Issue 2, Winter 2019

The Memoirs of an Improbable Life

By Kate Ford  |  12 Dec 2019  | 

Sir Trevor McDonald is the man who bravely confronted dictators and stood in the middle of war zones to bring the world news into our homes. With his instantly recognisable voice and eloquent and endearing manner, generations of Britons trusted him implicitly to keep them informed about the most important national and global events. He has witnessed some of the most crucial episodes in modern history and now he wants to share his adventures with his latest autobiography. Editor Kate Ford met with him at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival where he was speaking about his new book ‘An Improbable Life’

Sir Trevor McDonald - © Nick Gregan

In real life, Sir Trevor is just as you expect him to be. Honest and informative, with a sense of gratitude and humility that shines through. Speaking about his memories of both tragic and triumphant events, he highlights the significance of “sharing the passions of people around the world and witnessing too, some of the difficulties”.

“We are much more aware of what is going on in the world,” says the 80-year-old, about the evolution of global news coverage. In spite of the countless stories of tragedy that seem to permeate the media, he feels there is much to feel positive about. “We are more connected than we ever were and I think that’s healthy, being a big part of an international community and knowing what’s going on.”

In awe of meeting Nelson Mandela

Sir Trevor’s adventurous career as a journalist and newsreader with ITN brought him the honour of being the first person to interview Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in South Africa. “I was in awe of meeting this man. It’s almost impossible to describe the sense of occasion,” says Sir Trevor, as he sets the scene for this momentous 1990 event. “In that time you become a mythical figure. The news that he was about to be released, it was joy combined with shock. I remember it started to drizzle with rain and people were singing and dancing in the streets, you could hardly hear yourself.” Perched on the flatbed truck from where the television broadcast was being made, the seasoned journalist made a ‘typical’ reporter’s attempt at provoking a reaction from the enigmatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Might he prove to be worthy of your joy and trust?” he asked the ecstatic cleric, who had campaigned relentlessly for Nelson Mandela’s release. “Tutu said to me, ‘man this is no time for doubts, this is a time to dance’, at which point he embraced me and we actually did a little jig on News At Ten. I think that’s the first and last, I’m not aware of it being copied since,” he says, laughing fondly at the memory.

Mandela returned to his Soweto home the following day and during his landmark interview, Sir Trevor tried to elicit information about how difficult his 27 years in prison must have been. But he refused to talk about his hardship, simply replying “that’s all in the past.” The broadcaster was also surprised by Mandela’s refusal to be resentful about his treatment. He remained impressed by the leader’s humility and his lack of any sign of bitterness. Mandela’s core philosophy always was a South Africa which embraced all of its people.” Some years after their first meeting however, Sir Trevor met him again and Mandela asked if the camera crew could dim the bright lights that had been set up for the interview. “He apologised and said, ‘I have problems with my eyes, they’ve been damaged from breaking rocks’." It was the first and only time he heard President Mandela refer to the hard labour he had endured in the Robben Island maximum security prison.

The privilege of witnessing Barack Obama’s inauguration

Another historic occasion at which he was proud to be present was President Obama’s inauguration. “It was a great privilege to just soak up the atmosphere that day. This was a White House built by slaves and this black guy is walking up there and he’s going to be President of the United States.” Sir Trevor says his mother, who he remembers being so angry at American racial segregation, would have been “doing handstands in her grave.” His parents had been a huge influence and support during his childhood in Trinidad. 

“My parents told me ad infinitum, reach for the stars, work hard, do not be deterred by anyone who says you can’t go as far as you want to.”

The seeds for his illustrious career were sown in Trinidad by listening as a young boy to the BBC World Service. on the radio he had begged his father to buy. “We lived on a tiny island with a population of just over a million and there was a huge world out there. I could tell that from the various places the correspondents were reporting from. It occurred to me that they were living an interesting, adventurous life, and they were getting front seats at big international events.” His admiration for the radio service sparked in him a desire to pursue a career searching for truths and communicating them to people.

After working in radio and television in Trinidad, he came to the UK to take up a post as a current affairs producer with the World Service he had so admired as a boy. He says he had “the softest landing for anybody coming to London from the Caribbean” and described the multi-cultural setting of BBC’s Bush House as the “United Nations of broadcasting”.

Earning merit and success through good work

Whilst he was with the World Service, Sir Trevor was asked to meet a BBC executive to discuss a job in television. “I thought, my ships are coming in,” he says. But the reality was more sinister. “He said, we are under pressure from the Race Relations Board to have more black people,” recalls Sir Trevor, as he then quickly made his excuses and left.  “I didn’t want to be the token black person in any set up. It’s very, very personal.” Later, when he went for a job at ITN, he made it clear he was not going to be confined to covering cultural stories. But his previous treatment by the BBC was not on the agenda with this independent television company. He became anchor newsreader for its flagship News At Ten programme. Watched by millions every night, Sir Trevor became so well-known that comedian and fellow knight Sir Lenny Henry, impersonated him with his memorable character ‘Trevor McDoughnut’, which added to his status as a television icon.

With humility, he talks about being fortunate to have managed to get jobs and to have met so many interesting people. “I was terribly lucky, I think I was given a golden ride at ITN. I got the best of breaks.” He may have been the face of the news, but he pays credit to the dozens of other people without whom his reports would not have been possible. He makes particular mention of the film crews who accompanied him on his assignments around the world. Some even helped keep him safe when he was reporting on 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland. “They knew instinctively how to conduct themselves in a tricky situation. I learnt from them.”

Sir Trevor has proven himself to be a brave correspondent time and time again. He interviewed the reviled and feared dictator Saddam Hussein, confronting him with tough questions, whilst his ministers watched on in disbelief. Returning to his hotel, exhausted by the experience, Sir Trevor was surprised to find members of the Iraqi Ministry of Information in his room. They were eager to know what Saddam was like in person because they, like so many others, had never actually met their leader.

“I always believed in what I did, which is to try to explain events in such a way that you make it relevant.”

His determination to communicate important stories was fuelled by a desire to persuade people to care about the news events. Sir Trevor feels it is right that we are informed of abhorrent happenings that occur in other countries and nearer to home. But even for such an experienced journalist, he finds some news stories hard to bear, such as the migrants who lose their lives whilst trying to flee persecution in their own countries. “I don’t understand how we think we can spend so much money sending robots to Mars, but we can’t stop people drowning in the Mediterranean. I am so appalled that I can hardly watch those scenes.”

But however upsetting the news can be, Sir Trevor believes in its inherent value in bringing us together as humans. He also feels that we have “moved on amazingly” over issues such as racism, which must be in part due to the exposure of segregation policies such as those of South Africa and the USA.  

“People being aware of what we need to do as a civilised nation or as a civilised world to survive, I think that’s important. The spreading of knowledge about that, is to me, one of the greatest attributes that we have.”

Sir Trevor McDonald's book 'An Improbable Life' is out now in hardback and his own voiced audio version is also available.