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George Alagiah was one of the BBCs longest serving newsreaders

George Alagiah was one of the BBC’s longest-serving newsreaders

George Alagiah was a popular and reassuring presence behind a BBC News desk for more than 20 years, his unflappable demeanour making him a hit with viewers.

He joined the corporation in 1989 and was one of the broadcaster’s leading foreign correspondents, filing dispatches on subjects ranging from the Rwandan genocide to civil wars across Africa.

Alagiah was born in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo in 1955 when the city was still considered part of the former British territory of Ceylon.

During the BBC’s coverage of the 2004 Asian tsunami, he returned to the country to find that his grandfather’s former home had been destroyed in the natural disaster.

Alagiah was forced to take a break from television following his bowel cancer diagnosis in 2014 and shared updates as he battled the disease, including in June 2020 when he revealed it had spread to his lungs.

Alagiah spent part his of childhood in Ghana in west Africa where he moved with his engineer father Donald and mother Therese.

He moved to the UK to attend secondary school in Portsmouth after which he read politics at Durham University.

During his studies at Durham he was the editor of the student paper and a sabbatical officer of the students’ union.

It was there that he met his wife Frances Robathan. The couple married in 1984 and share two sons Adam and Matthew.

Before starting with the BBC in 1989, Alagiah was based in Johannesburg as developing world correspondent for South Magazine.

He was named Amnesty International’s journalist of the year in 1994 for reporting on the civil war in Burundi and also won the Broadcasting Press Guild’s award for television journalist of the year.

He was also part of the BBC team that won a Bafta Award in 2000 for its reporting of the conflict in Kosovo, one of several prizes he received during his broadcasting career.

After first presenting BBC Four News in 2002 he went on to co-anchor the corporations 6pm news bulletin, first alongside Sophie Raworth and then Natasha Kaplinsky.

From 2007 he was the programmes sole presenter while he was also a relief presenter for News at Ten.

He interviewed several world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In 2008, he was made an OBE in the New Year Honours list for services to journalism.

The following year he was asked by the BBC’s management to step down from his role as a patron of the Fairtrade Foundation.

The corporation explained that based on its principles of impartiality his role with the group represented a professional conflict of interest.

It was first announced in April 2014 that he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. It was later revealed the disease had spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

After undergoing treatment he revealed on social media in October 2015 that he would return to work, subsequently appearing on-screen in November.

An ever-popular presenter, his return was welcomed by viewers and his fellow journalists, including presenters of competing news programmes.

In 2016, Alagiah said he was a “richer person” for his cancer diagnosis, which saw him undergo several rounds of chemotherapy and three major operations, one of which included the removal of most of his liver.

Alagiah’s health was back in the headlines in March 2020, when amid a global pandemic he tested positive for Covid-19.

He credited his experience of fighting cancer with helping him deal with the “mild” case of coronavirus.

In June 2020, Alagiah revealed the cancer had spread to his lungs but delivered a typically philosophical judgment.

He told the Times newspaper: “My doctors have never used the word ‘chronic’ or ‘cure’ about my cancer.

“They’ve never used the word ‘terminal’ either. I’ve always said to my oncologist, ‘Tell me when I need to sort my affairs out’, and he’s not told me that, but what he did tell me is that the cancer is now in a third organ. It is in my lungs.”

Alagiah said he had kept the development a secret, only telling his editor.

He said: “I said to my doctor, ‘You’re going to have to do the worrying for me.’ I don’t want to fill my mind with worry. I just know that he’s a clever guy, doing everything he can.”

In October 2021, a representative for Alagiah announced that he would be taking a step back from his presenting and journalism duties as he deals with “a further spread of cancer”.

During an interview in January 2022, Alagiah spoke candidly about his long battle with cancer, saying “it will get me in the end,” before adding “I’m hoping it’s a long time from now, but I’m very lucky”.

Despite his matter of fact approach to the disease, Alagiah remained positive when reflecting on his career and family life.

“I had to stop and say, ‘Hang on a minute. If the full stop came now, would my life have been a failure?’,” he said.

He added: “And actually, when I look back and I looked at my journey… the family I had, the opportunities my family had, the great good fortune to bump into (Frances Robathan), who’s now been my wife and lover for all these years, the kids that we brought up… it didn’t feel like a failure.”

Alagiah temporarily returned to BBC News At Six in April 2022.

However, in October he once again announced that he had been forced to take time away from his work after scans showed that the cancer had spread further.

While sharing the news, Alagiah said: “A recent scan showed that my cancer has spread further so it’s back to some tough stuff.

“I’m missing my colleagues. Working in the newsroom has been such an important part of keeping energised and motivated.

“I look forward to being back in that studio as soon as I can.”

Away from journalism, Alagiah was a published author and his debut novel was shortlisted for a Society Of Authors award.

His thriller The Burning Land, about corruption and homicide in South Africa, was in the running for the Paul Torday memorial prize, which is awarded to a first novel by a writer over 60.

Published: by Radio NewsHub

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