Receive free George Alagiah updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest George Alagiah news every morning.
The writer is Channel 4 News’ International Editor
He was known to millions as a calm presence reading the news from a BBC television studio in London, but if George Alagiah, who has died at the age of 67, wanted to be remembered, it was for his reporting, especially from Africa.
As the BBC’s Africa correspondent in the 1990s he chronicled the joy and hope of the Mandela years in South Africa, and the agony of Rwanda’s genocide. He also reported from Kosovo and other war zones, winning multiple journalism awards and being appointed OBE in 2008. His ability to remain dispassionate, while identifying with the people on whom he reported, made viewers trust him. His natural empathy shone through.
Alagiah’s own experience as a migrant twice over before the age of 12 informed his journalism, and also his sense of identity. He was, as he put it, the BBC’s first “foreign correspondent and person of colour”, but never wanted to be defined by race. Anyway, it was complicated: he was a Sri Lankan Tamil, who spent much of his childhood in Ghana, and became British.
Despite his own experiences of racism, he had doubts about multiculturalism, which he blamed for some British immigrant communities’ failure to integrate. In his memoir A Home From Home: From Immigrant Boy to English Man, he wrote: “In that tug of war between heritage on the one side and assimilation on the other, I never really had much of a choice. It had to be assimilation.” His ability to observe and adapt fed into his sense of humour — he was a tremendous raconteur and gifted mimic.
In 1961, when Alagiah was six, his family left Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, for newly independent Ghana, where his father had a job as an engineer. Just like his Ghanaian schoolmates, he felt himself to be one of “freedom’s children”, born in the heady days at the end of colonial rule. “We were caught up in the air of optimism,” he wrote.
Decades later, when he found himself reporting on the conflicts and corruption that plagued the continent, he wrote that he was “destined to spend my adult life dispelling the dreams I had nurtured so carefully as a child”. The pain was personal: “I belong to Africa; or at least, a piece of me does.” He left Ghana aged 11, wrenched from a happy childhood into the sometimes cruel world of a British boarding school.
Handsome and intelligent, the only boy among four adoring sisters, Alagiah might have been insufferable — but he wasn’t. At Van Mildert College, Durham University, fellow students during freshers’ week in 1975 found a beautiful young man in an improbable maroon three-piece suit sitting at the bar, talking enthusiastically to all-comers. He shed the suit, but never the connections — he met his wife, Frances Robathan, at Durham and the two became the centre of a university friendship group that has lasted to this day.
After working at South magazine — where he earned the sobriquet “Gorgeous George” — he freelanced from Zimbabwe. A colleague remembers him as the consummate dashing young foreign correspondent, with his Billingham bag slung over one shoulder. He joined the BBC in 1989. After a decade as a roving reporter, he and Frances and their two sons, Adam and Matthew, settled in north London. He started to present the BBC Six O’Clock News in 2003, becoming its main anchor in 2007.
A diagnosis of stage 4 bowel cancer in 2014 came as a shock that Alagiah accepted with extraordinary grace. Enjoying the energy of the newsroom, as well as the support of viewers who sent him thousands of messages, he worked for as long as possible. He wrote a thriller, set in South Africa. But his focus shifted. He revisited Sri Lanka, and spent as much time as possible with his growing brood of grandchildren. On walks round the local park he would talk honestly to friends about mortality.
“I wish I hadn’t had cancer obviously, but I’m glad of the things I’ve learnt about myself, my friends and my family as a result,” he said in an interview. “I feel richer for being part of that community.”
Reflecting on his own migrant story, he became a trustee of the Migration Museum, and one of his last projects was to raise money for it to find a permanent home. He felt grateful that he had the “luxury”, as he put it, of preparing for death. His BBC colleague and friend Allan Little said: “George taught us a lot about how to live, but he also taught us how to die.”
After some 200 chemotherapy infusions and five major operations over nine years, his body could take no more. He died at home in Stoke Newington with his wife, sons and two of his sisters at his side.