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24 July 2023

George Alagiah remembered as ‘one of the best journalists of his generation’

24 July 2023

BBC newsreader George Alagiah has been remembered as “one of the best and bravest journalists of his generation” and “a wonderful human being” after his death at 67.

The award-winning journalist, who presented the BBC News at Six for the past 20 years, was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014.

He died on Monday surrounded by his family and loved ones.

A statement from his agent Mary Greenham said: “George fought until the bitter end but sadly that battle ended earlier today.

“George was deeply loved by everybody who knew him, whether it was a friend, a colleague or a member of the public. He simply was a wonderful human being.”

Alagiah, who was born in Sri Lanka, continued to present for the BBC when he was not receiving treatment.

He joined the corporation in 1989 and spent many years as one of the it’s leading foreign correspondents before moving to presenting.

He was often a specialist in Africa and covered the civil wars in Somalia and Liberia as well as the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago.

Throughout his career he interviewed central political figures, among them former South African president Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and ex-Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.

He was nominated for a Bafta in 1994 for his coverage of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq and was was named Amnesty International’s journalist of the year in 1994 for reporting on the civil war in Burundi.

He first began hosting the 6pm news bulletin in early 2003, but stepped up to front it solo four years later following the departure of his co-host, Natasha Kaplinsky.

BBC director-general Tim Davie said: “Across the BBC, we are all incredibly sad to hear the news about George. We are thinking of his family at this time.

“George was one of the best and bravest journalists of his generation who reported fearlessly from across the world as well as presenting the news flawlessly.

“He was more than just an outstanding journalist, audiences could sense his kindness, empathy and wonderful humanity. He was loved by all and we will miss him enormously.”

Question Time presenter Fiona Bruce said Alagiah was “that rare thing – a first-rate journalist and an all round lovely human being.”

She added: “Integrity and decency shone through him. That and a mischievous sense of humour with an endearing giggle.

“I remember his 60th birthday party, surrounded by his wonderful family and his glamorous sisters like so many birds of paradise. It was an intimate family affair and I know George counted his blessings to be there with the people he loved so much.

“He fought with all he had to stay with them as long as he could. We loved him in the newsroom and we – I – miss him so much.”

Nick Robinson, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, paid tribute saying: “George was a brilliant journalist, a lovely man and an inspiring example to all fighting serious illness. His friends will miss him deeply.”

Broadcaster John Simpson said: “A gentler, kinder, more insightful and braver friend and colleague it would be hard to find.

“I loved having his company in the BBC World Affairs Unit, and his progress after that was a pleasure to watch.”

Former BBC correspondent Jon Sopel added: “Tributes will rightly be paid to a fantastic journalist and brilliant broadcaster – but George was the most decent, principled, kindest, most honourable man I have ever worked with. What a loss.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer said he was “deeply saddened” by news of Alagiah’s death.

He said: “A much-loved face of BBC News for decades, George will also be remembered for his brilliant, fearless journalism as foreign correspondent. He rightly won awards for his evocative, boundary pushing reporting. British journalism has lost a talent. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones.”

After his diagnosis Alagiah endured two rounds of chemotherapy and several operations, including the removal of most of his liver.

He returned to work after his treatment was over but the cancer came back and spread leading to breaks from the studio while he received treatment.

Appearing in a campaign in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support in 2022, speaking about the impact of his own experience of living with stage four bowel cancer, Alagiah said: “People always ask me how I cope and it’s the hardest question…

“The challenge at first was getting my cancer diagnosis straight in my head – despite having so much going for me, a successful career and a loving family, here I was just being told I was dying.”

In a videocast for the charity Bowel Cancer UK in 2020 in which he said he sometimes felt he had the “easy part”, living with bowel cancer while his loved ones had to watch.

He said: “Those of us living with cancer know that it affects our families almost as much as ourselves.

“In some ways I’ve felt through my six-plus years living with cancer that sometimes I have the easy part… My job is just to stay fit and my family has got to watch all of the other things.”

The chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK paid tribute to Alagiah, describing him as a “huge advocate” of the charity since he shared his diagnosis.

Genevieve Edwards said in a statement to PA: “He supported our campaign calling on the NHS to lower the bowel cancer screening age to 50, shared his experience of the disease to raise lifesaving awareness of the symptoms, as well as speaking to our wonderful supporters about living with advanced bowel cancer at events that have raised thousands of pounds for the charity.

“Most recently, he hosted our podcast – he gave not only his time but his phenomenal broadcasting skills, his incredible warmth and his personal insight into living with the disease. We will never forget how much of his precious time he gave to the charity and the kindness he showed to our supporters during a very difficult time in his life.”

Before joining the BBC, Alagiah worked as a print journalist and went on to write a number of books including A Home From Home, which looked at what it means to be British.

Throughout his illustrious career, he also presented other shows such as Mixed Britannia, looking at the UK’s mixed-race population.

He was made an OBE in the 2008 New Year Honours.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Frances Robathan, their two sons and three grandchildren.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England’s national clinical director for cancer, said: “I am very sorry to hear that George Alagiah has died with bowel cancer and my thoughts are with his friends and family.

“Talking about cancer can save lives and that George was able to speak so openly and honestly about living with cancer will undoubtably make a difference to many others: I am very grateful that he felt able to do this.

“With all cancers, acting at the first sign of symptoms can make a big difference to how cancer can be treated, and as George often reminded people, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer – so if you have noticed any changes such as blood in your poo, a change in bowel habits or pain and bloating – please do come forward for checks as soon as possible.”

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