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George Alagiah on News and Identity

29th December 2009

Hestor Phillips presents George Alagiah and reports on Polis' Friday 23rd October event.

Now presenting one of the UK's most popular TV news programmes, Sri Lankan-born Alagiah has risen through the ranks of the British media to report on the key events of our times. As an award winning foreign correspondent he has taken viewers to the heart of the Rwandan genocide, through civil wars in Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Liberia, and into the aftermath of 9/11.
He has interviewed world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat and Robert Mugabe, and highlighted the plights of thousands from Iraq's marsh Arabs, to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

In Friday's dialogue, Alagiah will draw on his personal and professional experiences to discuss how issues of multiculturalism, identity and news function in an increasingly interconnected world. These topics, the subject of Alagiah's second book A Home From Home (2006), are informed by the journalist's personal experiences of immigration, which stand alongside his professional work as a telling account of our times.

Born in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka in 1955, shortly after the end of British rule, Alagiah's family fled their homeland in 1961 as relations with the ruling Sinhalese majority began to disintegrate. They settled in Ghana, itself in transition as the first of Africa's countries to gain freedom from colonial rule. Five years later, a brutal coup d'état consumed the country and Alagiah became an immigrant once more, travelling to Britain to finish his education.

It was here, in a country struggling to adapt its new found multiculturalism, that Alagiah embarked on a career that would see him become one of the most trusted names in British broadcasting.
Described by one critic as 'part memoir, part political treatise', A Home From Home courted controversy when it was first released.

It's central argument, that multiculturalism has contributed to damaging segregation between communities, was cited by many commentators in the wake of London's 7/7 'home grown' terror attacks, and led one British newspaper to serialise extracts under the banner 'Apartheid UK'.

Alagiah's first book, A Passage To Africa, winner of the 2002 Madoc Award, will also be touched upon during the POLIS event. Part autobiography, part-historical account, this thought-provoking work chronicles Alagiah's years as BBC correspondent in his adoptive home as the continent fights for its future in the face of civil war, genocide, famine and revolution. Alagiah's extensive experience and expertise saw him awarded an OBE in The Queen's New Year Honours List in January 2008. He has also won several journalism awards including Amnesty International's Best TV Journalist award (1994); the One World Broadcasting Trust Award (1994); the Bayeux Award for War Reporting (1996); and Media Personality of the Year at the Ethnic Minority Media Awards (1998). In 2000 he was part of the BBC team that collected a BAFTA award for its coverage of the Kosovo conflict. Alagiah also presents World News Today on BBC World News, the BBC's international news channel and in March 2002, launched BBC Four's international news programme.

Identity and News - with George Alagiah
Speakers: George Alagiah, BBC Presenter Six O'clock News & World News Today on BBC World News. Chaired by Charlie Beckett.

George Alagiah is a brave man. Amidst a backdrop of screaming headlines on the BNP's Question Time appearance, the BBC news anchor used a POLIS lecture to call for a debate on what it means to be British.
Sri-Lankan born Alagiah described the overwhelming sense of displacement he felt when arriving here via Ghana in 1967.
Laughed at by schoolmates for having what they described as a tan without tan-lines – for his physical and cultural differences – Alagiah said he engaged in "total emersion therapy" in British culture in order to survive.

But years later, when a friend meeting his mother for the first time expressed surprise that she was Asian, the enormity of his "unnatural dislocation" from his past hit home. In his attempt to become British, Alagiah had left vital parts of himself behind.

For Alagiah, this "private tussle that every immigrant goes through – the pull of tradition and heritage on the one hand and assimilation on the other", lies at the heart of the migrant experience, and it is only by understanding this process at a personal level that debates around immigration will progress.

During the POLIS event, the BBC journalist recounted how, for his 2006 book A Home From Home, he'd spent time in London's Tower Hamlets and Bradford researching multiculturalism. He went looking for an immigrant child experiencing in modern Britain the sense of displacement that he himself felt when he arrived here 40 years ago.
But what he found was Joshua – a white British child whose school consisted almost solely of children from just one province of one country.

For Alagiah, Joshua's experience of "walking into a foreign land everyday when he walked through his school gates" was on a par with his own – the result of a multiculturalism that has created cultural enclaves, which dislocate those inside them "not from where they have come but from where they are now".

By placing too much emphasis on difference and not similarity, Alagiah said British multiculturalism had "in some places delivered something entirely at odds from what was intended", creating harmful segregation and tension between cultures.

He added that this had led to a growing sense of disempowerment among white working class in deprived areas where segregation is at its most prevalent, but that the British media had been slow in covering this as a story.

"Is the British whole greater than the sum of its parts?" asked Mr Alagiah. "I'm not calling for a mono Britain but a diverse Britain where there is actually some exchange between cultures. Not less immigration but better immigration, different immigration."

Alagiah called for the term 'Britishness' to be wrestled back from the hands of bigots and extremists, so all those who work, live and contribute to the UK can feel proud of the nation in which they live.

"Britishness can be reclaimed not as a political weapon used by thugs on street corners but as a description that encompasses all the values of people who regard this country as theirs and have a stake in its well being," he said.

"Britishness is about the test of contribution – a colour-blind test about citizenship, not birthright"

"Immigration is a test of endurance not loyalty. If bigots could see that, they would see how much we have gained. Instead of where do you belong, we should ask, now that you are here what is it you do for us."

Despite the limits of multiculturalism, Alagiah was careful to point out how far Britain has come since his arrival, citing figures such as Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti and the Ugandan born John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, who now play major roles in British life.

"We have moved forward and it's a huge collective achievement of both immigrants that have come here, but also the good grace of many white men and women," he said. "They have also walked the distance from the old country to the new."

Listen to a podcast of the event here.|

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