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'I envy people who have faith': BBC's George Alagiah dies of cancer at 67

by Premier Journalist

Tributes have been pouring in for George Alagiah, the BBC news-reader, reporter and foreign correspondent, whose death was announced today.  He was 67, and had been battling stage four bowel cancer for nine years.

He had worked for the BBC from 1989, as a foreign correspondent, and presented the Six O'clock News for nearly twenty years.  He was hugely popular with colleagues and viewers alike, known for showing kindness, gentleness and compassion to everyone he met.

His parents were Christian Tamils who fled Sri Lanka when George was young.  He said his only memory of that country was of leaving it.  The family moved to Africa, where his father started working as an engineer, in Ghana.  At 11, Alagiah was sent, like his sisters before him, to a Catholic boarding school in Portsmouth. 

In an interview with The Telegraph last year he said, “I envy people who have faith. My family home was a very Catholic home. We would end the day by sitting around saying the rosary. So, I understand it, but I’m afraid I no longer have it.  Having said that, we light candles in churches when we go in occasionally, around Christmas. Call it habit, call it superstition. I call it getting comfort. It’s almost meditative.”

In a 'Letter to my Younger Self' for the Big Issue in 2019 he talked about his experience of living in a predominantly white culture at boarding school, saying: "Coming to Britain probably did affect my confidence a bit. I became aware of race in a way I hadn’t before." He suffered racist taunts but also had white friends defending him, and says he made a choice that he would "never let race be the thing that defined me".

"Looking back at my 16-year-old self, I wonder how I made it through boarding school. I can remember instances of feeling out of my depth. But for me, unlike many of my classmates, there was no home in England for me to go to, no mum nearby who was cooking dinner for me. It was sink or swim and I decided I would have to swim. And for the most part it was actually a happy time. For me the key thing was care and security and I did feel the Christian Brothers who ran the school gave me that. But as I grew older I was increasingly aware of this tug inside me, of wanting to assimilate into this new culture, and the call of heritage."

George was very open about his cancer diagnosis in 2014, and his battle against the disease, and said that his five operations and chemotherapy had given him a new appreciation for the beauty of his life.  In the same letter in The Big Issue, he wrote:  "When people get cancer they often say why me?  When I was diagnosed, I thought about that, and the question came back, why not me? Why should I be exempt? In terms of timing I think I was exceptionally lucky... I wouldn’t give my cancer back... When I look at my life I think... it’s been a good one."

A statement from his agent said he "died peacefully today, surrounded by his family and loved ones".  He was married to his wife Frances, and the couple have two sons. The statement continued: "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. My thoughts are with Fran, the boys and his wider family."

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."

BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson tweeted: "A gentler, kinder, more insightful and braver friend and colleague it would be hard to find."

A similar message from Nick Bryant, a former BBC foreign reporter said, "There won’t be many dry eyes today in the BBC newsroom. What a beautiful man."

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