George Alagiah: Award-winning BBC presenter dies at 67 after bowel cancer diagnosis

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. John Ray looks back at his career

By Elaine McCallig, ITV News Digital Content Producer

Award-winning BBC presenter George Alagiah OBE has died from cancer at the age of 67.

The father-of-two was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in 2014 and has since intermittently stepped back from his broadcasting work to receive treatment.

The news was confirmed in a statement from his agent on Monday afternoon.

“I am so terribly sorry to inform you that George Alagiah died peacefully today, surrounded by his family and loved ones," Mary Greenham said in a statement.

“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.

“My thoughts are with Fran, the boys and his wider family.”

The former BBC foreign correspondent, who was part of the BBC team that was awarded a Bafta in 2000 for its coverage of the Kosovo conflict, underwent chemotherapy to treat his advanced bowel cancer in 2014.

He returned to presenting in 2015 after making progress against the disease, and said he was a “richer person” for it.

His cancer returned in December 2017 and he underwent further treatment before again returning to work. In 2020, his bowel cancer had spread to his lungs.

In October 2021, he stepped away from the newsroom to receive treatment and returned to his presenting role in April 2022.

George Alagiah at Buckingham Palace, after collecting his OBE from the Queen in 2008. Credit: PA

In September of that year, he told The Sunday Telegraph about how he continued his presenting duties while living with cancer and revealed that he had a tumour site at the base of his back which caused him extreme pain.

Although the work left him “absolutely knackered physically”, getting back in front of the camera made him feel “mentally rejuvenated”.

He also told the newspaper about his fear of leaving behind his wife, Frances Robathan.

He said: “One of the things I want to do is hold hands with my wife until the end, and am I going to be able to do that? It haunts me. Not every day.

“I’m not too scared for myself, but I’m here on the third floor of our house, and I am looking out of the window at Frances setting out the tablecloth on our garden table, and it occurs to me, is she going to have to do that for herself one day, and eat on her own?”

He again stepped back from presenting in October 2022 after scans showed his cancer had spread further.

At the time, 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.”

When his BBC colleague Bill Turnbull died from prostate cancer last August, Alagiah congratulated Turnbull “for setting an example for all of us living with life-threatening illness”.

George Alagiah pictured after receiving the award for Outstanding Achievement in Television at The Asian Awards in London in 2010. Credit: AP

Born in Sri Lanka in 1955, he began his journalistic career in 1982 with South Magazine and joined the BBC seven years later in 1989.

Alagiah joined the BBC's Six O'Clock News studio team in January 2003 after earning a name as one of the BBC's leading foreign correspondents.

A specialist on Africa and the developing world, his reportage ranged from genocide in Rwanda to civil wars in Afghanistan, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Throughout his career he has interviewed many famous figures, such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He won numerous awards for journalism throughout his four-decade career and in 2008 he was appointed as an OBE.

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.

George Alagiah pictured in 2009. Credit: PA

Alagiah spoke openly about the experience of living with cancer, joining 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.”

A statement from 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.”

Since the news was announced on Monday, tributes have poured in for Alagiah on social media.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan hailed Alagiah as "an outstanding journalist and broadcaster with unparalleled insight and sensitivity".

"His decades of reporting helped break down barriers. My thoughts are with his loved ones," he said.

Former BBC correspondent and current co-host of the News Agents podcast Jon Sopel wrote: "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."

David Shukman, former science editor at BBC News, wrote: "Over many years sitting at the desk next to mine, George brightened every day with his curiosity, humour and above all humanity. What a loss to us all but especially to his amazing family."

ITV News Royal Editor Chris Ship tweeted: "Such a sad loss. George Alagiah fought a long battle with cancer and will be hugely missed. Thoughts with his family and his many friends and colleagues at BBC News."

Sky News' Mark Austin wrote: "This breaks my heart. A good man, a rival on the foreign correspondent beat but above all a friend. If good journalism is about empathy, and it often is, George Alagiah had it in spades. He understood injustice and the power of good reporting to highlight it, if not correct it."

LBC Presenter Sangita Myska said Alagiah "inspired a generation of British Asian journalists".

"Growing up, when the BBC’s George Alagiah was on TV my dad would shout 'George is on!'. We’d run to watch the man who inspired a generation of British Asian journalists. That scene was replicated across the UK. We thank you, George," she wrote.

Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote: "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."

He is survived by his wife, Frances Robathan, and two children.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

According to the NHS, the three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit

  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny

  • persistent lower, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite and weight

The NHS says most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms such as a change in diet or haemorrhoids.

However, the NHS recommends seeing your GP if you have had any of these symptoms for three weeks or more.

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