Television presenter Alastair Stewart on being rejected by Cambridge, his career in the news and life in Hampshire
PUBLISHED: 10:19 09 June 2014 | UPDATED: 13:33 27 November 2014
ITV presenter Alastair Stewart, OBE, has been reading the news for over 30 years. But away from work, he loves nothing better than spending time around the table with his family in Hampshire, as Liz Kavanagh discovered
In his final year at school, Alastair Stewart was rejected from Cambridge for “lacking academic maturity.” It was something of a blow to the keen economist who had set his sights on a career in politics.
But at Bristol University, determined to make his mark and “puffed up by an enormous sense of self importance and the desire to change the world,” as he now describes it with a laugh, he became president of the student union. By the time he left Bristol, he was deputy president of the national union, serving alongside Charles Clark, who as president became a firm friend and went on to become Home Secretary.
“We had our careers all mapped out,” he tells me. “Charles was to go on to be Prime Minister and I would use my economics to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I’ve since debated politics with Charles many times both on air and privately, although I never did join him in The Commons.”
Alastair’s break into television news in the mid 1970s followed a trip to what is now the University of Winchester, where he addressed students and was spotted during an interview for Southern Television. “I was offered a six month trial on the Day by Day news programme,” he says. “I was still toying with the idea of world domination at that stage but my father was adamant that this was a great opportunity that should not be knocked.”
His first broadcast in 1976 was a local slant on a Daily Mail report that the average Englishman had £120 of clothes in his wardrobe. “I was tasked with shopping within that budget at Above Bar in Southampton, and then rather embarrassingly asked to model my purchases in the studio,” he says.
“TV presenting is very much like riding a bike. Once you’ve got it you either hang on and master it or you fall off and make a complete fool of yourself. I got through that first story and very much went on from there.”
After three years spent reporting across the South, he moved to ITN, initially as industrial correspondent. He has been presenting the evening news since 1986.
“In the old days, news readers were generally actors who looked great but had very little involvement in its content,” he says. “That all changed in the 1960s when the likes of Alastair Burnet and others like him came up through the ranks as journalists first and foremost.
I’ve spent all my working life as a journalist and am part of the ITN team that determines the stories we cover each day. Mary Nightingale and I take it in turns to lead the day’s news and write our own headlines and contribute to the scripts that we read. The questions that we ask are our own so we have to be well informed and ask the questioners our viewers really want the answers to.”
Staying impartial is also essential to the job, says Alastair, which at times can be extremely challenging. “One of the hardest stories to report was that of a school in Beslan where a group of armed Islamic separatist militants killed nearly 200 children in 2004. I remember the images coming in live as we were on air and trying to suppress my emotions as I reported the sheer horror of what had happened.”
Seeing children affected by war, disease and disability so much in the news, is in part why Alastair now dedicates regular time to national and local charities that support them. This work is extensive and includes being a patron of both Kids for Kids, which helps children in Darfur; and Scope, which cares for disabled people and their carers. Closer to home he is patron of Lord Mayor Treloar School and College in Alton, for young people with cerebral palsy; supports Naomi House; and is Vice-President of family charity Homestart UK, which has branches in Hampshire and Dorset. It makes his OBE in 2006 all the more deserved.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have ended up with a job I love and a wonderful family, and if I can use my position to help publicise a charity or draw a few more people to an event, I feel it’s a real privilege to do that,” he says.
At home near Winchester, he has 22 acres of land, much of which is dedicated to growing hay for his ten horses, five chickens and two pet Shetland ponies. “I spent much of my courtship with my wife Sally riding around Burley, and three of my children have grown up to be talented riders,” he says.
“My son Oscar competes nationally at show jumping, while my son Fred works on the business side. While it’s a hugely competitive sport, underlying it all is a tremendous camaraderie. You can be rubbing shoulders with the daughters of Russian oligarchs one minute and local farmers the next.”
His great indulgence in life, he tells me, is time. “From Monday to Friday I’m on the train by seven and back home around 9.30pm,” he says. “By the time Saturday comes around I don’t want to do anything other than be with the family. A five star weekend for me is to have everyone together around the table in Hampshire.”
- Alastair Stewart was born 22 June 1952.
- He is a patron of the charity Kids for Kids, which helps children in Darfur, Sudan.
- Alastair is the longest serving male newsreader on British television, having read both the local and national news for 38 years.