The quintessential English gentleman

PROFILE:Trevor McDonald Our top newsreader is a throwback to another age, says Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
The black man with the Scottish name who is more English than the English has had an interesting week. Instead of merely reading the news, Trevor McDonald has been making it.

First, on Sunday, came the diabolical proposal to elbow McDonald's programme, News At Ten, off its venerable 10 o'clock plinth and shove it 15 minutes deeper into the night to make room for an extended bout with Cracker, Robbie Coltrane's charismatic psychologist. Amid a great squawking of public concern, the Independent Television Commission threatened a large fine, whereupon the idea was withdrawn.

On Wednesday, before the dust had settled, up popped Mrs Shephard at Blackpool to announce the latest Tory attempt to turn back the cultural clock. This one involved appointing a steering group to head a "Campaign for the Better Use of the English Language". McDonald was to head a committee of "bright, energetic people" from business, trade unions, sport and journalism, with an initial budget of pounds 250,000.

If the first announcement was an uncalled-for slight, the second was recognition that, after three years as the solitary anchorman of ITN's most important programme, and about the same span as the most popular newsreader in Britain, McDonald has become a force in the land. But a force for what, exactly?

A force for niceness is the obvious but inadequate reply: McDonald has a reputation for being pleasant which rivals Gary Lineker's. Never booked, never sent off, his last recorded mistake was when he said the hostage John McCarthy had been brought home, not by the RAF but the RAC. Someone like Jeremy Paxman splits people into those who love him and those who hate him. Trevor McDonald does the opposite: he positively binds people together. He plays that old newcaster's role, the embodiment of reassurance, healer of wounds, televisual balm for the nation's soul. With his square specs, short-pile rug of receding grey hair and slow granite smile, he makes it all better, no matter how dreadful the news he has had to pronounce. Nobody since Richard Baker has filled the role with such aplomb.

As much the most prominent black person in the media, McDonald can be seen as a harbinger of the future, when blacks will be represented in television and print in rough proportion to their presence in the population. But a more gloomy view is that he is more correctly seen as a figure from the past - the man from the colonies who relates to Britain as the mother country with a sort of uncomplicated devotion simply not possible for black people born here.

He was born 55 years ago in Trinidad, a small island set apart from the rest of the West Indies geographically, and with a long roll call of distinguished Anglophiles to its name, including VS Naipaul, CLR James and Sir Learie Constantine. "It was a backwater of the empire," McDonald says, "but with a cosmopolitanism that would do credit to New York; people there were always looking for a wider field abroad. I remember sitting in the dark Caribbean evenings reading Dickens, Thackeray, Hazlitt ... Naipaul said something about Trinidadians being people without history, and as a result you begin to admire the history of others. You fall back on Trafalgar, and so on. One is drawn ineluctably to the metropolitan centre."

His father worked in the island's oil refinery and raised pigs. He cherished vast ambitions for his four children, of whom McDonald was the eldest. He bought engineering manuals home from work and made his son read them instead of comics; on balmy Sundays, he would drag him off the cricket field and back to his books.

While still a child, McDonald fell under the spell of the BBC World Service, and after a degree in international politics at the University of the West Indies and a stint on Trinidad's radio and television, he came to London in 1970 and joined the BBC. He stayed with the World Service for three years, played cricket for their team, the Bushmen, and established the reputation as a convivial, clever, non-threatening person that has carried him along since.

From the BBC, he joined ITN. A journalist who remembers him when he was ITN's diplomatic correspondent in Brussels points out that television frontmen come in two types: those who mug up as little as possible for their on-camera spots, and those who insist on learning everything they can about a story and winnowing it down to the essentials. McDonald, he says, was emphatically one of the latter. He subsequently filed reports for ITN from around the world - high points included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela (he got the first interview) and, most famously, a half-hour exclusive, after the invasion of Kuwait, with Saddam Hussein.

The solidity and breadth of his journalistic career means it is hard to imagine McDonald going down the Martyn Lewis road, demanding more positive news coverage and writing soppy books about animals in the news. Staring into a camera, reading from an autocue and occasionally swivelling one's head pensively to the left may look like a dumb way to earn a living, but his years out in the field have left McDonald with a good understanding of the resonance of the reports he musters. This makes it all the sadder that he has failed to prevent News At Ten being taken downmarket, with a rising proportion of trivial, sensational and voyeuristic reports.

This failure brings us back to the initial conundrum - McDonald is a force in the country, but for what? A large part of his appeal lies in the fact that, like Richard Baker, he exudes uncomplicated self-satisfaction - eminently clubbable, quintessentially suburban, born to commute, to stand rounds in the saloon bar, to hail colleagues as "dear boy" and complain when tired of feeling "absolutely buggered". He has achieved the miracle that liberal people in the Fifties and Sixties hoped would become commonplace in a multi-racial Britain - the colour of his skin has become irrelevant. But in the middle of the Nineties, does that make him a beacon for the future - or a relic of the past?