The 'amazing' family by George Alagiah's side

The ‘amazing’ family by George Alagiah’s side: How wife Frances Robathan, his university sweetheart, and their sons Adam and Matthew supported the BBC presenter throughout his bowel cancer battle

  • The legendary newsreader is survived by his wife Frances and two sons
  • READ MORE:  George Alagiah dies aged 67 after battle with bowel cancer

In his four decade career, George Alagiah became on of the best known and most highly-respected journalists in the country.

From wining a BAFTA for his coverage of the war in Kosovo to fronting the News at Six, the Sri Lankan-born broadcaster, who has died aged 67,  became a household name.

But behind the scenes supporting his career – and later his cancer battle –  was wife Frances Robathan and two children Adam, 36,  and Matt, 32.

George met Frances in the seventies while the pair were both studying at Durham University, they married in 1984 and soon welcomed their two sons.

Speaking to the Telegraph last year, George said that the ‘one thing that haunts him’ is ‘whether or not he’ll be able to hold his wife’s hand at the end’. 

From wining a BAFTA for his coverage of the war in Kosovo to fronting the News at Six, the Sri Lankan-born broadcaster, who has died aged 67 , became a household name. But behind the scenes supporting his career – and later his cancer battle – was wife Frances Robathan and two children Adam, 36, and Matt, 32 

George Alagiah accompanied by his wife Frances and sons Adam and Matt at Buckingham Palace, after collecting his OBE from the Queen in 2008

‘I’m not too scared for myself, but I’m here on the third floor of our house,’ he said.

‘And I am looking out of the window at Frances setting out the tablecloth on our garden table, and it occurs to me, is she going to have to do that for herself one day, and eat on her own?’.

George had also spoken about being in an interracial relationship, and how it was ‘uncommon but not unique’ in at the 1980s.

Born to Tamil Catholic parents, George and his family left his native Sri Lanka for Ghana when he was five-yeas-old.

Then aged 11, he moved to a boarding school in the UK.  

‘My parents were unconventional for Tamil parents – they married for love, educated all their children the same and gave us a lot of freedom – but there was still that strain of traditionalism,’ he told the Guardian in 2010.

George Alagiah – who had been the face of News At Six since 2007 – passed away ‘peacefully’ surrounded by his family

He was made an OBE in the 2008 New Year Honours list for services to journalism

He explained that his parents first wanted their children to marry Asians, then Catholics, but after his sisters broke the rules they decided they just wanted him to marry ‘a good person’.  

‘On my wife’s side, somebody asked my father-in-law, who was a country lawyer: “Is this Ala-whatsit educated?”. Our marriage was a shock to him but, to his credit, he replied, “That boy is more educated than you and I will ever be.”‘.

After graduating university, Frances entered the charity sector, and now works as Senior Partnerships Adviser of the Fairtrade Foundation.

She also held positions at the Head of Programme Partnerships and Head of Institutional Fundraising at the Foundation.

Alagiah in 2006 with his wife, Frances Robathan, (left) and Jane Ashley, the daughter of Laura Ashley 

Meanwhile Matt has followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer, and works as editor-in-chief for creative agency It’s Nice That. 

Speaking in 2010, George said that his sons were ‘amazing guys’.   

‘If I were their age, I’d like to be their friend. 

‘I cannot wait until they’re the ones driving the car and I’m the one snoozing in the back,’ he added. ‘There is a Tamil proverb where a father waits for the day when he walks into a room and people say: this is So-and-So’s father. The minute your children are the reference point, you know you’ve done your job.’

George remained close to his wider family too, saying that other than his wife, his sisters were his ‘closest friends’.

The journalist as a young boy with his engineer father, Donald 

Alagiah with his co-presenter Natasha Kaplinsky on a News At Six bulletin in 2007 – the year he began presenting duties 

Alagiah and co-presenter Sophie Raworth during a ‘behind the scenes’ look at how they put the programme together 

Last year he had a reunion with all four of his sisters, nieces and nephews. In total, 28 people – from the UK, Switzerland and Florida – showed up.

‘It was a gathering full of passion and joy, but tinged with the realisation that some of us were more vulnerable than others,’ he told the Telegraph, explaining that one of his brother-in-laws died last year, and another has pancreatic cancer.

Speaking on the podcast Desperately Seeking Wisdom, Alagiah talked about being diagnosed in 2014 and insisted he felt ‘very lucky’ thanks to his family.

‘I had to stop and say, ‘Hang on a minute. If the full stop came now, would my life have been a failure?’ he said.

‘And actually, when I look back and I looked at my journey… the family I had, the opportunities my family had, the great good fortune to bump into (Frances), who’s now been my wife and lover for all these years, the kids that we brought up… it didn’t feel like a failure.’

Alagiah endured two rounds of chemotherapy and several operations, including the removal of most of his liver

Alagiah had campaigned to raise awareness of bowel cancer, and in May shared a tweet urging people to access free screening kits

Alagiah was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in April 2014 before finishing treatment in October 2015 and returning to screens a month later.

Naga Munchetty burst into tears live on BBC Radio Five today as she learned her colleague had died – while an emotional Clive Myrie and Fiona Bruce paid tribute to a ‘giant of journalism’.

His health was back in the headlines in March 2020 when he tested positive for Covid. Alagiah returned to presenting duties in April 2022 until August before departing again in October after revealing that the cancer had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes.

Ms Munchetty, 47, was half way through her live radio show this morning when she learned the news and interrupted a sports bulletin on BBC Radio Five just after midday.

She said: ‘We’ve had the very sad news that our colleague George Alagiah, BBC presenter – you all know him – who has been living with bowel cancer since 2014 – he has since stepped back from presenting BBC News.

‘We’ve just heard the news he has died aged 65. We’ve just heard that from his agent.’

As her voice started to wobble, she continued: ‘Apologies for the emotion in my voice – he was so loved in our news room.

Alagiah joined the BBC in 1989 and was one of the broadcaster’s leading foreign correspondents

‘We’ve had that news, we’ll bring you more a little bit later, Rebecca apologies for the interruption, you have the rest of the sport.’

Alagiah was born in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo in 1955 when the city was still considered part of the former British territory of Ceylon.

During the BBC’s coverage of the 2004 Asian tsunami, he returned to the country to find that his grandfather’s former home had been destroyed in the natural disaster.

Alagiah was forced to take a break from television following his bowel cancer diagnosis in 2014 and shared updates as he battled the disease, including in June 2020 when he revealed it had spread to his lungs.

READ MORE: BBC’s George Alagiah said he wanted to hold his wife’s hand ‘until the end’ and described his fear of her having to set the table and eat alone after his death 

The journalist spent part his of childhood in Ghana in west Africa where he moved with his engineer father Donald and mother Therese.

He moved to the UK to attend secondary school in Portsmouth after which he read politics at Durham University.

During his studies at Durham he was the editor of the student paper and a sabbatical officer of the students’ union.

It was there that he met his wife Frances Robathan. The couple married in 1984 and share two sons Adam and Matthew.

Before starting with the BBC in 1989, Alagiah was based in Johannesburg as developing world correspondent for South Magazine.

He was named Amnesty International’s journalist of the year in 1994 for reporting on the civil war in Burundi and also won the Broadcasting Press Guild’s award for television journalist of the year.

He was also part of the BBC team that won a Bafta Award in 2000 for its reporting of the conflict in Kosovo, one of several prizes he received during his broadcasting career.

After first presenting BBC Four News in 2002 he went on to co-anchor the corporations 6pm news bulletin, first alongside Sophie Raworth and then Natasha Kaplinsky.

From 2007 he was the programmes sole presenter while he was also a relief presenter for News at Ten.

He interviewed several world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In 2008, he was made an OBE in the New Year Honours list for services to journalism.

The following year he was asked by the BBC’s management to step down from his role as a patron of the Fairtrade Foundation.

The corporation explained that based on its principles of impartiality his role with the group represented a professional conflict of interest.

It was first announced in April 2014 that he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. It was later revealed the disease had spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

After undergoing treatment he revealed on social media in October 2015 that he would return to work, subsequently appearing on-screen in November.

An ever-popular presenter, his return was welcomed by viewers and his fellow journalists, including presenters of competing news programmes.

In 2016, Alagiah said he was a ‘richer person’ for his cancer diagnosis, which saw him undergo several rounds of chemotherapy and three major operations, one of which included the removal of most of his liver.

What are the common signs of bowel cancer?  

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and leads to around 16,800 deaths every year. More than nine out of 10 cases of bowel cancer develop in older adults over the age of 50, and nearly six in 10 are in people aged 70 or older.

George Alagiah was first diagnosed with stage four (advanced) bowel cancer in 2014. By the age of 66, it had spread to his lungs, liver, spine and lymph nodes.

The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are having persistent blood in the stools, an ongoing change in bowel habit (such as needing to go more often or suffering the runs) and persistent lower abdominal pain, bloating or discomfort.

A loss of appetite may also occur, or somebody may suffer significant, unintentional weight loss. Several things are known to increase the risk of bowel cancer, though they cannot explain every case.

These include a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre, being overweight or obese, not taking enough exercise and drinking too much alcohol. Being a smoker and having a family history of the disease can also push up the risk.

Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they have another long-term condition, such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

Bowel cancer screening is currently widely offered to people aged 60 to 74 who are sent a home stool kit every two years. Those aged 75 and over can ask for a kit every two years by phoning the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

Bowel cancer can be very difficult to treat in its later stages. But in the early stages, tumours can often be removed through surgery. The main treatments for bowel cancer include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted drugs, which depend on the genetic make-up of the tumour.

One in 15 men and one in 18 women will be diagnosed with bowel cancer during their lifetime. Expert predictions are that 53,646 cases of bowel cancer (29,356 in men and 24,290 in women) will be diagnosed in the UK in 2035.

Alagiah’s health was back in the headlines in March 2020, when amid a global pandemic he tested positive for Covid-19.

He credited his experience of fighting cancer with helping him deal with the ‘mild’ case of coronavirus.

In June 2020, Alagiah revealed the cancer had spread to his lungs but delivered a typically philosophical judgment.

He told the Times newspaper: ‘My doctors have never used the word ‘chronic’ or ‘cure’ about my cancer.

‘They’ve never used the word ‘terminal’ either. I’ve always said to my oncologist, ‘Tell me when I need to sort my affairs out’, and he’s not told me that, but what he did tell me is that the cancer is now in a third organ. It is in my lungs.’

Alagiah said he had kept the development a secret, only telling his editor.

He said: ‘I said to my doctor, ‘You’re going to have to do the worrying for me.’ I don’t want to fill my mind with worry. I just know that he’s a clever guy, doing everything he can.’

In October 2021, a representative for Alagiah announced that he would be taking a step back from his presenting and journalism duties as he deals with ‘a further spread of cancer’.

During an interview in January 2022, Alagiah spoke candidly about his long battle with cancer, saying ‘it will get me in the end,’ before adding ‘I’m hoping it’s a long time from now, but I’m very lucky’.

Despite his matter of fact approach to the disease, Alagiah remained positive when reflecting on his career and family life.

‘I had to stop and say, ‘Hang on a minute. If the full stop came now, would my life have been a failure?’,’ he said.

He added: ‘And actually, when I look back and I looked at my journey… the family I had, the opportunities my family had, the great good fortune to bump into (Frances Robathan), who’s now been my wife and lover for all these years, the kids that we brought up… it didn’t feel like a failure.’

Alagiah temporarily returned to BBC News At Six in April 2022.

However, in October he once again announced that he had been forced to take time away from his work after scans showed that the cancer had spread further.

While sharing the news, Alagiah said: ‘A recent scan showed that my cancer has spread further so it’s back to some tough stuff.

‘I’m missing my colleagues. Working in the newsroom has been such an important part of keeping energised and motivated.

‘I look forward to being back in that studio as soon as I can.’

Alagiah spoke openly about the experience of living with cancer, joining a videocast for the charity Bowel Cancer UK in 2020 in which he said he sometimes felt he had the ‘easy part’, living with bowel cancer while his loved ones had to watch.

He said: ‘Those of us living with cancer know that it affects our families almost as much as ourselves.

‘In some ways I’ve felt through my six-plus years living with cancer that sometimes I have the easy part… My job is just to stay fit and my family has got to watch all of the other things.’ 

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