Sir Trevor McDonald looks back on ‘An Improbable Life’

I cannot remember a time when Sir Trevor McDonald wasn’t on our television screens: over the years, he has become synonymous with the evening news. Sir Trevor, who has just published his memoir, is a journalist I admire greatly, so I was thrilled to see him interviewed for Guardian Live by fellow journalist Emma Graham-Harrison who, I got the sense, was slightly over-awed by (i) her surroundings and (ii) being in the presence of one of the UK’s most respected broadcasters.

This was a no-holds interview in which McDonald talked frankly about the highs & lows of being a journalist and the impact it has had upon his loved ones. In particular, he spoke of the personal cost of journalism: “The memories of disaster and appalling scenes stay with you and change you forever. Some of these memories you never lose. Despair, poverty, hunger: you remember those scenes much more than the glorious moments like being shown around the Oval Office by President Bush.”

One of his worst memories, McDonald told a subdued audience, is of the South African famine: “I saw mothers unable to feed their babies. It was immensely distressing: there cannot be anything worse in life.” Sir Trevor witnessed equally harrowing scenes in Bosnia, including “…a young boy, playing football in his garden, who was blown to pieces by a bomb. I shall never forget that moment.”

Northern Ireland took a particular toll on McDonald – and continues to do so: “I think about it all the time.” When he left Trinidad for the UK, aged 30, McDonald confided, he had never heard a bomb detonate or seen a submachine gun or witnessed such hatred and mindless violence. “Never before had I encountered such divisions – with such consequences.”

Whilst he has never “sought out” war, McDonald has covered a great deal of conflict in his career. The only British journalist ever to interview Saddam Hussein, this scoop came about after months of negotiating with Iraqi representatives in London. Once in Iraq, McDonald found Iraqis to be “the loveliest people in the Middle East – until you mentioned Saddam Hussein, and then they froze.”

As for the interview itself, McDonald conducted it alongside two interpreters in a room full of government ministers – each of whom told McDonald afterwards that they had never seen anybody ask Saddam a question. The only known time a minister had dared to do so, he had been taken outside and shot.

When McDonald returned to his hotel room, he found representatives from the Ministry of Information drinking his whisky – and wanting to know what Saddam Hussein was really like. In the twenty years they had worked for him, they had never met him.

Years later, McDonald – who had been strongly opposed to the 2003 U.S. and British invasion of Iraq (“As far as I could see, the only reason we had for doing so was that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a very nice person”) – met President George Bush at the White House and, much to his surprise, found Bush to be “Warm and nice – and he didn’t mind me asking him the same question over and over again. It just goes to show that people whose policies you don’t agree with can be lovely, kind people.”

Possibly McDonald’s most celebrated interview is the one he conducted in 1990 with Nelson Mandela – in advance of which, he had no idea what to expect: “So little had been heard from Mandela during his incarceration that his character was a revelation. He was, in every way, extraordinary.” It wasn’t, McDonald continued, a difficult interview – but he was keen to understand how Mandela and the ANC would be able to work with de Klerk’s government: “Mandela’s response was that if you’re prepared to sit down and talk, anything is possible.”

Trevor McDonald was refreshingly honest about the price of success and the choices he has made: “I review those choices regularly, and I can’t say whether I’d make them again. In this job, we jump when we’re sent. We itch to consent.” Even though he looks back now and thinks some of what he did was “crazy”, there is a justification: “This is what the job requires, and this is what you do.”

Of the pressure of being Britain’s first black broadcaster, McDonald appears to have taken it in his stride, telling us that he was “surprised” by the interest shown (his appointment made the national news). “I took the job because I had a mortgage and bills to pay. And then people turned up at my house wanting photos!”

His advice to budding journalists is simple: “Read, read, read – and not just UK newspapers. Read other countries’ newspapers, every magazine and any book written by a journalist.” This is a man who’s passionate about his craft – “It’s not possible to be a casual journalist” – although he understands the need for escapism and uses poetry to unwind.

Sir Trevor’s upbringing, in the West Indies, has informed every chapter of his life: “My generation had to be seen to succeed. We weren’t supposed to fail. I had a strong fear of not getting it right.” Asked by an audience member why he has no trace of a West Indian accent, McDonald replied, simply: “I came to the U.K. without one; it had never been allowed in the house. Our mother made us speak what she believed to be the King’s English.”

To this day cricket, which McDonald and his childhood friends played obsessively in their village, remains a “great source of joy” – and early on in his career Sir Trevor spent two years working as a sports correspondent. “Cricket is a West Indian disease for which there is no known cure”, he joked, adding that he even played it with his Ulster TV colleagues whilst based in Northern Ireland: “It was escapism on the top of a hut, using tennis balls. We could see where the bombs were going off due to smoke appearing, so it also had a useful purpose.”

Unsurprisingly, McDonald was infuriated by the Windrush saga: “I thought it was a scandal, and I attacked it from the perception of West Indians. During World War Two, West Indian men came here to fight. Many of their wives travelled here at their own expense, to support their men – and the mother country.” McDonald was particularly angered by the phrase “Hostile Environment Policy”, asking us “Why couldn’t it be called ‘Fair’ or ‘Effective’ Policy?”

It’s impossible to summarise all of Sir Trevor McDonald’s achievements in a single blog post – so I will conclude by saying that, in the flesh he was every bit as warm, intelligent and opinionated as I had hoped and that we would all do well to heed his closing remarks on today’s world: “Journalists tend to see the bad side of people much more easily. But talking always helps. We have to get on with each other. There’s no other choice.”


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