Broadcast journalist and GCU honorary graduate Gavin Esler talks to Lynn McGarry about his career and the importance of a personal story in achieving one’s goals.
His latest book, Lessons from the Top, is based on a lifetime of interviewing everyone who is anyone, from Angelina Jolie to Margaret Thatcher, so which life lessons would honorary graduate Gavin Esler teach to GCU’s students?
As an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and novelist, Gavin has plenty of experience to share: first, he says, be persistent; second, understand your own story. And, if your career follows a similar trajectory to his, always go to the loo before going on air.
“You have to be persistent,” says Gavin. “If you start and don’t go on, you have wasted your time and everybody else’s. The second piece of advice I’d give is, every leader I have met tells three basic stories to make others follow them: they tell a story about who they are, about who they are as a group, whether that’s a political party or football supporters, and they tell a story about where they are going.
“It’s important for all of us to ask, ‘what’s your story?’. When you join party or a university or team, think about who you are collectively and what you are trying to achieve. All the smart leaders I have met – Bill Clinton is a great example –were very clear on those three stories.”
Gavin’s own story began in Clydebank, where he spent his first four years living with his mum, dad, two aunts and grandmother. He moved to Edinburgh, studied in Kent and began his career in Northern Ireland, before spending his 20s travelling the world, settling during the Clinton years in the US as the BBC’s Whitehouse correspondent and North America editor.
He was the first in his family to graduate from university and the lessons learned in his early years have stayed with him.
“In my house everybody believed that, through education, you could get on. Having aspirations is key. I have been to communities which have had very hard times and it worries me that there is not just a lack of money but a lack of expectation and hope. University may not be for you, but having an expectation that, if you work, you can go, is important. University is a great route to expand your mind. I wouldn’t have done any of the things I have done without a university education.
“That’s why I was so proud to receive an honorary degree from GCU. Universities play a pivotal role in the life of society. They are not in ivory towers. They are the real world and the connection between the worlds of business and ideas. To have an outreach programme such as The Caledonian Club, telling children that university is something they can do, opens eyes. What worries me is the closing of people’s minds to the possibilities that exist.”
Gavin is Chancellor of Kent University, its first alumnus to be awarded the honour, and is delighted to be immersed in campus life there and at GCU.
“I enjoy working with and talking to students,” he says. “Again, I’d like to encourage them to tell their story better and to see through the stories we are spun by people who desire to lead us, but perhaps haven’t quite figured out what they want to do. To GCU’s journalism students, I’d say don’t believe what you read on the internet or in newspapers. Find out for yourself. The purpose of journalism is to be the primary source. So, get off your backside and talk to people.
“Journalism offers different challenges in different environments. When I started my career in Belfast in the 1970s, the challenge, as it is in a lot of societies, was reporting in a divided community where people see things very differently depending on their religious or political views. People wanted their opinions but regarded the facts as sacred. Today’s challenge is that people actually want their own facts. That’s true of so many big debates: Europe,
independence, the future role of the UK. You could say the answer to that is to ask who do you trust, but you may not trust either side. That is very difficult as journalists are used to working with a basic knowledge of the facts and the facts are difficult to grasp sometimes.”
As a journalist and novelist, Gavin believes that sometimes those facts can be stranger than fiction.
“I’m researching a new book on trust,” he says. “We trust people a lot less; certainly institutions have lost trust. Some stories I have come across are stranger than fiction. I asked Armando Iannucci, another GCU honorary graduate, how difficult it was to write political satire now, and it’s hard because reality is funnier than the stuff they can come up with. For example, an MP attempting to claim a duck house on expenses is so bizarre it would not even make it into a script meeting.”
Though “the next one” is probably always his favourite interviewee, he ranks Angelina Jolie, Dolly Parton and Seamus Heaney among his most “wonderful and amazing” (refusing to identify his worst – cinema’s “greatest, cool, blonde”, who behaved like a surly14 year old), and says an unconstrained Queen and Bob Dylan would be his dream subjects.