Laureation address: Dr Kirsty Wark FRSE

Lauren Sykes
Friday 16 June 2023

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Niall Scott, Vice-Principal (Communications)

Friday 16 June 2023

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Kirsty Wark.

The Royal Television Society describes Kirsty as “one of the UK’s most formidable and versatile television journalists” – and for good reason. Wark boasts one of British broadcasting’s most impressive and extensive careers, demonstrating exceptional versatility in her spanning of journalism, programme production, and presenting.

Born in Dumfries and now based in Glasgow, Kirsty’s broadcasting career began in 1976 when she joined the BBC as a graduate researcher. At the age of 21, she was promoted to producer of BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland, before spending time in London as a producer on Radio Four’s The World at One and the PM programme. In 1983 she moved to television to produce BBC Scotland’s main news programme, Reporting Scotland, and was the first woman to edit the show.

Kirsty was one of the first journalists to arrive on scene when Pan Am Flight 103 was ripped apart by a bomb in the skies above Lockerbie in 1988. Two years later, she famously locked horns with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a headline-making interview that propelled her into the national spotlight.

Thatcher, we now know, did not like being interviewed by women, and Downing Street had done its best to have Kirsty taken off the job. The BBC was steadfast. The Government would not dictate who did the interview, and the UK had an early taste of the style of unyielding, conversational inquiry which was to become the hallmark of a stellar career.

“Mrs Thatcher thought I was impertinent, though I don’t think she would have thought a man was impertinent,” Kirsty said afterwards.

But long before Downing Street was trying to throw her career off track, a university careers adviser had tried to do the same, telling an undergraduate Kirsty that young women only join the BBC to be secretaries.

Thankfully, university careers advisers have changed somewhat since then, even if Downing Street’s news management efforts have not quite kept pace.

Given these early brushes with everyday sexism, we should not be surprised that Kirsty has consistently used her talents as a broadcaster, journalist, and story-teller to shatter boundaries and blaze trails for women, a cause she has subtly championed throughout her career.

Kirsty is perhaps now best known as an anchor on the BBC’s flagship News and Current Affairs show Newsnight. She is its longest-serving presenter, fronting the programme for three decades.

On Newsnight, Kirsty’s style is quietly professorial and persuasive. While her erstwhile Newsnight colleague Jeremy Paxman – nicknamed Paxo because of his tendency to ostentatiously stuff his interviewees on live television – preferred to repeat his questions aggressively without deviation or hesitation, Kirsty’s approach gives her interviewees the space and means to hoist themselves. I expect many of her subjects only realise the extent to which they have been expertly grilled when they smell themselves cooking in the green room afterwards.

“If someone doesn’t reply to a perfectly legitimate line of questioning, their silence speaks volumes about them,” she has said. This ego-free approach to holding the powerful to account is a welcome breath of fresh air in a broadcast media all too vulnerable to the cult of celebrity.

Words matter, but on TV, so do mannerisms. While Jeremy Paxman’s mock horse-face of incredulity became a celebrated British institution, the subtle Wark glance over the top of the reading glasses is no less iconic, and arguably significantly more effective. Heaven help you if the specs come off altogether.

In addition to news and current affairs, Kirsty presents many arts and cultural programmes; highlights have included interviews with Madonna, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, Damien Hirst, and George Clooney.

She has fronted many documentaries for BBC Television, including the critically acclaimed Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes and, more recently, The Insider’s Guide To The Menopause which was nominated for a BAFTA.

As one would expect of a polymath, she has interests and talents beyond the bounds of reportage and presenting. Food is one of Kirsty’s passions. She reached the final in Celebrity MasterChef in 2011 and was crowned top celebrity baker on The Great British Bake Off for Comic Relief. She has made cameo appearances in a range of television dramas, radio programmes and films, including Dr Who, Absolutely Fabulous, and Spooks.

She has many major accolades to her name including BAFTA Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, Journalist of the Year and Best Television Presenter.

Kirsty has written two novels – The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle and The House By The Loch – both published by Two Roads. She is currently writing her third novel.

In the foyer of Broadcasting House, from where Newsnight is broadcast, there is a statue of George Orwell and a quote from an unused preface to Animal Farm which reads: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

The preface was written in the 1940s, but those words are particularly relevant to our current political, academic, and social climate.

In the same unused preface, Orwell said: ‘…in this country, intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.’

In journalism and academia alike, thoughtful, persistent, brave, inquiring voices like that of our Honorand are more vital than ever.

Chancellor, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to journalism, broadcasting, and the art of the interview, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Kirsty Wark.

Posted in

Related topics