Richhill's Oxford graduate's Fulbright scholarship

A FORMER pupil of Portadown College has been awarded an Alistair Cooke Fulbright Scholarship, worth $50,000.

Richhill’s Peter Cardwell (22) will be starting a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism in August at Columbia University, New York.

Columbia is widely regarded as the best university in the world at which to study journalism, so competition for the place was fierce. The Columbia School of Journalism was founded in 1912 by Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prizes are named.

Speaking of the role of journalism in American society, Pulitzer once said, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

In the past a devoted advocate of the printed word, Peter’s new-found interest in broadcasting can be sourced to a stint as an intern in Washington with a division of ABC News in the summer of 2006.

He graduated from St Hugh's College, Oxford that year with a 2:1 in history and politics. During his time there he was involved in a variety of media-related activities which included editing The Oxford Student newspaper as well as serving as President of the Oxford Media Society and as press officer for The Oxford Union.

Given the demand for and prestige of the Alistair Cooke Fulbright Scholarship, which is open to postgraduates, the interview was conducted by four highly-respected journalists - Sanchia Berg from the BBC’s Today programme; Jim Sciutto, senior foreign correspondent for ABC News based in London; Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for The Times; and Katherine Whitehorn, former columnist for The Observer whose other claims to fame include serving as Rector of St Andrew's University and as an ‘agony aunt’ for Saga magazine.

Peter explained, “I’m the third annual recipient of the Alistair Cooke Fulbright Scholarship, was has been going since the great man's death. I am also the first person from Northern Ireland since 2003 to be awarded a postgraduate Fulbright award. These, of course, are offered in a variety of fields.”

The last person from Northern Ireland to receive a postgraduate award was Helen Lewis, who studied Public Policy at Johns Hopkins in 2003.

Going back a little further in time, the Right Honorable Sir Robert Carswell, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, received a postgraduate award to study Law at Cornell in 1965.

Peter revealed, “Although it probably sounds ridiculous, I really enjoyed the interview. I was very nervous beforehand as I was expecting a grilling. Actually, it turned out to be more of a light toasting, an almost informal process.

“I sensed they were much more interested in the thrust of the argument rather than going through the motions or trying to catch me out. And was great fun just to be talking about the nature of journalism and what it should be, ideally. To have had the opportunity to share opinions with such established journalists was a real privilege.

“I'm hugely grateful to the Fulbright Commission for the opportunity they are giving me, especially as it is in the name of one of my journalistic heroes, the late, great Alistair Cooke. It goes without saying that it would have been out of the question, financially, for me to have undertaken such a programme of study independently.”

Looking ahead to August, he said, “I can’t wait to get to New York and start experimenting in the excellent laboratory of journalism at Columbia. I was in New York for a weekend last July and was just caught by the bug. It’s such an exciting place.

“I've been given so much help and advice at various stages, but I’ll never forget that it all started off at the Portadown Times. The staff there are top-class and they have given me encouragement, opportunity and friendship since - in 1996, as a spotty 12-year-old - I first began badgering David Armstrong to take my articles!”

Since graduating from Oxford, Peter - currently London-based - has been working as a researcher for the BBC’s Newsnight, a post in which he hopes to continue until the mid-July.

Projects on which he has worked include a special on 300 years since the Act of Union, which was an outside broadcast from Parliament Hall in Edinburgh. He also worked on a 15-minute film on Northern Ireland, fronted by Jeremy Paxman, as part the ‘Blair's Britain’ series within Newsnight.

“I’ve worked before with Jeremy on various pieces for Newsnight, but undoubtedly the Northern Ireland film was the most challenging as well as being the most fun,” Peter said. “He’s at the very top of his game and you have to be totally on the ball. It’s a lot of pressure, but working with Jeremy Paxman gets the best out of you.

“When people find out that you work on Newsnight, invariably the first question they ask you is ‘What's that Jeremy Paxman like?’ I joke that I wouldn’t know, as a minion on my level isn’t allowed to speak to him or even look him directly in the eye!

He explained, “In reality, it’s quite the opposite. He’s a charming, thoughtful and generous colleague who listens to your opinions and ideas about the programme and often takes them on board. I’ll never forget how terrified I was the first time he asked a question I’d recommended to him and read a news bulletin I’d written for Newsnight. Those were a couple of real heart-in-the-throat moments.

“The most exciting day at Newsnight was another Northern Ireland story - the occasion when Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat down together for the first time. I had been doing some filming in Sheffield the day before, so I was sitting at my desk in London hoping for a quiet day. You soon realise there is no such thing on Newsnight.

“It was literally a case of seeing Paisley and Adams on the BBC News24 screen and then, within minutes, being told by my editor I was flying to Belfast.

“I'll never forget all of us jumping up and down trying to keep warm outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont at 10.30 that night when we went ‘live’ after hours of frantic production.

“My mum seemed quite put out that I didn't have time to pop down to Richhill to say hello even though I was just 30 miles away from home!

“Working on Newsnight is a dream come true and it will be a wrench to leave in July, but I hope to come back after New York armed with the excellent training I'll have had at Columbia.”

Prior to his departure for New York, Peter will be required to undergo an orientation which involves meeting Robert Tuttle, the US ambassador to the Court of St James.

Another postgraduate scholar who will be in attendance that day is Will Straw, the son of Jack Straw MP, Leader of the House of Commons and Gordon Brown’s campaign manager in the race for leadership of the Labour Party.

Already Peter Cardwell has gone a long way from his days at Hardy Memorial Primary School, Clounagh, Portadown College and the Portadown Times. Keep watching out for the name....