I would watch the television transfixed. There was something about him. It was almost as if he wasn’t reporting in the hailing tradition that had come to dominate television, but engaging in an asymmetric conversation. Each word was like a frame in a critically acclaimed piece of cinema.
Furthermore, the canter of his voice and choice of words structuring his reports were a masterclass. No fat, no histrionics, yet a quiet, often visible poeticism. The best television news writers marry this synthesis between pictures as icons or symbols with the simplicity of words that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might describe as flow.
There were and are many other reporters who possess that something greatly admired: Jon Harrison, Alan Little, Elizabeth Ohene and Elizabeth Blunt — all from different areas of the BBC.
Jon Harrison once came to our home to report on an issue of national import. Elizabeth, fearless, became a de facto mother figure as I tried to navigate spaces in South Africa in the early 1990s and then who can forget Blunt’s broadcast hiding in Liberia, (was it under a desk?) as a marauding war lord sought after her, and then Alan Little’s matter-of-factness in the Bosnian war.
But George Alagiah was Obamarish in his assuredness. You imagine a call to a government official to say George Alagiah will be the reporter coming to see you and the official reaching for their pills. At the time all I could do was to study and read around him. When I read he partly grew up in Ghana, I thought, well, that’s my remote mentor — I partly grew up in Ghana too. That connection meant everything.
When I looked at Alagiah’s reports I often wondered two things: firstly how did he do it and secondly, much later, as a seasoned practitioner what it would be like as his producer?
Increasingly, in one of television journalism’s many transitionary periods it likes to portray itself as a one-shop fits all. Standards that need to be rigorously adhered to e.g. objectivity, balance etc, seemingly hover above the journalists’ expressions and unique ways of seeing. The person is superseded by the institution.
Elsewhere, psychologists and film theorists such as Noël Carroll would see styles as competing, so there is an institution, period, personal and house style to name a few that shape perceptions. With Alagiah, his style broke out from the institution in ways that were evident. This was an Alagiah report; an X factor without the baggage.
I would come to build a career in the media as a researcher on Newsnight in 1991, reporting from South Africa for almost two years, joining a wee station called Channel One before in 1997 joining Channel 4 News where I was fortunate to work with leading figures such Jon Snow, Simon Israel, and Alex Thomson. I have great memories
Several years later at the Charles Wheeler Awards where Alagiah was being honoured I approached him and briefly told him of his unknowing distant mentoring. Graciously he listened; we only had a few moments.
I can imagine given his huge fan base he gets this everyday, so I had to control my over exuberance. Snap ! There’s the photo. Today I teach the next generation of journalists in Foreign News Reporting at one of the UK’s leading journalism institutions, Cardiff University.
At any time I’ll fall back on exemplars citing that rare lack of ego; of craft skills earned from a passion of writing; of co-creating and collaborating with others e.g. camera operator; doing your homework and radiating a coolness and empathy to bring viewers into worlds of sometimes unimaginable sufferings.
At a time when propaganda and peddled alternative realities are challenging evidence-based reporting narratives, you yearn for the next generation to keep is simple but not simplistic, to cut through the noise, to build upon what others have created, and to that end see the likes of George Alagiah in their rear view mirror.
Yesterday it was reported Alagiah had contracted Covid-19 and had beat it against a backdrop in which he’s living with cancer. Alagiah, from his travels and career his fans would say is made of stern stuff. We all wish him the best.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah lectures on Emerging Journalism AI and Foreign News Reporting at Cardiff University. He’s the recipient of international awards in journalism and is part of the British Library’s 2021 News exhibition. More here