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.