Doctor of Laws
Wednesday 17 July 2013 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Mark Wickham-Jones
Permit me to start, if I may, with two anecdotes. The first took place about seven years ago. I was sitting on a bright October day outside a café in Brighton, reading a chapter by a postgraduate student. Across the street, I recognised a former student, a graduate from the Department of Politics, going into a newsagent. Before I had time to think about getting up to greet him, he came out and spoke directly to the camera crew filming him. After delivering a few sentences, he broke off, went back into the shop, came out, and started again. Then he did so once more, then again and again. Indeed, the whole sequence was repeated eight or nine times.
The second anecdote took place a few years earlier, around 2001. Once again I was in Brighton: it was late at night in the Labour party conference headquarters hotel. As is quite often the case at the Labour conference, it had been a long, tiring, bruising, fractious day. I was meeting James Landale to unwind, to discuss political developments and reminisce a little about student life in Bristol. We were about to sit down when a delegate came across and started talking to us. She was quite agitated, upset about developments that had taken place during the conference that day. To many of us, such an interruption would have been an unwelcome, unnecessary disruption. For James, not a bit of it, he turned to the delegate: engaged and interested, he gave her his full attention and talked calmly with her the next thirty minutes. Whatever else, her concerns would be voiced; her fears heard.
I offer the first anecdote not as evidence that mistakes are made or as proof that talking direct to camera to summarise a political point is harder than it looks. No doubt that is the case. Rather I do so because I think it demonstrates the meticulous, painstaking commitment of our honorary graduand. It conveys the determination, precision, and care with which he conducts his work. Delivering lines to camera, succinct summaries of news items, may look straightforward. Practise is not always quite so simple. It represents what the American novelist, William Maxwell once called ‘the pleasure of getting it down right’. The second anecdote shows a deep humanity. Taken together I hope that they illustrate the kind of qualities that the University of Bristol instils in its graduates, alongside of course their academic virtuosity and talent. I think that such qualities were clear in James Landale’s contributions as a student studying Politics at Bristol in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
James came to Bristol in October 1987. He graduated with an outstanding first class honours degree in Politics in 1990, and returned to take a masters degree in International Relations a couple of years later. Academically, he was an engaged and imaginative student: one of his finals papers is well remembered by staff, and talked about, more than twenty years later. In it, he offered a bold and rather good pastiche of a Socratic dialogue as means of establishing a framework to discuss particular aspects of political theory. Perhaps slightly unusually for someone who was going to spend so much of his career at Westminster and in the media, James’ main love at university was in political theory. He told an interviewer afterwards, ‘I loved the Hobbes, the Locke, that’s what fascinated me, rather than you know the nitty gritty comparative politics between how the British system compares to the American system.’ In another interview, he fondly remembered his time in Politics as ‘an opportunity to talk rubbish’.
But, of course, James had more impact on the University than simply leaving the shadow of a strong first class degree. He was a significant figure in the foundation and development of the student newspaper Epigram. Responding to an advert from the students union, he was appointed the paper’s first editor and set a high, demanding standard to which students filling that role aspire to this day. Following his selection as editor, he went out, got hold of an Apple Mac with pretty much the whole budget, and produced the first four page issue. His focus from the start was on the journalism. When asked how to become a political journalist, he later said, ‘the answer should be become a journalist, not become an expert in politics.’
More than 250 editions later Epigram continues to flourish, an integral part of student life at Bristol. To be sure, the Department of Politics, now part of the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies has had its share of ups and downs in its relationship with Epigram. One remembers the front page story about MI5 recruitment in the Department, complete with references to Dr Vernon Hewitt, as a bit of a down. I hasten to add that Dr Hewitt was the source of the story, and not the recruiter, if there was one. But there have been far more ups than downs. There is no doubt that Epigram has been an important contributor to the richness of student and academic life at Bristol. Little wonder that James is by no means the only member of its editorial staff to move on to a successful career in the media.
Leaving Bristol, James worked at The Times for about a decade covering a number of areas. As a relatively inexperienced reporter, his career was boosted by a major scoop when, in 1995, he discovered that a poem by Fleur Adcock, a New Zealand poet living in the United Kingdom, was about to be published in Poetry Review. The opening line had some dramatic impact: the poet wrote, ‘In the dream I was kissing John Prescott.’ John Prescott of course being the Labour party’s rather gruff, no-nonsense deputy leader. The resultant item gave James one of his first front page stories. James ended up as Assistant Foreign Editor at The Times before leaving in 2003 to join the BBC. Six years later he became deputy political editor, the role in which he is well known to all of us. Since then he has become a familiar face offering succinct analyses of political events, accompanying government ministers on foreign journeys, and reporting annually from the party conferences. More recently, James has filled in for Andrew Marr on his Sunday morning programme and hosted the Westminster Hour on Radio 4. Earlier this year he joined the external advisory board of PolicyBristol at the University here.
These are tremendous achievements – to establish a thriving student newspaper, to become a successful political journalist, to have covered so many of the important political events of the last two decades. James’s achievements as a political correspondent, however, are all the more remarkable because they have been attained in the face of cancer. In October 2008, James was diagnosed with large B-Cell Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and underwent six bouts of chemotherapy. In this struggle, James has demonstrated the same sort of tenacity and fortitude as he has in his political reporting and professional life. Madam Chancellor, I present to you, James Landale, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.