One of the country’s best known broadcasters passed away earlier today…and we met very briefly…
HE was in many ways the very epitome of an outstanding journalist and was all the more impressive because he reported for the BBC from some of the most hostile places on earth.
George Alagiah, who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Ghana before attending school in Britain, passed away earlier today (July 24), his agent reported. He was 67.
He had been suffering from bowel cancer after being diagnosed with the condition nine years ago.
His passing brought a torrent of powerful and emotional tributes – with many not just highlighting his qualities as a journalist – but also complimenting attributes as a human being, who showed “kindness, empathy and wonderful humanity” – the words of his BBC boss, Director-General Tim Davie.
Sangita Myska, now of radio station LBC, and a former BBC colleague, spoke for a generation of Asian journalists in paying tribute to the broadcaster – who was not only the first foreign British correspondent of colour for the BBC, but also the first male South Asian newsreader to front the popular domestic BBC 6pm news bulletin.
Myska said on X (formerly Twitter): “Growing up, when the BBC’s George Alagiah was on TV my dad would shout, “George is on”. We’d run to watch the man who inspired a generation of British Asian journalists. That scene was replicated across the UK. We thank you, George.”
He also drew tributes from other current BBC broadcasters, including Naga Munchetty who was on BBC Radio 5 Live this afternoon.
She said she had felt supported by him, “greatly” and called him “beloved” in the BBC newsroom.
Another colleague, Clive Myrie, paid tribute on a BBC One news bulletin, saying everyone was touched by his “kindness and generosity, his warmth and good humour”.
He said he was a “mentor, colleague and friend. His spirit, strength and courage in the later years of his life are something his colleagues can be so proud of. Journalism has lost a giant.”
On Eastern Eye website, senior contributing editor and former BBC journalist Barnie Choudhury remembers meeting Alagiah on General Election night in 2001 and being impressed by the way the senior broadcaster unassumingly introduced himself and later commended Choudhury on his reporting of the Bradford Riots.
They went onto have contact throughout Choudhury’s career on the Beeb, and beyond.
The Eastern Eye special correspondent, who also teaches young journalists, revealed that one of their most recent conversations was about the lack of diversity at the top at the BBC.
As well as telling Choudhary that he and other senior BBC journalists of colour had met director general Davie, Alagiah said he wanted to do more to address this issue when he went back to work.
In an earlier piece, published in the weekly newspaper, Choudhury recounts how Alagiah felt about the journalists and artists of colour who were coming up and around him.
“There’s a whole load of people, and we’re all now role models and if I played any part in opening that door, then that would be one hell of a legacy,” he told Choudhury.
Indeed, Alagiah was truly inspirational and as much as his journalism, his decency, empathy, and kindness have all been remarked on, in the many tributes from former BBC colleagues.
In 2018, he was presented with an outstanding contribution to the arts in the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Awards (Actas).
His beaming smile and cheeriness was extraordinarily powerful on the night – people knew he was battling cancer but he looked well, and enjoyed the company of many who told him personally that he was an inspiration and someone who made them more than just dream about a career in journalism – or encouraged someone in their chosen field to persevere and excel.
In his acceptance speech at the Actas, and collecting the top prize, he spoke with great authority and talked about migrants bringing their talents and gifts to their new country. (See the re-issued video on X now – link below).
He grew up in Ghana before coming to a boarding school in Hampshire and going onto to study Politics at Durham University. It was there, he said he first came across the British class divide as many of its students at the time were from private schools, despite the institution itself being based in an area which was not particularly well-off.
He worked for a magazine called South and was based in South Africa and first took up reporting assignments in that continent for the BBC. He was especially attached to Africa – it was where he had grown up and felt an affinity for, all his life.
His most recent book was a work of fiction, called ‘The Burning Land’ published in 2019. Set in South Africa, it was nominated for The Paul Torday Memorial Prize run by the Society of Authors and presented to an author whose first book is published by a writer aged 60 or more.
Earlier there was his memoir, ‘A Home from Home: From immigrant boy to English man’. Published in 2016, it covers his life and discusses racism and multiculturalism and his early efforts to survive and integrate into Britain as child of Sri Lankan Tamil Christians. His father was a civil engineer and emigrated to Ghana, sensing the mood of the country was changing towards minority groups in the island nation.
Alagiah’s first book in 2008, ‘A Passage to Africa’, chronicles his early life in Ghana and the hopes and dreams of a continent put against a decade or so of reporting about the continent. He covered the war and famine in Somalia in the 1990s and was there also when the genocide began in Rwanda in 1994 and South Africa too, as the curtain came down on the abonimable Apartheid. Memorably too, he visited his family’s Sri Lankan home after the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami.
He married Frances Robathan whom he met at Durham University and they have two sons, Adam and Matt and Alagiah is understood to have become a grandfather not so long ago.
His agent Mary Greenham said that he had passed away peacefully surrounded by his family and loved ones and that he fought “until the bitter end”.
She, like everyone else paying tribute, extended her condolences to his family and friends and said she was thinking about, “Fran, the boys and his wider family.”
Alagiah certainly blazed a trail – and when the history of British broadcasting comes to be written, his spirit, his professionalism and his ability, will be written large and stand as a testament not just to his craft, but also to the very special humanity that made him such an exceptional and much-loved broadcaster and journalist.
Thank you George.
George Aligiah, journalist, broadcast, writer November 22 1955-July 24 2023