INTERVIEW / Now, the Smooth at Ten: Where does someone so suave conceal the drive to land one of the best jobs in broadcasting? Cal McCrystal investigates

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The Independent Online
ONE FAILS to find traces of naked ambition in the career of Trevor McDonald. His ascent from an impoverished Trinidad childhood to the firmament of British television journalism was always neatly (even nattily) clothed, his desire for self-improvement under wrappings of self-effacement. He has always known how to package himself to maximum advantage. Consequently, he appears to be widely regarded as one of nature's noblemen, attracting no odium, suspicion or controversy of any kind.

'I shy away from confrontation,' he admitted last week after being given the top role in ITN's newscasting team. 'I don't have rows. I'm always surprised at how many people help you rather than hinder you. I walk into places and people help me. I probably have this helpless, boy-lost look to which people respond. I don't cause a lot of ripples.' When upset by something, 'I tend to seethe quietly'.

What makes him seethe? 'Bad faith' does it, distorting his 'vision of a fairly gentlemanly world governed almost by the rules of cricket'. So does 'injustice and outrages against humanity. I was outraged when I went to South Africa recently. The circumstances in which many South African people live are not much different from the circumstances I was born into. But in the West Indies you had a chance to abstract yourself, by education or by being a Gary Sobers or Viv Richards, whereas these people were trapped for ever by the colour of their skin. I went back to my hotel one night and broke down in tears of frustration.'

He also seethed briefly over a disparaging remark by John Simpson, a BBC rival whom McDonald scooped by interviewing Saddam Hussein during the Gulf conflict. In a subsequent article for the Spectator, Simpson referred snidely to the ITN man as a newsreader, thereby undervaluing his expertise as a journalist. Simpson apologised later, in his book about the Gulf war. McDonald has forgiven the Beeb man's 'excessive peevishness', even describing him as 'one of the best British television journalists there is, without question'. Simpson is less effusive: 'I don't know Trevor very well. He is a very calm man who exudes a kind of relaxed authority. Very helpful when you're trying to persuade people to be interviewed.'

The relaxed authority was soon evident when I arrived at the ITN newsroom in Gray's Inn Road, London. McDonald was propped against a corridor wall, his jacket off, his shirt stretched by a slight paunch, discussing without too much animation the implications of Ross Perot's withdrawal from the US presidential election campaign. His suavity survived a more personal conversation later.

A newspaper journalist had told me that McDonald once became the quarry of a Belfast woman who seemed bent on seducing every male ITN employee covering Northern Ireland. Her relentless pursuit of McDonald ended one night when, finding her in his bed, he made chaste excuses and left. Reminded of this, McDonald laughed, shoulders heaving. 'I don't think I was ever that lucky,' he said. 'But I think I know the woman you're talking about.'

He seems to have made strong impressions on other women in Ulster. One, an ex-Guardian reporter, said: 'There was a riot around a police station on the Falls Road. Rubber bullets and bricks were flying. I found myself sharing a doorway with this elegantly dressed man who started talking about the poetry of Tennyson.' Another woman approached McDonald on a Belfast street, certain that he was one of the African babies for whose upkeep in the Second World War she had collected milk-bottle tops. Yet another threaded her way through a crowd in Derry where McDonald was filming and quietly warned him: 'If you ever come back to this place, you'll never leave it. I don't like what you do on television.' McDonald said: 'That frightened the hell out of me . . . I can't stand the sight of guns. I don't know if it came from my father. He wouldn't let us join the Scouts because he thought uniforms meant war and fighting.'

McDONALD was born, the eldest of four children, 52 years ago in San Fernando, a small town in the south of Trinidad. His father, an unqualified engineer, was poor. To educate his two sons and daughter (a second daughter had died), he mended shoes in his spare time. McDonald studied Latin and Greek and fell in love with Tennyson, from whose work he continues to quote, not only in doorways. Asked about his ambition, he tosses in a couple of lines from Ulysses: 'How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/ To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use]'

His sister became a lawyer (in Trinidad), his brother an actor (in Toronto). Armed with an 'education which would equate with that of an English public school', an accent his parents encouraged him to cultivate, an ability to work hard and to 'perform' - 'At school we were made to stand in the broiling sun reciting long passages of Latin poetry or Milton' - Trevor McDonald got a job with Radio Trinidad. Since then, he says, smiling above a necktie patterned with horseshoes, he has been 'lucky'.

In 1966, he was hired by the BBC World Service's Caribbean section. Alva Clark, the World Service man who interviewed him in Port of Spain, recalls: 'When I suggested London, he said it would be absolutely marvellous. He seemed quite keen to come to Britain. He was married to an English woman at the time.' That marriage foundered. McDonald now has a young son, Jamie, by his second wife Josephine, whom he met at ITN.

He joined ITN in 1973, reporting news and later sport (he is obsessed with cricket, though not very good at it, according to one Port of Spain admirer). But as diplomatic correspondent, then editor, in the 1980s, he gained wide foreign experience, enhancing his reputation in a stylish, authoritative news programme that often outshone the BBC's Nine O' Clock News.

Then ITN's superiority waned as it became a touch 'tabloid', and BBC Television News regained authority and viewers. McDonald's new job as sole anchorman from October (the role of his colleagues, Julia Somerville and Alastair Stewart has yet to be clarified) will be to try to restore ITN's fortunes. Market research suggests he is popular with viewers, but with so much riding on his performance the task promises to be stressful. Did he deal with stress like other journalists, by getting drunk?

'Too constantly] That's the problem,' he said, his laughter climbing an octave. A former colleague thought he had a fondness for claret. 'I'm afraid I plead guilty,' McDonald said, adding that he was also devoted to American chardonnay and Australian white burgundy. But, says a former colleague: 'Trevor is not one of the lads, sozzled all the time like most television people.' Another ex-colleague, Desmond Hamill, admires McDonald not only for being 'well-read' but also for his ability to display this quality in his on- screen reports. 'I remember when he was doing a Far East thing from Singapore, he threw in an elegant quotation from one of the First World War poets. I was green with envy.'

McDonald takes books of poems with him on assignment. In his television news delivery, cadences of his schoolboy recitations can be heard. But his frequent conversational quotations strike one as being integrated with the self-packaging, like the bright neckties and the distinctive after-shave lotion, items that could easily pinpoint his location in a large crowd.

Most journalists like and respect him, and they may be right in assuming that beneath the polished veneer lies an equally polished core. Not one of a dozen McDonald acquaintances to whom I spoke offered any analysis of his character or motivation. But finally an ex-colleague and long-time friend volunteered: 'One of the keys to Trevor is that he is intent on not being black. He doesn't want blackness to be a central or major thing in his life.'

McDonald agrees with this. 'It's always interesting to see yourself as others see you. You remember that line in Julius Caesar when, I think, Cassius or Brutus says, 'The eye sees not itself but by reflection.' Very, very true. I think it's true that I decided to work the system. I don't cause many waves . . . If somebody says, 'Why aren't there more black reporters on television?' I reply that there are two approaches: stand outside and shout about it, or get a job as a junior reporter and work your butt off. My blackness was never an issue. For God's sake I am (black). I'm not unproud about that. But I neither hang back nor ask favours because of it.'

Some admirers regard McDonald's new anchorage as a 'waste of journalistic talent'. He agreed that his reporting would now be restricted, but added: 'There is no career structure in television as there is in the Civil Service. There are very few positions open at the top. When they're offered, you've got to take them. If you don't, you're not in the game. As I mentioned in that bit from Tennyson, I don't want to stagnate. I want to get on.' The boy- lost look flickered briefly behind his glasses. This man, I thought, knows exactly where he's at.

(Photograph omitted)