Watson’s annual Caritas Lectures are always a treat for those attending, but this year was extra special.
Many of us (myself included) know James Naughtie most of all as the former host of BBC Radio 4’s Today and the resident America-expert on the BBC’s radio roster. What his talk revealed was so much more: a seasoned journalist and broadcaster with more than forty years' experience, both here and across the Atlantic.
He began by addressing his surroundings, describing George Watson’s as in many ways “what Edinburgh stands on.” He talked of the school’s history and its background in the era of Scotland’s enlightenment, about which, like so many things, he seemed to know much more than expected. Setting things in the context of their past was something he would do several times throughout the evening with great adeptness. This was mixed with his self-admitted focus on the individuals at the heart of current affairs and the journalist as “storyteller.”
What story did he tell? In many ways it was a familiar one, of division, of political instability, of (dare I say it) the B-word. Yet a more measured approach was taken than most would care to, setting our current strife over our relationship with Europe and regional devolution in battles dating back to Mr Naughtie’s own days as a correspondent for the Scotsman in the late 1970s when he covered many of the dying gasps of Callaghan's government. He also recounted his time at the Guardian in the 1980s, which, by his own admission, was “not the best calling card” when it came to interviewing the Prime Minister at Number 10. We were given May and Cameron, but through the lenses of Thatcher and Major. Much like some of his works of fiction, Mr Naughtie was more than capable of taking a few interesting winds and detours at times. His correspondence with Ted Heath; the time he interviewed Oswald Mosley's wife; the 1976 Democratic convention; and some of his amusing anecdotes on the 2016 campaign trail.
Sadly there was only time for a few questions at the end during which members of the audience lamented Mr Naughtie’s departure from Today. He shrugged this off with a mixture of good humour and humility. The final note was on the health of our current discourse, which was treated with an appropriate distance and sense of perspective. Mr Naughtie urged dialogue, and a willingness on behalf of many of the younger generation to engage with the prescient issues of today. It’s no doubt that through institutions such as the BBC and reporters like James Naughtie, we should be more than able to meet such a challenge.
Ben Stanley (S6)