Andrew Neil and Susan Calman were awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Glasgow yesterday. Neil for his career in journalism and Calman for her mental health awareness and LGBT activism.
I managed to grab a few minutes with Neil, host of the Sunday Politics, chair of Press Holdings (Daily Telegraph and the Spectator), and former editor of the Sunday Times and the Glasgow Guardian.
Brought up in the Glenburn area of Paisley, Neil was the first in his family to go to university, “you kind of felt you were somewhere special, somewhere that mattered, and that you were privileged to be there, course in these days only 5% of kids leaving school went to university so you were privileged.
“And it really taught me great confidence and how to handle myself. And of course the university debates, if you could handle them you could handle anywhere. We used to wipe the floor with Oxford and Cambridge, because they were more into public speaking we were the scrappier kind, we knew how to do the debates.”
It is evidently this confidence, developed in the debating hall of the Glasgow University Union and in the University’s newspaper office that allowed Neil to hold his own among the “public school kids, who had gone to Oxford or Cambridge”, in his earlier years at the Economist and his editorship of the Sunday Times in the eighties and nineties.
He graduated in 1971 with an MA in politics, economics and American history. These subjects clearly stood him in good stead in the path he took, but one also gets the sense that the institution itself gave Neil a confidence he wouldn’t otherwise have had. He mentions Oxbridge graduates boasting about their colleges; “well it probably isn’t as old as Glasgow University; Oxford’s older but a lot of the colleges aren’t, same with Cambridge.”
Neil, whose editorship of the Sunday Times uncovered Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, had more cautious than encouraging words for students wanting to go into the media; “think long and hard about it, because it’s not as easy as you think. Unlike when I joined, the pay’s not great, you’re often expected to work for next to nothing until you get established and it’s not all glamour and in-front of camera stuff.
“It shouldn’t be seen as an easy option because it’s not nearly as difficult as engineering or being an economist or a doctor […] So you need to have a real interest in news, you need to be curious you need to have an ability to explain things, you need to think ‘I think this is important and I’m going to explain, either in print or in digital in a way that will make you think it’s important as well’ You have to have a passion for it, and to follow the news.
“And also, in the end, it’s not a profession it’s a trade. It’s like being a plumber, the more pipes you repair the better you get at it. It’s a different world from when I started out because you no longer go into one big media organisation and that’s you. Today journalists themselves are the brand, you have to be able to do everything, you have to be able to write for print, you have to be able to edit a podcast, you have to do digital and post online, and do blogs, you have to be able to do video, broadcast, TV, online.”
Our interview finished with him telling a story about being asked to hold a seminar on journalism, as Rector of St Andrews University: “400 of them turned up that morning, which is a lot at St Andrews, and before I began I said to them, ‘Right, what was the lead story in all the newspapers this morning?’ Not one of them knew, and I said ‘Okay, what was the lead story on the broadcasts, either broadcast TV or on the radio?’ They didn’t know. And I said, ‘Unusually, the lead story was, on every tabloid, every broadsheet, every broadcaster, it was that Jean Le-Pen had come second in the French presidential elections to go through to the second round. In other words, a neo-Nazi is going to be one of the two candidates in the final French presidential play-off. That is a massive story, both for France, for Europe, for the world, unprecedented. All of you are here because you think you might be journalists and not one of you knew that was the lead story. I tell you what, the seminar is over.’ And I walked out. ‘You want to be a journalist, you don’t read the papers?!’ That’s my message!”
He was then lead away for photographs in his ceremonial robes, clutching his scroll and beaming with pride to be back at the University that surely was the making of him.