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BBC correspondent Tim Franks: Speech Day address

14 July 2009

Tim Franks, a 1986 leaver and the BBC's Middle East correspondent, presented the prizes and gave the address at this year's speech day.  Here you can read his speech:

One of my clearest memories of this school came from a Speech Day. I was in the sixth form. I'd won second prize for my French. The bloke who'd won first prize - Martin Crowley -- was a couple of dozen light years beyond me in his ability and brains.

But, happily, even a school as extraordinary as this one managed to cock it up. My prize was fifty quid, cash. This was mid-eighties, remember - it's probably the equivalent of about two thousand pounds now. Give or take. I was too delighted and gobsmacked to ask Martin what he'd won. Probably one hundred pounds, I thought.

But my reverie was interrupted, a couple of days after Speech Day, when my French teacher sidled up to me, and asked me if I wouldn't mind handing the money back. There'd been a mistake. I'd been given what should have been Martin's prize. Martin had received what should have been my prize..........a six-month subscription to a fabulously dull French current affairs magazine. With an equal mixture of guilt and relief I told the teacher that, sadly, he was too late. I'd spent the money. And I had done. Maybe something in the back of my mind had told me that it was too good to be true. I'd rushed out at the next chance I'd had -to one of Birmingham's several dodgy nightclubs, and treated my friends to one of the largest rounds ever seen close to New Street.

So, before you go home today, just check your envelopes.

The thing I do want to talk to you about though, is something else a teacher here said to me. Something which has stayed with me ever since. At the time I thought it was wrong and depressing. I still do.

This is to take nothing away from teachers. My day job - I'm a journalist - can lead me to deal with fanatics and bigots, some of them carrying firearms - but I can still think of little more difficult than having to look convincing, day after day, in front of twenty-five boisterous, clever teenagers.

Anyway, I was thirteen years old. In the UMs. My class - well, we were being grumpy and adolescent. And the teacher, driven to despair by our huffiness and bolshiness, delved into the dustiest cupboard of cliches and told us: "you don't know how lucky you are. These are the best days of your lives."

I remember thinking this is either a) garbage or b) incredibly disappointing.

Twenty-eight years later, I can tell you, with some conviction, that the truth is the reverse.

School - especially this school -- can be well as, from time to time, achingly dull and utterly infuriating. But it should lead to the best days of your make those days possible.

You won't want to hear this. In fact, it may sound completely hypocritical, after I just berated that teacher for wagging his finger at my classmates and me, and saying you're so lucky. But you are lucky. This was an amazing school, and clearly still is. I'm not just talking academically.....for me, it was also the astonishing chances King Edward's gave me - despite a marked lack of talent - with things such as music thanks to people such as Peter Bridle, and cricket - Martin Stead took me to the heights in the under-twelves.... and at certain times, I confess, it had a particular charm though its proximity to the girls' school......albeit an unrequited charm.

But King Edwards also - without me quite realising it - and I'd've certainly kicked against it had I thought it was happening - KE also shaped me.

Phil Lambie never converted me to using a fountain page was never less than a left-handed smear. But my goodness my journalist's notebook bears witness to his demand for organisation. I don't claim that I always meet his exacting standards even now - but alongside the "my dog ate my homework", I've now occasionally got the excuses of hunger or fatigue or live-fire.

There's a deeper lesson King Edward's taught me though.
And that's cussedness. An aversion to group-think. A distaste for conventional wisdom. It's probably the most valuable asset in journalism. I'm quite sure it's useful in other walks of life too....but journalism is the only thing I know a bit about.

I've always thought that teaching journalism was the dictionary definition of pointlessness. You may wish to remind me of this when I've left the BBC and am lecturing in journalism. But, for me, the study of journalism can be reduced to six words: be truthful, write well, be curious.

And whereas most schools should at least try to teach you to tell the truth and write well........teaching curiosity is harder. But that's what I mean about this school teaching the value of thinking for yourself: not letting the group, the received wisdom dictate for you.

Which - strangely - doesn't mean arrogance. It actually means humility.

Forgive me, if you're smoother and more sophisticated than we were, when my year left in 1986. We were - on the whole - pretty cocky, foul-mouthed and hard-edged. But that, I think, would give many of us the confidence to utter what, in a lot of ways, are the three hardest words in broadcast journalism, and possibly life too...."I don't know".

"I don't know the answer to that, but let me find out." "I don't know what I want to do, where I want to go. Yet."

One of the most rewarding parts to being a journalist is to go out on a story and discover something completely different to what you thought you were going to cover.

Back before the start of the last Iraq war, in 2003, I was embedded with the British army. That meant that I camped, ate, and shared an open-air loo with a bunch of squaddies, first in northern Kuwait and then southern Iraq, as the invasion force made its way north. The point of this story is not to say that I magically discovered my inner soldier. I was never, physically or mentally, cut out for the CCF. And that didn't change.

What did change was a large number of preconceptions - mine and others - about how reporting this war would play out.

I'd witnessed a couple of squalid civil wars. But not a big industrial war. I'd assumed that I'd be pinned down behind front lines with only British soldiers for company. That was certainly how the British army would have liked it to have been.........for them - completely understandably -- journalists were like a bunch of arrogant, ignorant sixth-formers, needing to be corralled.

The army had hoped to take the southern city of Basra almost immediately. In the end, it took weeks of hard slog on the ground. And during that time - and to the immense frustration of our army handlers - we were able to begin to paint a picture that would then hold true over the years to come. Using the BBC's own armoured jeep, our own ex-military safety guy, and our own Arabic interpreter, we'd take every opportunity to move around the battlefield on our own and talk to ordinary Iraqis. And remember - this was a novelty. Up to that point, it had been very difficult to speak to people without Saddam's minders hovering over your shoulder. And, by and large, these ordinary Iraqis - while they had no love for Saddam....indeed many of them hated him - they harboured no gratitude for the invasion. They were deeply suspicious of the motives of the invading forces. They were tired, hungry and terrified by the chaos unleashed by war. They did not want the British or Americans there. They saw us as alien, as occupiers.

We were among the first to report that.

Journalism has a filthy reputation. But its purpose is simple and honourable enough. To tell people what's going on. Sometimes - as in the case in Iraq -- that might mean to puncture received wisdom. Other times it might mean just to resist leaning back on a hackneyed word or phrase in your reporting.

It's also valuable to know when to shut up. These moments should be less to do with the skills of journalism, and more to do with a very basic level of decency.

The biggest story so far this year that we in the Middle East have had to report, has been the Gaza war. I had the chance, twice, just after the war, to spend time - once in Israel, once in Gaza -- with a man of such bravery and integrity that my only job was not to get in the way of what he was saying. Izzeldin Abu Eleish is a doctor.....and a unique one. He's a Palestinian, who lives in Gaza, but practises most of his medicine in Israel. When Israel launched its big military operation against Palestinian militants in Gaza, Dr Abu Eleish was at home in Gaza with his family. Two Israeli tank shells ripped through the bedroom where his teenaged daughters were chatting. One of them was badly injured. Three of them died.

This was just a few months afte Dr Abu Eleish's wife had died from cancer.

But he remained a man who, in the deepest chasm of grief, insisted that the only way out of this hole was for Palestinians and Israelis to talk - genuinely, and meaningfully - about peace and co-existence. The first time I talked to him was at the hospital where one of his surviving daughters was being treated. Before I could speak to him, I had to endure watching a fellow journalist interview him.......where most of the interview involved her haranguing him for still believing that a peaceful resolution to all this was remotely possible. It was an idiotic and self-regarding performance. You didn't have to be a great journalist - in fact you barely needed to have a pulse - to realise that this was a man with an extraordinary tale to tell, and a man of deep, deep courage and generosity. His story ended up being one of the best pieces of war reporting I've done - and that was in large part because I barely appeared in it.

I know I've banged on about journalism. As I say - that is all I really know about. But I'm sure that, as in journalism, so for most pursuits.....whether you end up a scientist or a social worker or a musician or a businessman or - heaven forfend - a teacher.
If you're straight up, if you're lucid, if you're curious - then you have all the tools you suck in the information around you, then to re-form it for other people's benefit. To change other people's worlds.

And that's where this place comes in. No-one's going to persuade you to be grateful. And that's completely fair.

But you are in an amazing place, which - if you draw the most out of it - will help you get the most when, at last, you escape. It did, at least, for me.

Someone much more intelligent and successful and, dare I say it, better-looking than me put it rather well at another school's Speech Day, which I heard about. "School gives you wings," he said. "Then you can fly."

Well, there's rocket fuel to be drunk here, boys. Thank you for listening. And enjoy what's to come.