An Audience with George Alagiah

Yesterday Lynsey and I went to a talk by BBC Six O’Clock News-reader George Alagiah. I didn’t know the subject matter beforehand, and found out just before entering that he’d be discussing his book: A Home from Home. It sounded like an autobiography, but turned out to be rather more. At age 11 he was moved from his home in Sri Lanka to a UK boarding school. The book’s subtitle is ‘From Immigrant Boy to English Man’, and he has a particular interest in the idea of what it means to belong to a country. His book’s subject is immigration and multiculturalism in modern Britain. He proved to be a good public speaker and I’m sure tales of his life experiences would have been interesting, but I was happy to find that his talk was more about putting forward his views on race within current society. I like this – I like to hear people who can eloquently articulate their opinions, even if I disagree.

While not quite a polemic, there were nevertheless large gaps between the lines. He suggested that the idea of multiculturalism, while noble in itself, has not been well managed in reality. Schools with classes containing almost all Sri Lankan children from the same province, education policies which teach children their ‘native’ language and reduce English to a secondary subject, or segregated cities with different rules for different cultures, all drew his ire. He sees immigration as a wonderful thing, as he believes everybody can learn something from other cultures, but that the well-intentioned policies of the last 30 years have veered off course.

The talk was peppered with anecdotes from his time as the BBC’s senior foreign correspondent, which were fascinating. I liked that he didn’t temper the language or subject matter for a Saturday afternoon crowd, too. There were a couple of odd moments in which the word ‘pompous’ flashed into my head, but it was an instinctive response rather than an accurate description. GA was discussing his own life and the remarkable achievement of ‘a foreigner’, as he put it, ending up presenting the BBC News. He inevitably trumpeted his achievements at times, and I don’t think it was unreasonable or really avoidable, given the subject matter. It was still surprising, however.

Although not expressly stated, there was an subtext that questioned the idea of nationalism. What does it mean to be British, or Sri Lankan? At one point he said that the only people who ask ‘where do you belong?’ are bigots, which I think startled some of the audience. When you think about it, that’s not an unreasonable point. I think there’s the problem of language – it’s meaningless to ask somebody whether they feel that they are British or Sri Lankan, as it’s just more complicated than that. You can be both. It’s like asking me whether I’m an agnostic or an atheist – those particular words don’t define reality well enough to be useful without further explanation. GA put forward a question that seems to have merit in discussions of whether somebody is ‘part’ of a particular country: what do you contribute to a country’s economy/society? If you do indeed contribute something, are you not a part of that country? Why can’t somebody then ‘belong’ to more than one place?

After he finished speaking the lights came up for a question and answer session. I was fascinated to see what would happen. Although only a vague description, Solihull is frequently described as predominantly white and conservative. Most of the audience were pensioners, and I couldn’t help wondering how many of them would have something contrary to say about immigration. As it turned out, none. GA was asked his opinions on the causes of ‘home-grown’ terrorism, and whether Islam was a major cause of the problems. The former he said was very complex and not his speciality, the second he refuted absolutely (to the possible consternation of the questioner).

As ever with Q & A sessions, a couple of people rambled for a few minutes before finally getting around to their question. One person mentioned The Phrase We Must Never Say Around Pensioners: political correctness. There was an immediate rumble of growly grumble. This made me laugh. I have my doubts as to whether ‘political correctness’ actually means anything at all, but I’ve certainly never heard anything to convince me it’s the horrendous evil some claim it to be. Anyway – I thought the reaction was funny. The question ended up having nothing to do with ‘political correctness’, so GA said nothing about it.

There was a question regarding the role of political journalists as opinion formers rather than simply reporters. GA asked for specific names, and Nick Robinson was mentioned. GA said he felt there was a need for opinion – indeed, that the public seem to clamour for it – but that it should always be labelled as such. He didn’t agree with the Fox News style of biased journalism. There was a related question regarding Barbara Plett, the BBC reporter criticised for crying at Yasser Arafat’s final departure from the West Bank, to which GA said that he felt emotion could be a part of journalism, and, as an aside, that impartiality isn’t always possible – where is the middle ground between the rape victim and the rapist? In hindsight I think there was an interesting further question regarding political journalism arguably concentrating too much on the methods and personalities of politics rather than the policies themselves. I’ve certainly read some Bloggers4Labour who have criticised Nick Robinson in this regard. I didn’t think of it at the time, however, because I was considering asking about another topic.

The penultimate question asked whether he thought foreign policy was linked to terrorist attacks. GA said he couldn’t answer that. As a journalist and representative of the BBC he feels his job is to be impartial with regard to current policy, at least in a public venue. Talk to him one-to-one and he’d reply, he said. Then came the question I’d been wondering whether to ask: given his views on the separating of different cultures, what did he think of faith schools? He said that, again, he didn’t want to answer questions on current policy. But. Given, he said, that we want a society in which different cultures can freely mix in an atmosphere of tolerance, and allow a reasonable exchange of different ideas between people without hostility, does it seem like a good idea to separate children of different faiths at the age of six? He gestured to the audience to reply, and there was a resounding ‘no’. He smiled and said ‘you said it, not me’. I honestly hadn’t known which way he was going when he started the sentence, but I was, unsurprisingly, happy with the result.

It was certainly an interesting 90 minutes, and left me with much to think about. Many thanks to Lynsey for inviting me!