London, July 24 (BBC/The Guardian): George Alagiah, one of the BBC’s longest-serving and most respected journalists, has died at 67, nine years after being diagnosed with cancer.
George Maxwell Alagiah, was born on 22 November 1955 and died on 24 July 2023. A statement from his agent said he “died peacefully today, surrounded by his family and loved ones”.
A fixture on British TV news for more than three decades, he presented the BBC News at Six for the past 20 years.
Before that, he was an award-winning foreign correspondent, reporting from countries ranging from Rwanda to Iraq.
Alagiah was a migrant twice over, moving from Sri Lanka to Ghana at the age of six, and then to Britain when he was 11. Born in Colombo, he was the son of Therese (nee Santiapillai) and Donald Alagiah
He was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in 2014 and revealed in October 2022 that it had spread further.
Paying tribute, his agent said: “George was deeply loved by everybody who knew him, whether it was a friend, a colleague or a member of the public.
“He simply was a wonderful human being. My thoughts are with Fran, the boys and his wider family,” she said.
Alagiah died earlier on Monday, but “fought until the bitter end”, his agent added.
BBC director general Tim Davie said: “Across the BBC, we are all incredibly sad to hear the news about George. We are thinking of his family at this time.
“He was more than just an outstanding journalist, audiences could sense his kindness, empathy and wonderful humanity. He was loved by all and we will miss him enormously.”
BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson tweeted: “A gentler, kinder, more insightful and braver friend and colleague it would be hard to find.”
BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet called him “a great broadcaster”, a “kind colleague” and “a thoughtful journalist”.
Clive Myrie, presenting the BBC News at One, said: “On a personal note, George touched all of us here in the newsroom, with his kindness and generosity, his warmth and good humour. We loved him here at BBC News, and I loved him as a mentor, colleague and friend.”
George Alagiah was a fixture on British TV news for more than three decades
The Guardian wrote:
In a business often seen as cut-throat, George was regarded by colleagues as likable and decent, a view shared by millions of viewers. For the BBC he reported on the famine and the US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, and on the genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath. He was one of the news team who in 1999 secured pictures of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, for which they won the Bafta for best news and current affairs journalism.
George’s reporting and analysis were always enhanced by personal experience. He observed Africa’s “wind of change” at first hand, growing up in Ghana in the 60s when hopes were high for the newly independent states; and later, as a BBC foreign correspondent, reporting on the bloodshed, famine and disease as the African dream collapsed. At home, he was not afraid to comment on issues of race and multiculturalism in the UK, or on the role of the BBC itself.
He was a migrant twice over, moving from Sri Lanka to Ghana at the age of six, and then to Britain when he was 11. Born in Colombo, he was the son of Therese (nee Santiapillai) and Donald Alagiah.
“My parents moved us first to Africa and then to Britain, always in search of something better for their children,” he wrote. His father was a civil engineer who decided to leave Sri Lanka after anti-Tamil riots. George arrived in Ghana as a boy in December 1961, four years after the country had gained its freedom from Britain. It was the era of African liberation.
In his book A Passage to Africa (2001), Alagiah described how his father was interviewed for a job by the chief executive of Ghana’s water department, noting it as a small sign of change: “An African was recruiting an Asian, with no white man mediating between his erstwhile charges. The new order was asserting itself over the old.”
“For me,” he wrote, “the earliest evidence of our new, elevated status was the acquisition of our first car in Ghana, a Mercedes-Benz, just days after setting foot on the continent. Seven years later, by the time I was sent to boarding school in England, I was calling Ghana my home. I sounded like a Ghanaian and thought like a Ghanaian.”
At St John’s college in Portsmouth, Hampshire, a Catholic school, he was one of a handful of children of foreign parents. The boy from Sri Lanka wanted to fit in, as he had in Ghana. “You do this thing that the migrant does,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “You are desperate to shed one skin and take on the skin of the place you are in, and subconsciously that is what I did.”
He gained a degree in politics from Durham University, where he met his future wife, Frances Robathan (they married in 1984), and then applied unsuccessfully to join the BBC’s graduate trainee scheme. The rejection “hurt a lot” at the time, he said, but in retrospect he was glad of it, saying it gave him a breadth of experience that many BBC trainees did not have. Instead, in 1982, he joined South magazine, which covered the developing world with the philosophy that “an unequal world is an unstable world”.
He became its Africa editor, and in 1989 joined the BBC as a foreign correspondent, specialising in Africa and the developing world. Over the next few years, his reports on the famine in Somalia won awards from the Royal Television Society, Amnesty International, the Broadcasting Press Guild, the Monte Carlo TV festival and the James Cameron Memorial Trust.
In 1994, George was nearly killed while covering the civil war in Afghanistan. About to knock on the door of a government official who lived near the place where he was staying, he remembered he had left something behind and turned back. Twenty seconds later, a rocket destroyed the official’s house. He wrote later: “There were lots of times in Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia when I put on a bulletproof vest and mentally prepared myself for danger. But here, death would have come out of the blue. It was a very strange, destabilising thing.”
That year, he began a four-year posting as the BBC’s southern Africa correspondent, based in Johannesburg, covering the genocide in Rwanda and the events that followed, including mass migration and cholera. “To be in Goma at this time was like being transported back to a scene from the Old Testament,” he wrote. “In less than a week, about a million people trudged across the border from Rwanda into Zaire [now Democratic Republic of the Congo].”
He found it the most challenging assignment that he had experienced. “The crux of the matter was whether to treat the exodus as primarily a humanitarian or a political problem,” he wrote. “Cholera, that most indiscriminate of killers, was about to be unleashed on a population of a million people who had no means of escape. The genocide was forgotten and cholera became the story.”
Further afield, he covered the trade in human organs in India, street children in Brazil, the persecution of Kurds in Iraq and the Asian tsunami. In 1998, Alagiah was voted media personality of the year in the Ethnic Minority Media Awards. The following year saw his reports from Kosovo, a story in which he took pride. Shortly after, he gave up travelling to “don the sharp suits of the studio-based presenter”, as he put it, first on the BBC News Channel, then on the One O’Clock News.
In 2002, when BBC4 was launched, he presented the BBC’s first nightly news bulletin dedicated to foreign news. A year later, he joined the presenters of the BBC Six O’Clock News. In 2008 he was appointed OBE.
For seven years, he was a patron of the Fairtrade Foundation, a charity that lobbies governments to achieve a better deal for smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere. In 2009, despite his and the charity’s protests, the BBC made him give up the role, citing a potential conflict of interest. He was about to present a BBC Two series called The Future of Food and there were fears his impartiality could be seen to be undermined.
George took issue with the BBC’s director general, Greg Dyke, when he described the BBC as “hideously white”. Commenting in 2001 that the BBC’s problem was one of culture, not race, George said that although the upper echelons were still “overwhelmingly white, male and middle class”, he saw the growing number of black and Asian reporters as a sign of progress. He said those he knew who had moved on from the corporation “did so for more money and better jobs, not because they find the place unwelcoming or racist”.
There was controversy when his book A Home from Home (2006) was serialised in the Daily Mail under the frontpage headline “My fears for apartheid UK”. In one passage he wrote that multiculturalism was partly responsible for the emergence of segregated areas such as those “apartheid’s social engineers dreamed of”.
Interviewed in the Guardian, he accepted the analogy was provocative but insisted he had been careful to limit it: “Whereas in South Africa it was by design, here we appear to have blundered into it.” His final book, The Burning Land (2019), was a political thriller based in post-apartheid South Africa.
He was a passionate believer in the importance of the BBC. “I’ve been to places where they don’t have a public service broadcaster, where they tune in to the BBC on the dot every day because they see something that is trustworthy and authoritative,” he said. “It’s a truly precious flower that we in Britain have got and I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to trample on it.”
His diagnosis of bowel cancer in 2014 led to an operation. He returned to work the next year, but further absences for treatment followed, and he stepped down from presenting late in 2022.
He is survived by Frances and their sons, Adam and Matthew.