intellectuals in action, including the artist Richard Hamilton. Kate and her fellow students campaigned so that students could attend all lectures. The campaign was successful – and mirrors years later our own Best of Bristol lectures.
It was also while at university that Kate was approached as a potential candidate for MI6. She describes how the Dean of Arts conducted an affable and rather surreal interview during which Kate managed to glean that she would have access to very fine canteens and tennis courts.
MI6’s loss was the BBC’s gain when, in 1969, Kate began her broadcasting career at BBC Radio Durham. This was followed by a period at BBC Bristol, just a few minutes’ walk from this building. Kate later moved into television and reported for news in Plymouth and Southampton. It was then in 1976 that Kate joined the national news team.
Most successful careers need a break, a leg up of some kind. For Kate, this arguably came thirty two years ago when in 1980, as a duty reporter, she was present on the scene when the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment stormed the Iranian Embassy – ending what seemed an intractable siege and forever changing the way in which the British Government would respond to hostage situations. The broadcast cut across the snooker championships, another bonus, and the nation watched spell bound as Kate reported live to one of the largest news audiences ever, while also crouching for safety.
This was one of those moments in a career that are now referred to as a tipping point. Kate says that to begin with, it wasn’t a case of Kate being the default person sent into conflict scenarios, and that serendipity had a part to play.
However, Kate would soon become a regular feature at many of the world’s disasters and theatres of conflict. The list includes the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986, the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 and, following her promotion to Chief News Correspondent in 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests. An assignment which resulted in Kate’s second reporting-based injury - a gunshot wound to her elbow.
Kate was awarded the Richard Dimbleby Award from BAFTA in 1990 and, in 1993, was awarded an OBE.
Over the next ten years or so Kate took up significant reporting positions in the first Gulf War, in Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda and the war in Sierra Leone.
Given the breadth and depth of horrors that Kate has seen, one might wonder what lessons Kate might have for us about the human condition. She is an optimist and marvels at people’s capacity to overcome the worst hardships while maintaining their humanity.
Kate’s exposure to the horrors of conflict has also given her an appreciation of what many of us take for granted. Among these Kate lists granite kerb stones and decent paving; citing them as an illustration of a democratic society, where pedestrian and vehicle have equal status. She says she is most definitely ‘in praise of kerb stones’ and one is struck again by her most magical turn of phrase.
In 2003 Kate became a freelance journalist. This did not remove Kate from the public eye, or ear – her voice regularly present, for example, on From our own correspondent on BBC Radio 4, a programme which has run for over 50 years and is described within the BBC, Kate says, as ‘the old war horse’.
Kate also hosted the series Found in 2005 and 2006 in which the impacts of adoption were explored – a set of circumstances close to Kate’s heart.
Not content with being a national figure in journalism, Kate is also a best-selling author. Her autobiography, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ published in 2002, is a compelling read, providing an up close view of front line reporting and providing a glimpse into the realities of being ‘where it’s at’. It is also a book that inspires as it shows keenly what it was like to be a woman in what was then, most assuredly, a man’s world.
When asked how she feels about being held up as a role model for women, her reply is typically modest. She explains that there were women before her who had reported from war zones and that possibly the reason she was associated with being one of the first is due to the broadcast media becoming much more mainstream at the same time that she was reporting.
Kate’s second book, ‘Corsets to Camouflage: Women and War’ reveals the role of women in war situations through the ages and her third book, ‘Nobody’s Child’ provides a personal, thought provoking and moving insight into a range of challenging childhood experiences and perhaps helps us all to question who and, importantly ‘why’ we are who we are.
A fourth book, ‘Into Danger: People Who Risk Their Lives for Work’ was published in 2008 and takes us on a fascinating journey around the world as Kate brings to life the stories of individuals whose daily routines are fraught with risk and danger. Not a book for the faint hearted, but Kate is herself, far from being faint of heart. However, she insists that she is not an adrenalin junkie; getting her rush, instead, from, as she describes it, ‘nailing a story’.
I asked Kate to tell me about the time she was most scared. Kate states that she doesn’t have a particular time, there being so many. She points out that there are different types of fear. There’s the anticipatory fear you experience when reporting from an area that is frequently being shelled, then there is the fear you experience when you are approached by a man wielding a knife who threatens to cut your throat.
One might ask what compels Kate. She says that being a journalist is an honourable profession and that it can lead to a life where you are privileged to experience a whole range of things of which you couldn’t possibly dream.
Her message to our students is typically powerful and pragmatic: “To anyone starting out after having studied hard and having been fortunate enough to have been at university, I have four words – have fun, do good.”
I can’t think of anything that better encapsulates our philosophy.
Madam Chancellor, I present to you Kate Adie as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.