- By Paul Glynn
- Entertainment and Arts Correspondent
Tributes have been paid to BBC journalist and author George Ashijah, who has died of cancer aged 67.
BBC Director General Tim Davey said the beauty was “loved by all”.
In a statement on Monday, Mr Davey said: “George was one of the best and bravest journalists of his generation, reporting fearlessly from around the world as well as delivering the news flawlessly.”
“More than just being a great journalist, viewers can feel his compassion, empathy and wonderful humanity.”
Ashijah has won numerous awards in a hugely successful career that has taken her from South Africa to war-torn parts of the world via the BBC News at Six studio.
His fellow broadcaster Alan Little said his old friend and mentor’s “great strength” was his “empathy”.
Mr Little, who got to know Alagaia about 30 years ago when they were both in Johannesburg, added: “I learned from him, I watched him and marveled at the way he engaged with people.
“He could talk to anyone from heads of state to children in refugee camps, and it was remarkable how much people wanted to talk to him, and I saw him win their trust.”
“He wanted to be fair, he didn’t want to be dramatic,” she continued. “I learned from that good report that decent journalism is rooted in human dignity.”
Last year, the beauty’s agent revealed that the broadcaster was taking a break from TV after discovering that her cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2014, had spread further.
He returned to the BBC’s News at Six in April 2022, noting how being in a newsroom “needs to be energetic and motivated”.
Former BBC Africa bureau chief Milton Ngozi said he was “surprised” to work because he was “always very careful during times of war and rebellion and riots”.
George came to mind
“When we were being fired at with tear gas and rubber bullets, trying to get to the heart of the story, George was the voice of reason,” he said.
“Because at that point, we’re all a little bit obsessed with the story, and we raise our voices, we act like we’re panicking, and George is the one who calms us down.”
Away from the press, Ashiya’s first novel, The Burning Land – a thriller about corruption and murder in South Africa – was nominated for a 2020 Society of Authors Award, which recognizes outstanding new writers over 60.
“Never complaining about his fate, always curious about the world. We are all poorer without him.”
As an example
BBC defense correspondent Gordon Correra noted how the phrase “never meet your heroes” didn’t apply to him working with Ajjaya.
“He is an inspiration and a role model as a journalist.” he tweeted. “When I was fortunate enough to work with him, I found him to be a very kind and generous colleague.”
In an interview with BBC Newscast last year, Ashijah was asked if she had any responsibility to be a role model for other non-white people like her.
“Well, it’s actually a slightly embarrassing chapter in my professional role,” he replied. “Because when I started in 1989, I think I was the BBC’s first kind of consummate foreign correspondent and person of colour…”
“I wanted to be a good journalist, I didn’t want to be the best black or brown journalist,” he added, once almost missing out on an award.
“And somebody took me aside and said, ‘You idiot, you think it’s about you, right? These awards are about everyone who looks at you and thinks, you know, if that beauty can do it, I can definitely do it.’
“Growing up, when the BBC’s George Ajayya was on TV, my dad would say, ‘George on!’ he’d shout. We’d run to see the man who inspired a generation of British Asian journalists. The scene was mirrored across England. We thank you, George. RIP xx.”
A tearful Naga Moonchetty broke the news of the death by interrupting a sports broadcast live on BBC Radio 5 on Monday. “Sorry for the emotion in my voice,” he said. “He was well-loved in the newsroom.”
She added: “He was always someone I looked up to. After I spoke to him or if I sent an email and he responded, I always had a spring under my feet.
“He was someone I looked up to a lot because it wasn’t his ego, it was never his ego that assured me, it was the way he cared about his reporting.
“You almost felt he broke those barriers as a news anchor.”
Chris Bryant MP noted how much Ajayya has done to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer.
“Anyone who has or has been touched by cancer knows the sadness of this moment,” he said. “And thank you, wonderful doctors.”
“If good journalism is about empathy, then it was mostly with George Ashgaya. He understood injustice and the power of good reporting to highlight it, even if not correct it…”
Former BBC broadcaster and journalist Sheila Fogarty called Ashijah “a gentleman and a brilliant reporter”.
“Friend of animals everywhere. Devoted analyst. Total alcohol scholar. Infuriatingly humble food trailblazer.”