Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Orla Guerin

Oration given on 11 July 2002

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon ORLA GUERIN.

Journalists such as Orla Guerin are increasingly described as war correspondents, but the wars they cover are unlike those of the past. William Howard Russell, who in 1854 went to report on the Crimean War for The Times as the world’s first war correspondent described himself as ‘the miserable parent of a luckless tribe’, but much has changed for his luckless tribe since Russell’s time, even since the memorable correspondents and photographers of the Second World War and the decades that followed. Today’s conflicts are less formal wars between states, and more struggles within states or resistance by people to territorial control by an outside power. These are conflicts in which the suffering of civilians seems much more powerful than the suffering of armies, and these are the conflicts which Orla Guerin has so memorably brought to our screens.

There was little reason for Orla Guerin to believe that this was the form of journalism in which she would so make her name. Born in Dublin, she graduated from the College of Commerce, Rathmines, with a Certificate in Journalism in 1985 and the Student of the Year award. Between 1985 and 1994 she worked for RTE, the Irish state broadcasting service, becoming its youngest ever correspondent when appointed to cover Eastern European in 1990. In that role she covered not only the break-up of the Soviet Union, for which she was awarded Ireland’s premier broadcasting prize, but the even more agonising disintegration of Yugoslavia. Honours have continued to flow.  Earlier this year the London Press Club named her Broadcasting Journalist of the Year.

In 1995 Orla Guerin joined the BBC. It would be intriguing to learn what she made of her first foreign posting, to Los Angeles, for the froth and glitter of Hollywood do not seem a natural subject for the Orla Guerin whom we know today, but this was merely a prelude to her three years in Rome as the BBC’s Southern Europe Correspondent, covering stories as diverse as Mafia killings and the beatification of a controversial Capuchin monk. In December 1998 she reported from Pisa on the latest scheme to save the Leaning Tower from collapse. As we now know, the lean was indeed corrected by the necessary half a degree - a happy ending, indeed, but Orla Guerin must feel that happy endings are all too rare in her work. It was from her base in Rome that she obtained an unprecedented interview with the leaders of the Basque separatist movement, ETA. The journey to meet the ETA leaders must have been frightening, hustled in and out of a series of cars with sticking plasters over her eyes. Much like a hostage, she reflected at the time, though with sunglasses to protect her dignity and, above all, without the hostage’s sense of terror. The interview was a rich but also a chilling one. In a typically memorable comment she observed ‘The interview has stuck with me, like a splinter beneath the flesh’

It was from Rome that Orla Guerin returned to the Balkans, and it was through her reports from Kosovo that viewers encountered her extraordinary capacity to combine graphic personal stories with incisive analysis. Over the last four years she has brought to us, in a style that is uniquely her own, the unfolding stories of Kosovo, Chechnya, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was her appointment as the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent in December 1999, just as the Intafada began, which has made Orla Guerin the national figure in Britain which she has long been in Ireland.

Many a reporter has the craft and can find the words, but Orla Guerin’s perhaps unique skill is to engage the human dimension of a story, to combine the power of the image with the power of her words, and to do so not merely to make us feel for those who are suffering, though that would be a worthy goal in itself, but as a prelude to helping us to understand. The mission to make us care allied to the mission to explain is a tough challenge, when it might seem easier simply to cover the latest atrocity. As she rushes to see the bodies at the scene of a suicide bombing in Israel, or the dead and wounded after a Palestinian town has been fired upon, the seemingly impossible task is to make us see it as if for the first time, to avoid turning these repeated horrors into mere clichés from which we can allow ourselves to be distracted. The mark of many an Orla Guerin report is the demanding and evocative opening image, in which we are forced to engage as human beings with our fellow human beings as they suffer. Her opening words have a haunting power to move us. On the Chechen border she began her report: ‘For Chechnya’s innocent civilians it has come to this. In terror they are fleeing on foot, even in a snow storm. Azia walked for hours, carrying her year-old grandson.’ Or the chilling opening words in a report from Kosovo: ‘In Racak today the old came to bury the young.’ Or, at the scene of a suicide bombing in the heart of Jerusalem, ‘Rushing away the wounded, one more time. She survived but others lost their lives in a busy market on a Friday afternoon.’ Orla Guerin presents us with these powerful images and powerful words, constructing the picture in short sentences laid side by side, a skilful televisual approach which works with the rhythm of the pictures on the screen rather than competing with them.

Like all good journalists, however, she has a mission to explain, and she rarely fails to do that. TV news is a frustratingly ephemeral medium, but a good journalist can instruct and can make an impact. One of her most striking recent reports saw her interview the mother of a Palestinian suicide attacker who had killed two Israelis before being shot dead himself. It was an encounter in which Orla Guerin sought not to glorify the young man nor to justify what he had done, but to show us the way a real mother was thinking, to help us appreciate the depths of the political problem which the Middle East faced. Dedicated television journalists complain that theirs is a superficial medium, but an interview such as this can be compelling. The British Foreign Secretary spoke the following day of the immense impact it had had on him, how it had made him think. The same can be said for many of us.

Orla Guerin’s talents are such that all of this comes to look almost effortless. It is anything but that. Her reporting is the outcome of professionalism, exhausting days and personal danger. Her alarm is set for the Israeli English-language radio bulletin at 7.00 in the morning. If she is needed to report live from Jerusalem on the BBC 10 o’clock evening TV news, this will be at midnight or later Israeli time. In between there might be a four-hour drive in 35 degrees temperatures along the dusty roads of the West Bank, negotiating checkpoints, finding people to talk to, filming on site. The elegant analytical conclusion delivered to camera is normally the only part of the report recorded at the site itself - only many hours later, back in Jerusalem will she add the voice to the images which will precede that conclusion. There is the essential research to ensure that she has a firm gasp of the macro politics of wherever it is that she is operating, so that any incident can immediately be set in context. And all is done under intense time pressure, for TV news bulletins are a relentless taskmaster.

And there is the other great pressure: danger, about which Orla Guerin herself can be matter-of-fact. As she told Woman’s Hour last year, ‘You’ve taken the risk the minute you’ve accepted the assignment.’ Nowhere have the risks she faces, and her sheer professionalism, been more apparent than when covering a peace march in Bethlehem just a few months ago. An Israeli armed personnel carrier swung round the corner and fired not at her and her team, but over their heads and at the ground in front of them, but the ground was concrete and the ricochets flew up. It must have felt terrifying, and it continued in spite of her cries of ‘We’re BBC, we’re BBC’. At her side was Jimmy Michelle, an experienced local cameraman who works regularly for the BBC. After a couple of minutes the army vehicle swung away round the corner, and on the tape one can hear Orla Guerin checking that everyone was safe, followed by the question ‘Jimmy, did you get that?’ The true professional concerned above all for the safety of those around her, but concerned also to have the footage to show the world.

It is exhausting and harrowing work, and any journalist needs to escape its pressures. Orla Guerin will spend long breaks in Ireland or, above all, in Italy where she has many friends from her years in Rome. To the pressures of reporting must be added those of how the reports are seen by others. The need for balance has always to be worked at, even when moved by what she has seen, especially when moved by what she has seen. She knows how introspective communities in conflict can be. The Israeli army’s killing of a prominent Palestinian in the town of Tulkarem was followed by a rush of shootings of Israeli civilians in retaliation. ‘So the grave of one man,’ she reported ‘has become the grave of four. Siham Thabet, his wife, says that she feels for the Israeli wives and mothers, and hopes that they grieve for her. Perhaps they do. But it is more common here for both Israelis and Palestinians to mourn only their husbands, and their sons - and refuse to see the suffering on the other side.’ Orla Guerin does not refuse to see the suffering on both sides, she makes it fresh for us each time, and she tries to go further and to make us understand. In a world where television news can so easily trivialise, she rises above it as a powerful and compelling journalist. It is right that we should honour her.

Chancellor, I present to you ORLA GUERIN

Orator:  Professor Geoffrey Crossick