Obituary: Alan Macdonald

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The Independent Culture
ALAN MACDONALD was one of the pioneers of BBC global television news. He was a tireless champion of BBC World, the BBC's international 24-hour news and information channel.

Today, BBC World is watched in nearly 60 million homes in 187 countries, and CNN's supremacy has been challenged. Macdonald held a passionate belief that it was the BBC's duty to create a television news channel to match the excellence of BBC World Service radio. In 1986, he left his job as political correspondent at the World Service to take the first tentative steps.

In those early pioneering days, when CNN ruled in the global news village, Macdonald and his colleagues found much opposition, and innumerable obstacles. Many BBC executives did not share his enthusiasm for the venture. Funding was a fraught subject as neither the licence fee nor the World Service grant-in-aid was available. The commercial route was taken, and the BBC's global television news service was developed by the commercial division of the BBC. There were concerns too over standards - how could a commercially funded news channel maintain BBC standards?

Alan Macdonald was at the forefront of the launch in 1991 and subsequent development of BBC World Service Television (now BBC World), the BBC's first international satellite television channel. He became Head of Business Development and Regional Director, South Asia and the Middle East, and established partnerships and distribution arrangements as the channel spread throughout the world. Now, there is scarcely a continent or country where the BBC World signal is not available.

Macdonald's background in the world's most respected radio service was useful in his new role. But he knew only too well that, no matter however strong the brand, tougher rules apply in the commercial market for news: markets do not suddenly appear when satellite signals are beamed; each territory is fought for, against both established and growing competition; and each territory won must cover its costs. If the BBC can succeed with BBC World today, it will be because of the early work done by people like Macdonald.

Those who watched him at work in India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Middle East and elsewhere, saw him combine an understanding of the commercial realities with an admirable personal code. He believed in establishing long-standing relationships based on trust, and many of his business partners became friends.

Alan Macdonald cut a distinctive figure among the younger media men of today - tall (he towered above most people), old-fashioned in manner and mode, a little eccentric (he was one of the few BBC executives who rode a motor-bike), imaginative and amusing.

He was born in 1945 and educated at Whitgift School, Croydon. He went on to read Chinese, Economics and Sociology at Leeds University, after spending a year as a teacher in Malaysia working with the British aid organisation Voluntary Service Overseas. From 1966 he worked as a regional newspaper reporter before joining BBC World Service as an international journalist.

He joined External Services News, as it was then, in March 1972 and held a number of positions - notably duty editor, specialist correspondent, assistant intake editor and Newsroom assistant editor. He travelled to many parts of the world as a foreign correspondent, and worked in London as the BBC World Service political correspondent during the early years of the Thatcher government.

Even serious illness (he was diagnosed with a brain tumour a year ago) didn't dampen his spirit nor stop him. It was characteristic of Macdonald that he turned aside all advice to stay away from work. He believed he had a personal duty to the BBC, and he did his duty until the end of his life.

Macdonald was an active supporter of the Downs Syndrome Association and played a major part in the early 1980s campaign to curb the use of the term "mongol".

Bob Wheaton

Alan Neil Macdonald, journalist and television executive: born London 24 April 1945; married 1969 Janice Clark (two sons, two daughters); died London 9 January 1999.