Sir Trevor McDonald: “Political neutrality was never difficult”

The top newsreader and national treasure stands against bias in his Letter To My Younger Self and also reveals the remarkable impact that Nelson Mandela had on his life

I had no idea which direction my life would go in but my generation of West Indians were schooled to be aspirational and aim high. For us, the only method of social mobility, the only way of getting on, was to pay great attention to education. Nobody was going to leave you an inheritance or a large house in the country. My parents constantly admonished me that I had to do it on my own. So I would tell my younger self to work hard and aim high – reach for the stars and you may just touch the top of the trees.

When I look back at my younger self, I see a very bookish, uncertain child. He was hopeful without any real knowledge of where that hope would lead. More important, he was desperately worried about not being seen to fail. I didn’t know quite what failure was but I didn’t want to be part of it. I wanted to be somebody who people would point at and say, you know, that’s McDonald’s boy, he has not done badly. Even then I wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to report the news, to tell people what was happening. I had this desire to be part of the information system from very early on.

Cricket is a West Indian disease and there is no cure. We played on rough patches of ground, on roads where the cars were infrequent. We played cricket like insane people. I wish I could pretend I was good but I batted a bit, bowled a bit and loved every minute of it. I don’t buy the idea that West Indians now look to America, to baseball and basketball – there is dissatisfaction with the way the authorities run cricket but the love of the game is always there. 

People from small islands are not introspective. If you live on a small island your view tends quite naturally to look outwards. I persuaded my father after many months of begging to buy us a radio. And it wasn’t only to listen to cricket from Australia and England. I wanted to listen to the World Service on the BBC – to listen to the correspondents travelling to Moscow, Johannesburg, Beijing, Mumbai and Washington. They were getting front-row seats at big international events and I thought that was the most glamorous thing in the world. At that stage it didn’t occur to me that all this was very hard work. But I must confess, it did occur to me that they were probably being paid to travel to these places and stay in nice hotels – and that someone probably even paid their bar bills. 

I was always drawn to politics but never as a participant, always as an observer. One reason for this is quite simple. We were a tiny island, but what happened in the world affected us. So, for example, when Reagan didn’t like the trend of the government in Grenada, which he thought was going communist, he sent the troops in. We lived in America’s backyard. There was an American base in Trinidad during the Second World War. And we were a colony of Great Britain so we knew about Drake hounding the Armada and Winston Churchill’s great speeches during the war. 

I fell into the love of language very early. I loved the way words were used in poetry and I am terribly chuffed to say that it’s a love that has been with me to this day. Whenever I travelled to wars in the Middle East or famines in Southern Africa, I always took books of poetry. Wordsworth and Tennyson are very good after the bombs and bullets in Beirut. I would also have quite a few drinks in the bar. 

Word gets back to the West Indies when you come to London. And it gets magnified so everybody thinks you’re running the world! My father was terribly proud of his kids. So when I went home, he would stand on the veranda and shout, “My son’s back from London, you must come and see him.” I didn’t know some of these people so I shrank from expressing how I was doing. I probably could have been a little more forthcoming and made up a few more stories about how great I am. But I never felt that great. I had just succeeded in getting a job and could pay the mortgage. Looking back, I wish I had boasted a bit more. 

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

I would tell my younger self that if you have a dream, go for it with all your heart and soul. Don’t ever be deterred by people who tell you that you can’t do it. That was bred into me by my parents. If you work hard and have a little bit of talent, you will get there. I wasn’t always that confident, this is wisdom I have distilled over the years. When I was a reporter at ITN, one evening at the bar somebody said “I think we have all reached as far as we’re going to go.” I thought, damn that, I want to be diplomatic correspondent. I shall not cease striving until I am. I became diplomatic correspondent, I became diplomatic editor, I became a newsreader, then I became the sole anchor of News At 10. All because I believed in myself. It is like Tiger Woods said: the more I practise, the luckier I get. The hard work has to be put in, but ITN gave me great chances to go around the world and meet wonderful or not-so-wonderful people.

Without question, Nelson Mandela made the biggest impact on me. I couldn’t imagine that somebody could come away from prison after 27 years and be so humble, so un-bitter, so clear-sighted about what his nation needed to do and so all-embracing of all South Africans of all colours and all races. I thought that was quite exceptional.

I’m a bit of a coward because I hate violence and wars and guns. I was always fearful, truth be told, but I had a job to do. I got noticed for my coverage in Northern Ireland in the 1970s where violence and bombs and Kalashnikov rifles were part of the daily diet. I was terrified of all that. Nobody wanted to kill me but you couldn’t be unaware of the noise of violence around you. My job was to try and explain what was going on and why it was going on. I had that zeal to get more people to understand. 

Political neutrality was never difficult. If I wanted to canvas my own views, I should get my own TV station. While you are working for ITV, you are impartial. And I’m very strenuous about that. The only way people will watch you is if you are straight down the line. The people to whom you’re broadcasting are not fools. They are all intelligent people. So tell them the facts, tell it accurately and with good balance and fairness, and they will make up their own minds. 

I never felt like a pioneer. But when people met me in the streets, [being one of the few black faces on television] was always mentioned. After a while, I became aware of what my position was and at that stage, my main concern was that, OK, you are clearly identifiable as a kind of pioneer. So for heaven’s sake don’t mess it up. I hope I didn’t. 

I would say to any young person, take an interest in what’s going on in the world and realise we are only one part of it. I say rather boringly that in the 2008 financial crash people in Kansas in the American Midwest defaulted on their mortgages and three Icelandic banks went bust – we are part of a globalised world now. And we can’t escape that. 

I covered American politics for a long time and never thought I would live to see the day when there was a black president. It was sensational to be there. What I’ve learned in life is that politics changes all the time and anybody who tells you they can predict what’s going to happen next is misleading you. You can’t ever predict how change will come – you just hope it will be for the better. Obama used to talk about how the arc of progress bends inevitably towards justice. But that arc is not a straight line. 

I thought that by the 21st century we might have done a bit better. I don’t expect to see people drowning in the Mediterranean trying to find a home in Europe. Whenever I watch what is going on in Syria and see young kids not being part of their family, being dispossessed and homeless, it breaks my heart. 

Trevor McDonald’s autobiography An Improbable Life is out now (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)

Image: Nick Gregan