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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: George Alagiah

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-06

George Alagiah plans to be in New York every day without leaving his London base.

It's not astral projection or a flying carpet that he will use for this feat - although either method would be perfectly understandable in view of his South Asian heritage.

Mr. Alagiah's vehicle will be broadcasting. More specifically, it will be the British Broadcasting Corporation, where he is anchor of Britain's most widely watched television news program, the Six O'clock News on BBC One.

"This is a privilege that we've won - and we'll absolutely pull out all stops to give New Yorkers our very best efforts," Mr. Alagiah said, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis.

It isn't the Six O'clock News that he's bringing to the city, however, but a brand new show, "World News Today with George Alagiah." The commercially funded program will be broadcast Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. (EST) on Cablevision Systems Corporation's Channel 104. Two million subscribers will be able to watch his show, which will be broadcast live from BBC's White City studios in London, starting July 3.

World News Today will feature breaking news and updates on global events, in-depth analysis by prominent commentators, and interviews with leading newsmakers and opinion leaders. The BBC reaches more than 279 million homes in more than 200 countries and territories around the world.

"At a time of less coverage of global events on American TV we want to provide the impartial material that will help people in the U.S. make sense of what is going on out there," Mr. Alagiah said.

His new program has been created specifically with U.S. breakfast audiences in mind.

"Of course, the rest of the world will be able to see it but it is no accident that I was asked to present a program at breakfast time on the East Coast," he said.

That means Mr. Alagiah will be anchoring two major news programs daily - since he will continue with the Six O'clock News - a heavy load indeed for any broadcaster.

But Mr. Alagiah is a pro.

"Why am I doing this? Because I can't think of a better match - it is a chance to indulge my passion for foreign affairs and to be able to broadcast into America, one of the most sophisticated media environments on the planet. That was a challenge I could not resist," he said. "We aren't starting this just to stay in New York."

The allusion was to expansion plans for World News Today. Mr. Alagiah sees his program being carried by cable channels in cities across America. Talks are already underway.

"We understand that it's a crowded and competitive marketplace, but the BBC has unique strengths," he said.

Those strengths include 250 foreign correspondents in some 60 bureaux around the world, the largest global contingent of any broadcasting organization.

Indeed, Mr. Alagiah was once an award-winning foreign correspondent himself. From BBC headquarters in London, and from Johannesburg - where he was stationed for several years - he covered some of the hottest stories of the last two decades.

Mr. Alagiah did not, however, set out to become a broadcaster after graduating with a political science major from Durham University in Britain.

He spent seven years in print journalism with the erstwhile South Magazine.

"For my generation of immigrants, our Asian parents wanted more secure professions - medicine, accountancy, pharmacy - so I was breaking the mould by wanting to go into journalism," Mr. Alagiah said.

"My interest in global affairs is both personal and professional. In my own life I have seen the world from all sides - from the rich world and the poor world. My background is that of a minority member of three cultures," he said.

The first culture was that of Sri Lanka, where he was born to Donald Alagiah, an engineer, and his wife Therese. The Alagiahs were Tamils in a Singhalese majority state; Tamils had long been discriminated against in education and employment. Mr. Alagiah's parents left Sri Lanka when he was very young, and the family settled in the West African state of Ghana.

There, along with other educated Asian immigrants, they prospered as Ghana became the first African colony to gain independence from the British. When he was 11, Mr. Alagiah was sent to a secondary school in Britain, St John's College in Portsmouth.

"That's where I made the journey from an immigrant boy to an English man," he said.

That journey brought him to the BBC in 1989, after his stint in the press.

"The transition to broadcasting was tough," Mr. Alagiah said. "The BBC were looking for a specialist in developing countries - and I'd had plenty of experience in that field. But as a broadcaster, I missed the intimacy of the notepad. But in TV one gains in immediacy. Print journalism cannot match that."

Mr. Alagiah did not entirely abandon the print medium. He wrote a well received book, "A Passage to Africa" (Little, Brown & Company, September 2001), which won the prestigious Madoc Award at the 2002 Hay Literary Festival. When the BBC assembled a book on the aftermath of September 11, one of its highlights was Mr. Alagiah's essay "Shaking the Foundations." His next book, "A Home From Home," will be published in the fall; it deals with migration and the immigrant experience.

Did he ever feel different in British society, especially it has long been marked by pronounced class and ethnic differences?

"I never found race to be an impediment," Mr. Alagiah - who's married to a native Briton, Frances Robathan, who works for the Fairtrade Foundation - said. "If you're hungry enough, you work that much harder."

His efforts have made him into one of Britain's most recognizable figures. After all, he enters millions of living rooms every evening as he delivers the news.

"And sure it's nice to walk into a restaurant and get a nod from diners," Mr. Alagiah said. "But the British are reserved. There isn't the kind of celebrity obsession that you get elsewhere."

He pointed out that his sons Adam and Matthew had a way of cutting his celebrity status down to size.

"It's sobering to have your kids tell you, when you're dropping them off at school, 'Dad, don't get out of the car!'" Mr. Alagiah said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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