How I lost my heart to the BBC

The child of Tamil émigrés, George Alagiah fought hard to join the corporation, he tells Ian Burrell. Perhaps that's one reason why the Six O'Clock News presenter defends his employers with such vehemence
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The Independent Online

When he arrived in the UK more than 35 years ago, George Alagiah had little idea where his new life would lead. No one, not least the man himself, could have predicted that the 11-year-old from Ghana would go on to become one of the most recognised faces in British journalism."Anyone who had seen me then would not have believed that years later I would be presenting the most watched news programme in the country," he says.

When he arrived in the UK more than 35 years ago, George Alagiah had little idea where his new life would lead. No one, not least the man himself, could have predicted that the 11-year-old from Ghana would go on to become one of the most recognised faces in British journalism."Anyone who had seen me then would not have believed that years later I would be presenting the most watched news programme in the country," he says.

Alagiah gives the impression that he still has to pinch himself before introducing the Six O'Clock News every evening. His ascent to one of the most prestigious posts in the BBC has been difficult, not because his childhood was divided between different continents, but because the corporation turned him down for a job three times. It is perhaps because he fought so hard to join the corporation that he now talks with such palpable anger about the threat to its future.

"I have 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 says, his voice trembling with emotion. "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."

The debate over whether Britain needs the BBC in its current form may be well under way, but Alagiah is outraged by the idea that his employer is in need of reform. "If you constituted the BBC in some other way you would not get the same programming," he says. "There's only one alternative to a strong BBC and that's a weak BBC. There's no middling-piddling BBC, there's no Third Way."

Alagiah takes issue not just with critics from outside the organisation, but with colleagues - such as the corporation's world affairs editor, John Simpson - who suggest that its staff have been cowed by the Hutton report. "I haven't spoken to John, but all I can say is that on the Six O'Clock News, from where I stand in the newsroom, there is no sense of fear," he says. "We are going out and doing the stories that we want to do."

Alagiah has travelled the world during his career, interviewing Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Tariq Aziz, and reporting on civil war in Liberia, genocide in Rwanda, the sale of body parts in India and the intifada in the West Bank. It is this global experience that has informed his career, and his reporting is underpinned by a personal understanding of how tribal tension can lead people to flee their homes.

Alagiah's family - Tamils from Sri Lanka - chose to abandon Colombo for West Africa amid early signs of conflict between their people and the island's Sinhalese population. "I was only three and can't remember any detail, but as a child you remember tension," he says. "There had been riots in 1958 and there was enough happening for the adults to work out that things could get nasty."

The Alagiahs moved to Ghana, where George's father used his civil engineering experience to fill a post vacated when British colonial officials quit the newly independent state. "Ghana became the place that I grabbed hold of. Africa became this great and beautiful thing to which I wanted to attach myself. It has remained a life-long passion," he says.

Despite this sense of belonging, Alagiah had barely settled when it became necessary for the family to move again. The young George soon found himself at a Catholic school in Portsmouth, where there were "literally a handful of children of foreigners". He quickly bonded with a Kenyan boy called Tom and another pupil from Hong Kong, but he was desperate to fit in with the majority. "You do this thing that the migrant does. You are desperate to shed one skin and take on the skin of the place you are in," he says. "Subconsciously that is what I did."

Within "two or three years" his hybrid Asian/ African accent had been replaced by the rich tones familiar to a daily audience of 5.2 million. "I began speaking more or less as I'm speaking now," he says. "I don't know why, because none of my friends speak like this. They speak with a Pompey accent." He is planning a book about his experience of migration, a topic close to his heart. "I don't know where this accent came from, but I think subconsciously that the migrant is searching for the thing that can make him or her disappear. That's what I did."

Disappearing was not so easy. "I remember my first-ever communal shower," he recalls. "All the white kids had tan lines because they had spent all summer on the beach. People like me don't have tan lines. We live in the sun and our whole preoccupation is to stay out of it. I can remember one guy, in the first week, pointing at me and having a good laugh with his mates, saying, 'The reason he hasn't got tan lines is because he swings around in the jungle naked all the time.'"

Alagiah, his tie unfastened and hanging loosely around the collar of his pink shirt, talks matter-of-factly about these experiences, appearing to harbour no great resentment. "In a strange way I didn't recognise it for what it was," he says. "Maybe it wasn't racism, I don't know. Certainly today I think it would be unacceptable, and I would not accept it being said of my children, but I was naive in a way. I hadn't come across all of this stuff, so I was bewildered more than anything else." He also remembers receiving racist abuse on the rugby field but claims that he was "more hurt than offended" because of his "sheltered background".

Alagiah applied, unsuccessfully, to join the BBC's graduate scheme after attending Durham University. His repeated rejection "hurt a lot", but he responded by starting at the bottom rather than on a fast-track scheme. "In retrospect, I'm very glad because I think it gave me a breadth of experience that many of the people who go in on the graduate training scheme didn't have," he says. "Like all institutions, it has a tendency to clone its own."

Alagiah began his journalistic career on a world affairs magazine called South, which covered stories from alternative perspectives such as the favelas of Rio and the shanty towns of Bombay. Although he won awards for his foreign reporting, he admits that the transition to sitting in front of the camera and presenting did not come easily. He proved to be a quick learner, however, and is now an integral part of the Six O'Clock News, the programme launched by Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell almost 20 years ago.

"Without any question, Britain has offered me opportunities that I would not have had anywhere else," he says. "Equally, what's happened to me is a perfect reminder of what Britain does at its best - when it's open and generous with the people that come through." George Alagiah is clearly happy to have ended up here.

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