Alastair James Stewart OBE
Doctor of Laws
20 February 2008 – Orator: Professor Kathy Sykes
It is appropriate in every way that Alastair Stewart should receive a Bristol degree this morning. He has achieved great distinction as a journalist, foreign correspondent and presenter of news, current affairs and other programmes; and it is the practice of this University to recognise the distinguished achievements of its former students. There is another matter: although he came to this University to study Economics and Sociology, he actually left Bristol without a degree, intending to transfer to the London School of Economics and resume his studies there. All his life he has therefore been a Bristol graduate manqué, and we are very glad today to complete the process whereby he finally acquires a Bristol degree.
Alastair Stewart was born in Hampshire in 1952. His father was an officer in the RAF– indeed, both parents were military – which meant that the Stewart family travelled extensively, with one posting succeeding another in the UK and overseas. The young Alastair came from St Augustine’s Abbey School, Ramsgate, to the University of Bristol in 1970. He says that he adored his time here, and looks back on the experience, truncated as it was, with great affection.
While here, he became interested in politics. After being Deputy for this University’s Student Union, he became Deputy President of the National Union of Students, having been beaten to the presidency by Charles Clarke, the subsequent Education Secretary whom we largely remember in the university world, Madam Chancellor, for his reflections on the value of ancient and medieval history. What might have happened if Alastair Stewart had won that election and if, during the political career which at that stage he intended, he had subsequently become Minister for Higher Education?
Alastair’s trajectory took a surprising turn when he had the chance to enter broadcasting. He had been berating Margaret Thatcher’s education cuts on a local television programme. The programme editor wrote to him shortly afterwards saying, ‘That went terribly well. Have you ever considered working in television?’ After taking some parental advice, Alistair wrote back, and soon he was offered a job.
His television career thus began, in 1976, with Southern Television in Southampton. He was a reporter, industrial correspondent, presenter and documentary maker and he married his wife, Sally, in 1978. They have four children and it is clear when he refers to them that they, and Sally, are the centre of his life and love.
He joined ITN in 1980 as industrial correspondent, and became an occasional newsreader. After a three-year stint with Channel 4 News, he presented the early evening ITN News. In 1989 he moved again, to News at Ten, before becoming ITN’s Washington correspondent. Just four days after returning to London from this assignment, he was off to Kuwait to cover the first Gulf War, becoming the first British reporter to broadcast live from Kuwait City after its liberation by allied forces.
For many years he has been an authoritative presence on television and radio, in the UK and abroad, for General Elections, State Openings of Parliament, state visits, royal weddings and the annual budget coverage. What a remarkable set of skills someone like Alastair needs to have…
He wakes up to the news, with the Today programme playing on radios in his bedroom, bathroom and kitchen… Once on the train, he will devour all the papers. At work, he will constantly read Press Association and Reuters wires and repeatedly check key websites.
While Alastair is calmly reading the news, a producer in the gallery will be continuously chatting in his earpiece about adjustments that are desirable and developments that are taking place. But Alastair remains undistracted, talking to camera with a look, manner and voice that people welcome into their front rooms – a presenter with authority and humanity.
But, at a moment's notice, the world can change and the newsroom can have to shift into high gear: a war breaks out, a plane crashes, a remarkable scientific discovery is announced – sometimes, it has to be said, a discovery by the University of Bristol.
Scripts are discarded, and there is only the producer's voice in his ear telling him what’s next. Remember the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster? Alastair’s two-minute newsflash became an unscripted one-hour programme. And his live coverage of the Lockerbie disaster rightly won awards.
That’s just the daily newsroom. When reporting live – from, say, a siege or a war zone, Alastair may battle with exhaustion, struggle with conflicting information (or, indeed, no information), overcome sadness at the deaths around him and may simultaneously be under gunfire himself. All this takes skill, calm, stamina, intellect, focus, imagination and courage. Alastair has these in abundance.
Alastair’s describes his live coverage of the Belsan school siege as one of his most testing moments. Chechen separatists took more than 1,200 schoolchildren and adults hostage. On the third day, a chaotic gun battle killed over 300 civilians – including 186 children – and hundreds more were wounded. Alastair vividly recalls ‘getting through Belsan in 2004, when the bombs went off and the surviving kids came out’. He says, ‘I think we got it right…and I managed not to break down in tears, though it was a damn close thing on several occasions.’ Alistair won the Royal Television Society’s Presenter of the Year award for this.
Alastair says that reporting at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall excited and moved him most. Communist repression in Eastern Europe reached new depths in the late 1960s and 1970s. As a boy, Alastair had watched the suppression of the Prague Spring by Russian tanks with incomprehension. As a journalist, he saw Dubcek and interviewed Vaclav Havel. It was the time when the Cold War ended and to him personally, what happened justified his father’s military career; for the human race, it looked as though the life of the world would now move forward more calmly.
Alastair Stewart is a man of remarkable industry. In a hectic schedule, he finds the time to support many charities. He is a Trustee of Just a Drop, the international charity supporting water, sanitation and health projects; a Vice-President of Homestart UK, which is dedicated to family support, and of NCH Action for Children; he is a Patron of Lord Mayor Treloar College, the Hampshire school for disabled children, and of SCOPE, which supports people with cerebral palsy; he is a vice patron of Missing Person’s Helpline, of the Zito Trust and of SANE, for mental health; and in 1996 he received the Royal British Legion’s Annual Award for his work.
The OBE he was awarded 2 years ago reflects all this charity work as well as his services to broadcasting.
Alastair Stewart describes himself in Who’s Who just as a news presenter. He is so much more than that.
Alastair, you have made sense of human events around us. In interpreting world affairs, you have shown us your humanity and your courage. Your efforts help all of us to understand what it is to be part of the human race and your example can help us all to be courageous – not necessarily in war zones, but in taking up the unexpected challenges that life throws at us so that we too may end up doing astonishing things.
Madam Chancellor, I present to you Alastair James Stewart as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.