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6 February 2019

George Alagiah’s Diary: Fighting my way back into the Beeb, building a new museum – and the modern-day Les Mis

“Been away, have you?” the cashier at the BBC canteen asked. 

By George Alagiah

“Been away, have you?” the cashier at the BBC canteen asked, before moving on to the next hungry customer. It seems I’ve been around at the BBC for so long – 30 years this month – that an absence of a year for cancer treatment barely registers. Mind you, the cashier’s response seemed positively welcoming compared to the reaction I had got from the security guard at New Broadcasting House’s main reception when my ID card didn’t work. “You have been terminated,” he’d said, which, of course, is precisely the outcome my doctors have been trying to avoid. I had to laugh; we both did.

Someone to watch over my mouse

The first challenge was to navigate my way around the BBC’s new newsroom software. Given that I had only just come to terms with the previous version – it had been around for a decade or more – my editor had wisely taken the precaution of assigning a highly talented producer to watch over my wayward mouse, visions of the News at Six dropping off air no doubt being to the fore.

Brexit from the sofa

It was a big Brexit day. Another one. MPs were voting on a series of amendments, like a game of parliamentary musical chairs in which several options would fall away, hopefully leaving one standing – or should that be seated? As it happened, several cross-party alliances emerged. Not before time. For much of the previous year, as a consumer of the news, either propped up on our sofa at home or at the chemo clinic, I’d resisted the temptation to chuck something at the telly. Like millions of others I’d waited for the day when someone, anyone, in parliament would stand up and say, “What is it that we can do together?”

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I can’t be the only one left thinking that, whatever your views on Brexit, this whole sorry episode has raised questions about Westminster, entrenched as it is in the shouty comfort of adversarial politics. When it comes to the really big decisions, it seems the way we govern ourselves, indeed the way we find those who want to lead and represent us, has been left wanting.

Nurse, the screens

Treatment day happened to coincide with an event at parliament organised by Bowel Cancer UK, at which I was supposed to speak. I had to pull out. Last year the charity’s campaign team recorded a success when the NHS gave a commitment to reduce the age at which bowel cancer screening is made available from 60 to 50. I’ve said elsewhere that had I lived in Scotland, where they’ve already been screening from 50 for some years, I may not have been in the predicament I find myself in today. My cancer might have been caught much earlier when the chances of survival are so much higher. It turns out, though, that the government’s commitment to earlier screening will come to nothing if the staff aren’t there to implement it – and they’re not. The road to earlier screening, it seems, is paved with good intentions. You’ll be hearing more from Bowel Cancer UK – watch this space.

Our very own Ellis Island

The latter part of the week was all about coping with the inevitable side effects of treatment, which make live telly unwise but leave me with enough gumption to pursue my other interests – one of which is to support the Migration Museum Project. New York has Ellis Island, Melbourne has its Immigration Museum, Antwerp has the Red Star Line Museum but we, the United Kingdom, have yet to establish a permanent home where immigrants such as me can tell our story; how we, in our millions, came here with our talents and capacity for hard work; how we have helped to build this country from corner shop to conglomerate.

So I’ve been working the phones and writing the letters. I have my spiel, some of which you’ve just read. One person I approached gave me some advice. He’s done this sort of thing before, raising tens of millions. Apparently, rich people rarely part with their money for an idea; what they’re interested in is tangible evidence of their generosity – a building, perhaps; something they can point to.

Lights on, nobody home

Well we’re on the same page then, that’s what we want, a building. There’s plenty of those going up around London, just check out the city’s skyline, pierced with cranes. And then there are the buildings that stand empty. A friend of a friend, someone who makes bespoke clothes, recently dropped off a collection of suits for an overseas client. He was told to leave his creations at a multi-roomed Mayfair town house. Once inside he found the house empty, with all the furniture covered in white sheets. The client wasn’t there. He’d decided to stay at a nearby hotel instead.

Contemporary life in costume

Isn’t Sunday night TV meant to set you up for the week ahead, leave you feeling rested, refreshed and ready for work? That’s the way I see it but the last episode of Andrew Davies’s six-part adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel left me feeling – well, miserable. No happy endings here. Don’t get me wrong, Les Misérables was a gripping story, brilliantly acted. But it was like watching contemporary life in costume. Parisians are once again exhibiting their penchant for taking to the streets; here in Britain the number of people sleeping rough is many times what it was some years ago and even the great and the good at Davos pretended to worry about inequality a couple of weeks back.

Hugo, it seems, is bang up to date. Hooray to Davies for his colour-blind casting. Historical pedants aside, did anyone really care that David Oyelowo’s malign Javert was black or, like me, did you just hope, episode after episode, that he’d meet a sticky end. On that front, at least, I went to bed a happy man.

George Alagiah returned to BBC News at Six in January

This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe