Alumnus of the year 2005

Ben McCarthy

Ben McCarthy was named Alumnus of the Year in 2005 for his career in broadcast journalism.

A former network news reporter and presenter, Ben founded McCarthy Communications Management (MCM) in 2007. Prior to establishing MCM, Ben had worked for 15 years as a broadcast journalist, working as a correspondent and presenter for Sky News, ITN and the BBC. MCM now uses Ben's expertise in media relations to train their clients' key personnel in media and communication skills.

Oration

Oration given on 21 July 2005 by Professor Albert Weale, Department of Government

Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Ben McCarthy shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2005

Ben McCarthy graduated from Essex in 1989 with a degree in Politics. In the sixteen years since then he has had a packed career in journalism moving between the BBC, Sky, ITN and then back to the BBC. He is currently Head of Media Relations at Porter Novelli, one of the largest public relations companies in the world.

After leaving Essex, Ben did a postgraduate qualification at the London College of Printing, before his first job with local BBC in Kent and Bedfordshire. He recommends local broadcasting as the best way for journalists to get started in their careers with real ‘hands-on’ experience.

But every aspiring reporter needs luck, and Ben’s luck came when he was working on the planning desk at Sky. One day there were not enough reporters to cover court trials, and Ben was dispatched to Bow Street magistrates to cover a case. He admits – perhaps rather bashfully – that crime stories are among those that fascinate him most, so the staff shortage that day played to his strengths. Indeed since his first day at Bow Street, he has covered a variety of crime stories ranging from the globally significant, the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, to the tragic, like the Soham murders, to the farcical, the trial of Lord Archer for his perjury.

He became the Midlands for Sky reporter, but by 1994 his talents had been spotted by ITN, and he became ITN’s North of England correspondent. He stayed with ITV for seven years before returning to the BBC, his starting-point, but this time as the Midlands correspondent for Network News.

His last job with the BBC before joining Porter Novelli was as one of the three presenters on BBC3’s The News Show, a programme explicitly aimed at attracting the interest of younger viewers to news and current affairs. This is a real and significant challenge. As public life changes and conventional political parties hold less and less sway over people’s lives, the task of finding new forms of civic engagement and participation is a serious one. And the political science is clear: if people are not interested when they are young, they are unlikely to be interested when they are older.

The challenge of civic engagement is made all the greater by the rapidity of political change in the world. When Ben McCarthy was studying Politics, there was still a Soviet Union to study; Spain, now a flourishing a vibrant democracy, was only just emerging from the legacy of Franco; and the expectations that individuals had of the state were in the process of transformation in the UK and elsewhere. I pick these topics because they refer to the range of courses that he studied whilst at Essex, in addition to the theory and methods courses that the Department of Government puts at the core of its curriculum. The changes that have taken place since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the year in which Ben McCarthy graduated make that year, 1989, as significant as was 1789.

Neither journalists nor public relations always enjoy the highest levels of esteem or public affection.  But a moment’s thought will show that effective and reliable communications are vital in a democratic society.  Knowledge is power, and those who enable citizens to understand the world around them equip those citizens all the better to exercise such powers as they have.  Ben McCarthy has played this role with distinction, and the Department of Government is proud that he has been selected as Alumnus of the Year.

Chancellor, I present Ben McCarthy.

Response

Response by Ben McCarthy

When I worked at BBC 3 presenting the Seven O’clock News they would have been delighted to get an audience as big as this one. Often we felt it would have been cheaper just to ring our viewers and tell them what was going on in the world. Some days if you believe the figures it would only have taken a few minutes.

As Professor Weale was saying - trying to engage with a younger audience as BBC 3 is a challenge. And the channel received a great deal of criticism from politicians and other parts of the media because despite a new approach on the seven o’clock news it was failing to deliver viewers. But I suppose there is an important principle here. Just because something is challenging and difficult to achieve that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

When I came to Essex in 1986 I already had a clear idea that I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to work for BBC radio. Some friends of mine felt it was an over ambitious goal and that unless you knew people on the inside and had an Oxbridge education you could never get in. The most important thing that coming to this University gave me was a sense of confidence – to have a go.

As Universities go Essex might have been a relatively new institution back then, but I had found myself in one of the best Government departments in the country, with inspirational teachers.And there were many. For someone who’d come from studying A level politics there were even some some famous names like Ivor Crewe and Anthony King. Another was Peter Frank. As you can imagine it was a very exciting time in the world of politics. At the beginning of the end of the Cold War we witnessed the most extraordinary scenes on TV every week and here through Peter we had our own guide to what was going on behind closed doors at the Kremlin or in the White House…. Some times we were hearing details during lectures, just hours before it all played out on the world stage and our political history books were being re-written. There were several weeks when we would have a lecture in the morning and that evening we would listen to a re-run of parts of the lecture on Channel 4 news or Radio 4’s the World Tonight as Peter delivered his incisive, carefully crafted analysis of the developing situation, to a national audience. We felt very privileged to be his students. I came to rely on Peter again in a professional capacity when I ended up in Moscow for a month one winter covering ITN’s bureau, after Boris Yeltsin had suffered a serious heart attack. He briefed me on the candidates for succession and the likely outcome in the event of Yeltsin’s death – then in 1997 nearly 10 years after graduating I was still able to rely on support from my old department.

So this department gave me the determination to have a go and maybe reach for something that others thought was unobtainable. My very first experience of broadcasting was on this campus at URE. I think the show was pretty short on both style and substance but it was great fun – although perhaps not for the listener.

Once I left Essex and found my way into that supposedly exclusive club, the BBC, I realised that anything was possible. A couple of years later I arrived at Sky News not long after the channel started. Professor Weale is right when he says I got my break in television when the news desk realised they’d forgotten to send a reporter to a court case in central London.  They realised with a certain amount of horror that I was the only person sitting in the rather empty news room that they could send. My abiding memory of that day is working with an extremely abrasive Australian cameraman. He was veteran of many conflicts around the world and was used to working with the best Correspondents in the business. And he couldn’t believe what his career had come to, standing outside Bow St magistrates court  having to explain to a rookie reporter how to do a piece to camera. But despite his irritation he obviously did a decent job because they let me on the TV again. It was my first lesson in being in the right place at the right time. Since then, over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to work for the three main TV news networks covering major stories in Britain and abroad. And my broadcasting career went full circle as I ended up back at the BBC working for TV news and BBC 3.

I have been extremely fortunate. Each time I’ve moved it’s because I have been offered a new opportunity.  My role now in public relations is closely related to journalism but I’m now on the other side of the fence knowing much more about stories from the inside and trying to calculate how they should best be told. And it’s a fascinating insight working with a company such as British Airways or a huge organisation like the NHS. I now see the whole story rather than knowing just a part of it and I am able to offer advice accordingly.

When I was told of this award I was very flattered but also surprised because I am receiving it for doing jobs that I have loved and for roles that have largely come about through chance. In fact it is by chance I am particularly fortunate to be talking to you today.  Two weeks ago today, I was travelling to work on the Circle line when one of the terrorist bombs was detonated on my train. I was a couple of carriages down from the explosion but apart from the absolute terror of the situation and witnessing the most terrible distress and appalling scenes, I was completely unscathed - others were maimed and killed. And it all came down to which carriage we got into and where we were positioned.

I guess when you realise that so much in life comes down to chance, it’s important to make the most of good opportunities however they arrive. Like me you’ve given yourselves a great start graduating from this department. I hope you are able to make the most of that opportunity.

I was having lunch with a former colleague from the BBC last week and I told him that I was receiving this award. His response was “That’s great… fantastic – but what for?” and I suppose it’s being in the right place at the right time.

Thank you.