Hours after his death was announced, BBC viewers watched a final message from George Alagiah, the newsreader and television presenter, in which he said he had “gotten to a place to see life as a gift”.
Alagiah died at the age of 67, nearly a decade after he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
At the end of Monday’s edition of the News At Six, the bulletin he used to presented, his former colleague Sophie Raworth revealed Alagiah had hoped to come into the BBC studio one last time to thank the viewers but did not get the chance.
In a video montage which featured clips and pictures, Alagiah admitted it had taken him time to process when he was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014.
“For me, I had to get a place of contentment and the only way I knew how to do that was literally to look back at my life”, he said.
“Actually when I look back to my journey, where it all started, looked at the family I had, the opportunities my family had, the great good fortune to bump into Fran, who’s been my wife and lover for all these years, the kids that that we brought up, it didn’t feel like a failure.
“I wish I hadn’t had cancer, obviously. But I have cancer and I’m glad of the things I’ve learned about myself and about my community, my friends and my family as a result.
“I have gotten to a place to see life as a gift. Rather than kind of worrying about when it’s going to end and how it’s going to end, I’ve got to a place where I can see it for the gift it is. I feel that gift keenly every morning.”
The award-winning BBC newsreader reported from around the world and became well-known as the face of both the Six O’Clock and Nine O’Clock News.
The 67-year-old had lived with bowel cancer for nine years following his diagnosis in 2014 and said the disease would “probably get me in the end” during an interview in January last year.
Tributes from across the broadcasting and news industry have been led by Tim Davie, the BBC director general, who remembered “one of the best and bravest journalists of his generation”.
A statement from Alagiah’s agent, Mary Greenham, said: “I am so terribly sorry to inform you that George Alagiah died peacefully today, surrounded by his family and loved ones.
“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.”
Bowel cancer fight
Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Ghana before moving to the UK, Alagiah studied at Durham University before becoming a print journalist, ultimately joining the BBC in 1989 and becoming Africa correspondent.
The face of BBC One’s News At Six since 2007, he was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer, which had spread to his liver and lymph nodes, in April 2014.
He endured two rounds of chemotherapy and several operations, including the removal of most of his liver.
In October 2015 he announced that his treatment was over and he returned to BBC News At Six the next month, but it returned in 2018 and became terminal two years later, before he took a break last year when the disease spread, saying at the time: “I don’t want people to think I am feeling sorry for myself.”
As tributes flooded in, fellow BBC presenter Naga Munchetty broke down in tears during a live broadcast announcing the death of her colleague.
Audibly upset, she interrupted a sports bulletin on BBC Radio Five just after midday on Monday and told listeners after announcing the news: “Apologies for the emotion in my voice – he was so loved in our news room.”
Clive Myrie was similarly moved as he announced the news on BBC News, saying: “On a personal note, George touched all our lives with kindness and generosity. His warmth and good humour… we loved him here at BBC News and I loved him as a mentor, colleague and friend.
“His spirit, strength and courage he showed in the later years of his life are something his family can be so proud of. Journalism has lost a giant.”
Career spanned the globe
Alagiah joined the BBC in 1989 and spent many years as one of the corporation’s leading foreign correspondents before moving to presenting.
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.
He was previously a prominent foreign correspondent, often as a specialist in Africa involved in coverage of 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.
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.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply saddened” by the news of Alagiah’s death. He added:
Mr Davie, said in a statement: “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.”
John Simpson, a veteran BBC foreign correspondent, tweeted that he would struggle to find “a gentler, kinder, more insightful and braver friend and colleague”. He added:
Jon Sopel, the BBC’s former North America Editor who regularly appeared on Alagiah’s bulletins, said: “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.”
Laura Trevelyan, a former BBC newsreader, wrote: “A brilliant reporter, and a kindly and charming colleague who took such care to encourage young correspondents.”
‘The hardest question’
His cancer returned in December 2017 and he underwent further treatment before again returning to work.
He took another break from studio duties in October 2021 to deal with a further spread of cancer, before returning in April 2022.
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 October last year, Alagiah announced he was taking a break from presenting the BBC’s News At Six following another scan.
He 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.”
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.”
He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Frances Robathan, two children and three grandchildren.