Interviews – Media – Alastair Stewart

Broadcaster Alastair Stewart might have been Chancellor of the Exchequer or a real-life Rumpole of the Bailey had fate not intervened and directed him towards a career in television. He reveals some of the high points of his journalistic career and gives some tips on how to get ahead in television

The frontman

What does your job entail?
Being freelance means I negotiate contracts with individual companies. I have one with GMTV to do The Sunday Programme, I have one with Carlton Optomen for the Police Camera Action! series. GMTV, The Sunday Programme, is basically political interviews, so I have to stay well-informed throughout the week. My major contract is to co-present the local news four days a week with London News Network (LNN). Our principal job is to read the links written for us by the news team and to be on top of the news and deal with breaking stories.

How would you describe yourself as a newsreader?
Authoritative, but accessible. The intonation, the appearance, and the facial expressions all have to be taken into account. You occasionally get complaints from viewers saying you were snide or disparaging and you have to be careful about that. We’re paid to have authority, but not to have opinions. With ad-libs, you can say the wrong thing quite easily. You might think its funny and so might your friends, but you’ve suddenly offended 50 000 people.

What do you most like or dislike about your job?
I don’t like getting up very early on Sunday mornings. Other than that I love every minute.

Career decisions

Did you know what you wanted to do when you left university?
I wanted to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, I don’t think I could afford the pay cut! At university I quickly developed a passion for politics and was involved in lobbying and protests and everything else. From that grew a very genuine desire to go into national politics.

Why made you change your plans?
I’ve never had a career game plan. I read economics at the University of Bristol and then got a place at the LSE to read law. My intention was to become a barrister and possibly a politician. But as Machiavelli said: ‘Fortune is the arbiter of half our affairs’. You can plan what you like, but fate comes along and determines what happens. It was fate that lead me in the direction of television. I decided it was worth a try, and ended up working for Southern ITV for four years. I then got a job as a reporter at ITN and progressed up the ladder there for nine years.

You left ITN in 1992. What prompted the move?
I didn’t get the job as main presenter of News at Ten. It’s as simple as that. When I didn’t get it, a friend of mine who had been instrumental in setting up LNN said they were looking for a senior presenter and would I like the job in London? We struck a bargain and I ended up here.

You have worked in the studio for three general elections, including the Labour landslide of 1997. What was it like to cover such a dramatic event?
It was tremendously exciting. We went on air at about 10 o’clock when the polls closed and worked until five the next morning. We then took a two-hour break – before going back to work for another full day. The excitement of what was happening, witnessing a moment of history gives you real adrenaline surge. You know a lot of people who are having their moments of huge glory, but you also know the people who are going down and often for the last time. For Michael Heseltine the drastic loss was coupled with the idea that he would never be Prime Minister. It isn’t simply a game of numbers, it’s about human beings who have fought long and hard and committed their life to trying to win a seat.

What was the most moving moment of your career?
One of the best, and yet most traumatic experiences of my career was when the Pan Am jet was blown up over Lockerbie. The programme editor, Nick Pollard, stood in the middle of the room, and tore up the running order. I very nearly wept at one point when the doctor came out and said ‘I have to tell you that there are no casualties’. For a split second we thought there had been a misunderstanding and that everybody was all right, when what he actually meant was that everybody was dead.

What is the most significant event you have covered?
Probably the fall of the Berlin Wall. My father was in the Royal Air Force, so I had grown up in that Cold War atmosphere with bombers carrying nuclear weapons at the end of our garden, and my dad flying off and not quite knowing what he would be doing. Suddenly when the wall came down there was a huge amount of hope for the next generation, and lifted the threat of global conflict. It was a great story to cover because it was so rich with emotion – young east German soldiers were clambering over the wall, people were dancing conga-style around Berlin. It was the party of the decade.

First move in media

What can you do to improve your chances of getting into the industry?
I get the impression there is quite a high standard of career advice available to students now. There certainly wasn’t when I was at university. There have been huge developments – websites like Justpeople, for instance, which I think is a great idea. People who are thinking about the media generally and television specifically are ill advised, in my view, to take media courses. The best people we have are those who have done a good, general degree, and have shown their ability to think clearly, work hard and get a good result. The thing that will clinch it is what journalistic and media work you have done while at school and at university. All good universities have magazines and newspapers, an increasing number of them have their own radio stations. If you want to be a journalist, start early and keep everything that you do, tapes, articles, everything that shows that you have a genuine interest in the field. Try and find time to do some work experience. Come and work for a TV company as a runner, and talk to everybody who’s there.

A professional opinion

Being Washington correspondent for ITN must have given you a good overview of the differences between American and British media?
American presenters on television tend to be less charismatic and more the ‘anchor-man’. They have huge authority, but not perhaps as much charisma as some of our mainstream reporters. Their style of reporting is very formulaic and it is entirely controlled from the centre, whether you’re reporting from Timbuktu or Alabama, you have to fax your script through to New York before you commit to tape. Here, you talk to a producer, but in the end you do your own thing, which brings a sense of variety to our reporting. Also, there is a huge interest here in foreign affairs. If you watch the news in New York, you only tend to see foreign countries featured if there are GIs fighting or if an American company is being shut down.

You were a war correspondent during the Gulf War. Has war reporting become more dangerous?
The news business is becoming increasingly competitive and more people go more rapidly to more locations than used to be the case. There are big television news agencies like Reuters and AP who have armies of reporters and camera people – the field is getting busier and people are starting to take larger risks in order to get stories. In the Gulf, we had to wear protective suits, take various medication and have jabs with which to inject ourselves in the event of chemical poisoning. But apart from when we actually heard a scud missile approaching, we never really felt that we were in danger.

Which newsreader do you rate most highly?
For consistency, I would say Michael Buerk. He goes on most nights at nine o’clock on the BBC and there’s no arrogance to him, just a very accessible authority. A huge number of people remember his report on the famine in Ethiopia, which he presented with huge emotion, but we’ve also seen him be quite funny. Cleverly, he does not mix the two up.

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