How George Alagiah worked with Sir Tim Laurence on Durham uni paper

George Alagiah’s unknown royal connection: He worked with Princess Anne’s husband Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence at their university student newspaper

  • Sir Tim and Alagiah studied at Durham University at the same time
  • When Sir Tim was editor of Palatinate, Alagiah headed up the news section
  • The journalist took over as editor in early 1976 and stayed for more than a year 

Born eight months apart, they both matured to become national treasures, albeit for different reasons.

Public affection for Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence stems from his quiet devotion to his wife Princess Anne, whilst the late George Alagiah was loved as one of the best-known faces of BBC News.

But, well before either man was famous, they worked closely together, when Sir Tim edited Durham University’s student newspaper and Alagiah headed up the news section under him. 

Sir Tim edited Palatinate in the latter half of 1975, before Alagiah, whose death from cancer was announced yesterday, replaced him early in 1976 and went on to serve in the post for more than a year.

Alagiah’s time in the hotseat saw him pen editorials defending journalistic freedom and insisting his paper would be a ‘focal point’ for the ‘diverse’ views of students. 

George Alagiah worked with Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence when the royal was editor Durham University’s student newspaper, Palatinate. Alagiah succeeded him as editor

Sir Tim, who is the elder of the two men, studied Geography at Durham after entering on a naval scholarship.

Almost prophetically, one of his articles in Palatinate was a review of a novel by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsen, about a man who falls in love with the wife of his employer, a woman who is far above his social station.

Sir Tim commended the work’s ‘deep understanding of human nature’.

During his time in charge of the paper, he gained the nickname ‘Tiger Tim’, which was apparently a reflection of his pursuit of contributors when they were late in filing articles.

The student was also known for always dressing very smartly, in a jacket with shirt and tie, even as his fellow students’ dress reflected the anti-establishment spirit of the age. 

In 1975, Sir Tim graduated from his Geography degree with a good 2:1 – a grade that was then much harder to achieve than it is now. 

Alagiah, who studied politics at Durham, had initially contributed to the paper under Sir Tim.

Sir Timothy edited Palatinate in the latter half of 1975, with Alagiah heading up the news section under him. Above: The staff credits showing the pair’s positions in the December 4, 1975 issue of Palatinate

The issue of Palatinate where Sir Tim is named as editor and Alagiah headed up the news section

Palatinate’s online archive reveals one article Alagiah wrote about reductions in intake at some of Durham’s most prestigious colleges.

He quoted a senior academic who complained teacher training at the specialist College of St Hild and St Bede was being ‘pushed into a corner’.

He would go on to serve as editor for more than a year.  

In his first editorial, in February 1976, he trumpeted the value of free speech, writing: ‘A university newspaper should be something in which the numerous arguments that rage in coffee bars and canteens find some kind of formal expression.

‘It is hoped that the Leading Articles page will be used, by you, for precisely that function. 

‘Palatinate ought to be the focal point for all the diverse views that students hold, and the opportunity is there for you to make it so.

He added: ‘Should Palatinate attempt merely to entertain, in which case a suitable “page three” would be justified, or should it try to pass on and distribute as much information as possible? The answer is somewhere in the proverbial “middle”. 

‘The aim ought to be to do this in as pleasing a way as possible.’

‘With your help, criticisms and suggestions, I see no reason why Palatinate cannot thrive.’

Students who worked under Alagiah when he was editor included head of news Duncan Goldie-Scot, arts editor Nicholas Ford, features chief Chris Wilcox and sports editor Chris Costello.  

In another editorial, in the November 18, 1976 issue of Palatinate, Alagiah argued strongly for the independence of the editor from the students’ union, which funded the paper.

The February 5, 1975 issue of Palatinate, Alagiah’s first as editor 

In his first editorial, in February 1976, he trumpeted the value of free speech, writing: ‘A university newspaper should be something in which the numerous arguments that rage in coffee bars and canteens find some kind of formal expression

The credits showing George Alagiah in the role of editor of Palatinate

‘Most student papers are either wholly or partially financed by student unions and this is often said to be good enough reason  for Editors to support union policy. 

‘This is looking at the problem from completely the wrong angle.

‘It is the unions who have a duty to their student body to finance an informative and independent paper.

‘The only terms of reference for any Editor must be that he should attempt to be fair in the way a paper criticises union policy.

‘Every student must have the opportunity to criticse, disagree and change union policy — a paper with complete editorial freedom is an essential.’ 

In his penultimate editorial, in February 1977, he hit out at the ‘pathetic’ students who picketed a branch of Barclays bank because it had investments in South Africa, which was then in the grip of the Apartheid regime.

He asked: ‘Are the black South Africans any better off for our boycott of Barclays?’ 

The budding journalist went on to add: ‘The ultimate solution to S.Africa lies not in revolutions or wars but in the black South Africans being able to support their case for equality in a tangible manner. 

‘This can come only with education. If we could help towards this, then our contribution would be concrete and practical.’ 

In his final address to readers, Alagiah told how he would miss the role.  

Journalist George Alagiah as a young boy with his engineer father, Donald  

Alagiah in 2022 after returning to News At Six following months of treatment 

‘I have vivid dreams how I’m sitting in the Editor’s chair for the first time. God! that was good – whole desk (complete with drawers and a desk diary) all to myself,’ he wrote.

‘And that first letter being brought to my desk just to have my name put on it. I had really hit the big time then.’ 

He also paid tribute to students who had helped him put the paper together, writing: ‘I should like to state the obvious and say that absolutely nothing would have been possible without their continued support through all the bungles I’ve made.’ 

He finished by singling out the ‘dedication’ of the paper’s secretary Nita Scott and the ‘unusual wit’ of head of features Chris Wilcox, which was a ‘wonderful tonic’.

After graduating from university, Alagiah formally entered journalism.

Before starting with the BBC in 1989, Alagiah was based in Johannesburg as developing world correspondent for South Magazine.

The journalist is seen at Buckingham Palace with his wife Frances Robathan and sons Adam and Matt, 17, after collecting his OBE from the Queen in 2008

Sir Timothy Laurence is seen in the doorway of his Winchester home in 1989, before his marriage to Princess Anne

Sir Tim was born in Edenbridge, Kent, and went on to be educated at Sevenoaks School from the age of 11. Above: The then youngster (right) with fellow members of a school sports team

He was named Amnesty International’s journalist of the year in 1994 for reporting on the civil war in Burundi and also won the Broadcasting Press Guild’s award for television journalist of the year.

He was also part of the BBC team that won a Bafta Award in 2000 for its reporting of the conflict in Kosovo, one of several prizes he received during his broadcasting career.

After first presenting BBC Four News in 2002 he went on to co-anchor the corporation’s 6pm news bulletin, first alongside Sophie Raworth and then Natasha Kaplinsky.

From 2007 he was the programme’s sole presenter while he was also a relief presenter for News at Ten.

Durham’s current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karen O’Brien, paid tribute to Alagiah yesterday. 

‘George Alagiah was one of the finest journalists of his generation,’ she said. 

‘We are so proud of his achievements as a journalist of the highest integrity and calibre, who was a shining inspiration for so many others in his profession.

‘We are very sorry to hear of his death, following his long battle with cancer, and extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.’