Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Elinor Goodman

Oration given on 14 July 2000

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Elinor Mary Goodman.

There is a rather cynical saying in television news journalism: “If there ain’t no pictures then there ain’t no story”. This dictum is probably most applicable to foreign news, but it is not unusual for the domestic political journalist to lack riveting visual material to illustrate a piece -there is a limit to how many times you can focus on ministers answering questions in the Commons, before cutting away to pan across the Houses of Parliament from the Lambeth side of the Thames, before viewers start to lose concentration and slope off to make a cup of tea.

It is a measure of Elinor Goodman’s skills as a communicator and political analyst that she can hold the attention of mass audiences by the sheer quality of her assessments of current politics.  Whether she is broadcasting from the Westminster studios of ITN or from inside 10 Downing Street, there is the same incisive questioning and lucid, balanced evaluation of whatever the day has served up often leavened with a dash of scarcely suppressed mischievous humour.  We watch her and listen to her (and, more often than not, agree with her) because we admire her forensic skills and fair judgement.

Recently, the role of political editor in television has attracted something of the same kind of attention that is usually reserved for “celebrities” in the world of the cinema and entertainment.  The appointment of Andrew Marr as the BBC’s political editor, in place of Robin Oakley, who found himself being eased out of the job sooner than he had expected, together with John Sargeant’s move from the BBC to ITN following the retirement of Michael Brunson, have generated many columns of editorial comment and numerous articles about both the personalities and the job.

It was the same when the inimitable John Cole hung up his famous tweed overcoat and retired from the political editorship of BBC Television News.  Then, as one Sunday newspaper put it, Elinor Goodman was hotly tipped to “hop over the bleary hacks in macs” to succeed him.  In the end, she stayed with Channel Four News, where she remains as the programme’s political editor.

It is rare to see Elinor Goodman on screen in anything other than an urban setting.  Yet she is in her non-public life a quintessential country woman.  She likes nothing better than to be walking her dogs or riding her horses far from the metropolis, and she was for a while under consideration by the Prime Minister to head a nation-wide countryside body.  So how did she make the transition to television news?

Elinor Goodman left school with five O-levels.  She made five attempts to pass her Mathematics O level, but failed each time.  She admits to not being able to spell: “I’m a bit dyslexic,” she says, “but I’m worse with numbers”.  However, after a spell at secretarial college, she found a job in an advertising agency, but soon tired of being little more than a ‘phone minder’ for her boss.  So, she moved to Haymarket Publishing, the company set up by Michael Heseltine, out of which he made the financial wherewithal to pursue his eventful political career.

Heseltine, it seems, took the view that secretaries just don’t become journalists.  Nonetheless, Elinor Goodman stuck at it - rewriting stories (often through the night) for Campaign magazine.  She was still in her teens.  But then, at the age of twenty-one, she got a job as a media and marketing reporter on The Daily Telegraph.  She stayed only a year, before moving on, in 1971, to The Financial Times, first as consumer affairs correspondent, and then as political correspondent.  She says with typical modesty and self-deprecation, and with hindsight, that her early pieces to camera for Channel Four News were scarcely polished: “I was hopeless,” she says, “my first sentence was as long as a package.” But the lessons she learned at The Financial Times - rigour, fairness and no generalisations  - stood her in good stead, and since 1978 she has been, first, political correspondent and then political editor of Channel Four News.

In that time, Elinor Goodman established herself as one of Britain’s leading television analysts.  She is greatly respected by politicians of all parties and, one suspects, held in affection by many.  Fun, wit and humour are never far from the surface.  That said, she pulls no punches and does what any reporter worth his or her salt should do: she asks the kinds of questions that we, the viewing audience, would like to ask, were we to have the opportunity.  Almost as interesting as her jousts with politicians are her interviews with her colleague Jon Snow, Channel Four’s formidable anchorman.  There is a creative interaction there that goes well beyond merely answering set-piece questions.  Doubtless that is also part of the reason why she is held in such high esteem by her professional colleagues in the newsroom.

This university is well known, amongst other things, for its strength in political science.  It would be strange indeed to switch on television or radio on a general election night and not find several academics from Essex providing expert analysis for mass audiences.  But it can be a two-way process, and academics themselves rely a good deal on professional journalists for current news, opinion and insider information.  Elinor Goodman is someone who is not only well known in this context, but also greatly admired.

It is very likely that there will be a general election sometime in the next twelve months or so.  Already the pace of debate, denigration, self-advertisement, controversy and sheer blather is quickening.  What we all need is someone who is able to cut through this verbiage and, as they say in television, give us a “steer” on what is really going on.  It is in that role that we are likely to see more and more of Elinor Goodman and it is because of her skill and intellectual agility in doing this that we seek to honour her today.

Chancellor, I present to you Elinor Mary Goodman.