Does a knighthood compromise your journalistic integrity? Sir Trevor McDonald doesn’t lose sleep over the question. But he does have nightmares that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in a taxi, clawing at the seats. Nigel Farndale meets him
THERE’S an impostor in Sir Trevor McDonald’s office at the ITN studios on the Gray’s Inn Road. With his big square specs, short wiry mat of silver hair and slow-breaking, granite smile, he certainly looks like Sir Trevor. But this stranger lacks the calm authority of the newscaster who has presented News at Ten – with one notable hiatus – since 1990.
|Sir Trevor McDonald: ‘What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me’
He stammers over certain words, he avoids eye contact, he claims to be a shy, cautious and insecure man who is uneasy about being cast as a national institution. ‘All I do is read the bloody news,’ he says, tapping a pen against his fingers. ‘I know it’s a proper job but, really, people do make too much of it.’ He looks away. ‘I’ve always felt ambivalent about being recognised just for appearing on television. What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me. I don’t identify with that person. I’m not comfortable watching myself. Not my idea of fun.’
In some ways, the insecurity and self-effacement is perverse, because this man has always seemed to play the role of Trevor McDonald so magnificently – avuncular, poetry-quoting, cricket-loving Trinidadian; clubbable bon viveur who drinks good champagne, smokes fine cigars and addresses colleagues as ‘dear boy’. In other respects, Sir Trevor may be right to feel like an impostor. He is a gentle man at the top of a profession which is in thrall to aggressive men (Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys). And the top is surely where he is: he’s been named Newscaster of the Year three times; he is, surveys consistently show, the newscaster most viewers recognise; and even a spokesman for the BBC, the arch-enemy, grudgingly admitted to me that
Sir Trevor is probably the nation’s favourite newsreader (as well as the most highly paid, having reportedly signed a £2.5-million four-year deal with ITN). His own views on his combative profession are quaint, a reminder that, although he is only 61, he is very much a product of the pre-War school of journalism. ‘We are sometimes too aggressive,’ he says of television interviewers. ‘Politicians don’t get a chance to explain policy properly.’ He sits back in his chair, legs apart, his suit trousers riding up to reveal socks pulled well over his calves. ‘We assume we already know what the policy is and go straight into the attack.’
Although the shelves in his office bulge with volumes of poetry – ‘I wrote poetry as a child but I would never visit the crime of my own poetry on anyone now’ – the personal touches are limited to a novelty wine bottle on his desk (labelled ‘Old Git’); a couple of photographs of his handsome 13-year-old son, Jack, smiling in his school uniform; and, framed and hung on the wall, pictures of Sir Trevor in various guises: as chairman of the Better English Campaign; as a guest on Parkinson; as the subject of a poster celebrating the 30th anniversary of News at Ten. Scrawled on a yellow Post-It note stuck to his computer screen are last night’s viewing figures: ITV’s News at Ten, 6.1 million; BBC Ten O’clock News, 4.6 million.
There is weighty symbolism in this flimsy piece of paper. In March 1999 ITV axed News at Ten to make way for more films and drama. It certainly provoked drama. The channel lost a million viewers and, after much lobbying by politicians on both sides, as well as the threat of action by the Independent Television Commission, in January this year ITV was forced to restore News at Ten to its proper home. By which time, of course, the BBC had scheduled its Nine O’clock News an hour later.
In the six months since they went head-to-head, the combined evening news audience for the two channels has – to the great surprise of media commentators – increased by two million. But there is still ill will. ITN accuses the BBC of patronising its audience, and of being austere. The BBC, meanwhile, accuses News at Ten of dumbing down. Although Trevor McDonald no longer does the ‘And finally’ stories about, for instance, the rabbit who prevented burglars from raiding a pet shop, he does go in for rather a lot of matey, two-way interviews with reporters, which have become known in the industry as ‘Well, Trevors’. Trevor McDonald will cock his head slightly to the left and say, ‘Tell me, Julian. What is the situation in Baghdad?’ and Julian will answer, ‘Well, Trevor. . .’ Trevor will then end with something along the lines of, ‘You take care now, Julian.’
The BBC has also accused ITV of dirty tactics in allowing the popular Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to overrun to 10.05pm, so that viewers miss the start of the BBC news and stick with ITV (except on Fridays, when News at Ten starts at 11pm). Its critics also point out that News at When? is usually on only three nights a week, and then for only around 17 minutes (compared to the BBC’s 32 minutes, five times a week). Alluding to the programme’s lightweight reputation, Rory Bremner has taken to calling it I Feel Like News at Ten Tonite. Trevor McDonald is too tactful to say that he finds the truncated version of the programme frustrating. ‘It’s not what it was, but I do think we are fortunate to have it back at ten o’clock. And it has been extended for the election coverage – for what it is worth, because I do think you can swamp people with too much politics.
But we must remember, ITV is a commercial company. Would I like to do a longer programme? Of course I would. But I’m pretty chipper about the way things are going and I predict we will get more time. I appreciate the News at When? joke – a couple of months ago we were all over the place. But the shake-out is still going on: they know you can’t build up an audience having it one night here and one night there.’
Sir Trevor’s appeal as a newscaster is obvious: if we have to listen to bad news, it is somehow easier to accept it coming from him. He makes us feel a little safer in a volatile world. It’s to do with his kind face, his neutrality, and a voice as reassuringly familiar as the chimes of Big Ben. To what does he attribute his popularity? ‘Oh dear. I hate answering questions like this. I think it’s to do with believability. But if a young presenter asked me how he or she could become more believable to an audience I wouldn’t have a clue what to say. I’m glad people do think of me as believable, though, because there is a mortgage hanging on it.’
Trevor McDonald learnt his trade – and refined his spoken English – by sitting at home in Trinidad listening to the BBC World Service. He would imitate the precise delivery of Richard Dimbleby and the mellifluous cadences of John Arlott. He is hopelessly sentimental about the days of Empire, of notions of fair play and paternalism. For this reason, he is as critical of politicians who try to intimidate broadcasters as he is of aggressive journalists. He recalls overhearing a telephone conversation in which Michael Heseltine attempted to bully the ITN news editor into withdrawing an item unfavourable to the Tory party. The editor stood his ground. ‘I felt proud of him for that. It tends to be the editors rather than the presenters who have to deal with that side of things.’ He smiles slowly. ‘Sadly, I’m out of the magic circle. I wasn’t even bullied by Peter Mandelson last time round! And I tend not to socialise with politicians, in order to remain neutral.’
Really? In 1996 Trevor McDonald was reproached by the Independent Television Commission for being too friendly – the Labour Party preferred the word ‘fawning’ – in an interview with John Major held in the sunlit garden of Number 10. ‘John and I were cricketing buddies long before he was Prime Minister,’ he explains with a sigh. ‘We argued more about the merits of the West Indies and England sides than about politics. It was a soft interview that was meant to run at the end of the programme, but for reasons beyond my control, it was put in at the beginning. It didn’t deserve that editorial prominence.’ Civil fellow that he is, Sir Trevor adds that he is not trying to blame anyone, it was just one of those quick judgement calls you have to make in a newsroom. It does still seem to rankle, though. His credibility as a journalist was compromised by it, and being credible is something he has fought hard for over the years.
He began his career on radio and television in Trinidad. His first boss there, Ken Gordon, a leading figure in the Caribbean media, described the young Trevor as ‘an uncomplaining, dependable team player who spoke in a clipped English accent despite never having been to the United Kingdom’. In 1970, to his great satisfaction, he was hired, aged 30, by the BBC World Service and came to work in London. He moved to ITN in 1973 and, aware that he was the station’s first black reporter, made it a condition of his employment that he was not to be ‘sent to Brixton to do token black stories’. Since then he has been a Northern Ireland correspondent, sports commentator and diplomatic editor. His scoops include the first interview with Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison, an interview with Saddam Hussein shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and a memorable profile of Colonel Gaddafi, in which he spent days chasing across the desert, trying to keep up with the erratic Libyan leader.
While on assignment in Uganda, he was caught filming in the wrong place at the wrong time and was bundled off to prison by a posse of policemen. A passer-by, unaware of his predicament, stopped the car to ask whether he could have the broadcaster’s autograph. ‘I was happy to oblige in exchange for a promise that my admirer would kindly call my producer back at the hotel and alert the British High Commission in Kampala that I would not be back for cocktails.’ The anecdote is pure Evelyn Waugh.
It is mid-afternoon, and Sir Trevor is between meetings about the running order for tonight’s programme. He seems more relaxed and gossipy now, leaning forward and asking questions in a hushed voice about my newspaper colleagues (he writes a weekly poetry column for The Daily Telegraph), and going off on tangents about cricket. (He bowls offbreaks but doesn’t play as much as he would like to: ‘Cricket lasts a long time, and it is not conducive to domestic peace to go off on Sunday mornings with the ITN team.’)
He lives in Richmond with his second wife, Josephine, a former production assistant at ITN, and their son, Jack. The couple married in 1986, after Sir Trevor divorced his first wife, Beryl, to whom he had been married for 20 years, and with whom he has two children, Tim and Jo, both now grown-up. He thinks his children from his first marriage suffered from the fact that he was always at work, ‘trying to find a place in an extremely competitive world’. He is endeavouring to make it up with his third child and always attends school events.
The eldest of three, Trevor McDonald had no such problems with his own parents, Lawson and Geraldine. His father was a self-taught engineer from Grenada who moved to Trinidad to work on an oil refinery. He supplemented his income by raising pigs and mending shoes. The family lived in a small house with cracks in the walls that were covered with newspaper. ‘We were peasant folk, really, no one did anything of note. I had the finest parents in the world, though. I had a jammy ride. We were all great mates. My wife never believes this because so few families are like that. But I do think without my parents’ influence we would have done very little [his brother, who lives in Canada, works in radio, and his sister is a lawyer in Trinidad]. I frequently wonder how much of my career is down to me and how much is down to them.’
At Naparima College, a state school, Trevor McDonald’s nickname was Big Eyes. ‘I was boring and stuffy,’ he recalls. ‘I tended to be bookish and serious.’ He would go to watch cricket matches but then lie down in the long grass on the boundary, burying his head in Dickens, Thackeray or Hazlitt. His mother would recite poetry at meal times. ‘I never had formal voice coaching,’ he recalls, ‘but my mother was a stickler for proper speech. It was all right for my parents to be sloppy, of course, but not their children! My mother had a very Christian view of life. Never speak ill of anyone, if you can’t say anything good about someone, say nothing.’
Although he doesn’t share his parents’ religious zeal, he does think some of their values have remained with him. ‘My morals are as bad as the next person’s, but I do think one should try to have standards in life. One should try to be kind, good and gracious. I tend to be strict with my own children. I’m much more authoritarian than my wife. I think children should work at school. I hope Jack enjoys school, too, but he is not going there just for enjoyment.’
The young Trevor McDonald would be reprimanded by his parents if he didn’t greet his neighbours cheerfully in the street. ‘I had a positive outlook and I don’t think it was just because of the sunshine. In the West Indies people did look out for each other. It sounds almost utopian to talk of it now, but there was a great sense of community. No one was turned away for lunch. There was always enough to go round, and it was a sort of expanded family system.’
How is he regarded there today? ‘News of what one does gets across there pretty quickly and is exaggerated wildly. They have absorbed that North American attitude towards success stories, they love them. People say, “I knew him! I used to see him on the way to school!”‘ Lawson McDonald, he adds, could be rather boastful on the subject of Trevor McDonald, television star. ‘When I went back home, he would stand on the verandah of our house with a glass of the duty-free whisky I had just come off the plane with, and he would signal to passers-by to come in and meet me. I would be horrified by this, terribly embarrassed, and I wish I could have been more gracious. I wish I had found a way of conquering my embarrassment for his sake.’
He thinks that his ancestors were given the surname McDonald by a Scottish plantation owner. ‘My children often get bored by my telling them about their ancestors in the Caribbean,’ he says. In his novel The Enigma of Arrival Sir Trevor’s fellow émigré and knight VS Naipaul wrote that his knowledge of England derived from childhood reading: ‘I had come to London as to a place I knew very well. I found a city that was strange and unknown…’ Trevor McDonald’s experience seems to have been similar, and his obvious affection for English traditions has led some in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community to dub him ‘Uncle Tom’. When he accepted a knighthood two years ago (he had already been appointed OBE in 1992), his evolution as an establishment flunkey seemed complete. Plenty of broadcasters and journalists have accepted titles in the past – Sir Robin Day, Sir David Frost, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne – but unfortunately for Sir Trevor, he accepted his honour at the same time as the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow turned his down.
‘I was totally shocked when I was offered the knighthood,’ Sir Trevor recalls. ‘In fact, I was convinced it was a hoax and went two days without telling a soul. I had sympathy with the view that journalists shouldn’t accept honours. If you heard that the government in, say, Uganda had made a senior journalist Grand Order of Uganda you would be suspicious. So why did I accept it? Well, I thought, “This is a great honour for the West Indian community in this country.” I’m not pretending that I didn’t feel proud, too. I called my sister and told her my dilemma. She said, “Don’t even hesitate. You have to accept it.” I convinced myself – and I don’t need to convince Jon Snow – that this has not compromised my journalistic integrity. My great regret was that my father wasn’t around to see me receive it. He would have thought, “Wow, a son of mine has been given a knighthood in England.” I thought of this and said to myself, “Dammit, I’m going to accept it. It is a big leg-up for all those immigrant families who have made the transition. I get letters from people who say, for instance, “I hadn’t thought of a career in journalism until I heard of you.”‘
But if Sir Trevor has become something of a role model for Britain’s black population, he has resisted attempts to cast him as a spokesman on racial issues. ‘When I’m asked to do overtly political things, I have to decline. But I am approached to do talks at a lot of multi-ethnic schools and I usually accept. I remember when two lawyers came back to our school to give a talk, it made a very powerful impression on me. I can see them now. They wore glasses.’
When Trevor McDonald first tasted fame, Lenny Henry included him as a character in his comedy routine: Trevor McDoughnut. Later, Rory Bremner blacked up to impersonate him (Bremner still features McDonald in his routines but no longer feels the need to wear make-up). Gerald Kaufman once said, ‘McDonald’s supreme achievement is that, while everyone of course knows that is he is black, nobody notices the colour of his skin.’ I ask Sir Trevor what he makes of this. ‘I couldn’t have determined that public perception, but it does correspond to my own experience of the world. There are racial problems in the West Indies, but I don’t remember anyone’s colour ever being discussed aggressively in my house. Race simply didn’t matter.’
So when he came to this cold wet island two years after Enoch Powell made his speech about ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, and at a time when flagrantly racist sitcoms were aired at prime time, didn’t he think he had arrived in a racist country? ‘At first I was surprised that it was made so much of. I could see there were tensions about race, but it took a while for me to understand the politics behind them. I remember before I left Trinidad meeting up with a friend from primary school who said he was going to London; I asked him how he had managed that, and he said, “They sent for me. I’m going to be a bus driver.” I’ve always felt differences over colour are terribly exaggerated. But then I’ve been lucky.’ Pause. ‘Actually, I have become much more aware of my colour lately. It’s probably because of the current debates on race and ethnicity. I think politicians have to be very careful about what they say on the subject of immigration and asylum seekers, as they might appeal to baser instincts which have no place in a progressive, civilised society.’ Stories about racism and brutality – such as the genocide in Rwanda – depress Sir Trevor profoundly. He cries easily over news stories that feature children of his son’s age, and he found it almost impossible to watch the news coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case.
‘Seeing the pain of his parents on television was almost too much to bear. But we have made great strides and, for better or worse, this society is now multi-racial. I think the people who have come here have done a great deal to enrich British society.’ What does he make of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’? He smiles. ‘I always cheer for the West Indies. But I have followed English cricket for so long, and I know people like Ian Botham, David Gower and Graham Gooch so well, I really glory in England’s success, too.’ Such an ugly question didn’t deserve such a dignified answer. But it seems typical of the man. He once walked out of Noel Edmond’s House Party in disgust when asked to read out a series of messages in regional slang. ‘I don’t do this kind of thing,’ he said. ‘I’m not a comedian.’ But he is good-humoured, in a guileless way.
He is, moreover, an avoider of confrontation. ‘I’d never complain in a restaurant. Wouldn’t demand a refund; I find it undignified. I tend to bottle up anger. I think perhaps sometimes I can be a little too equable.’ He always needs to feel that he is in control of his emotions, he adds, which is why he has always steered clear of drugs. ‘Someone offered me a line of coke in America once, and I asked him what it would do. I was told it would keep me awake. Well that, I thought, is the last thing I need.’ He doesn’t always sleep well, it seems, and has occasional anxiety dreams that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in the back of a taxi, clawing at the seats.
It won’t be long now before the bongs are sounding for tonight’s programme. So – or should that be ‘And finally’ – what about that ‘tache? Is it just my imagination, or is it getting smaller? Sir Trevor grins and puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘I have taken to clipping it myself lately. This leads to battles with my hairdresser who says any clipping that needs to be done should be done by him.’
Tap papers on desk. Tilt head to one side. Goodnight.