May 26, 2024

Living legend

News veteran and journalist Sir Trevor McDonald loves balmy Caribbean evenings, hates airports, and describes himself as a coward in a conflict zone, writes Sasha Wood

As the leading newscaster of his generation, Sir Trevor McDonald has been responsible for many landmark TV moments and has interviewed key historical figures ranging from Saddam Hussein to Peace Prize winners such as Nelson Mandela and Benazir Bhutto.

Born in Trinidad, McDonald worked as a local news reporter before moving to London to join the BBC in 1969, and has since travelled far and wide in his profession.

McDonald says he travelled like a king for his most recent documentary, Indian Train Adventure, covering his eight-day journey between Mumbai and Jaipur aboard the legendary Maharajas’ Express.

“India overwhelms the senses. It’s such a large country, so populous, so crowded and the driving is utterly mad. It’s something you have to do once,” says McDonald.

But it has not always been plain sailing. When he joined ITN in the 1970s he was sent to Northern Ireland during the height of The Troubles. “There were people being shot and bombs going off all the time,” he says. “I was from Trinidad and used to seeing the odd skirmish outside the rum shop on a Friday night, but I’d never heard a bomb go off before. I must admit there were times when I was scared out of my wits. I am very cowardly by nature so I learned to run.”

He reported from Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and went to Baghdad before the first Gulf War to interview Saddam Hussein. In fact, he lists Beirut among the most surprising places he’s visited, partly because it managed to remain so civilized even in the midst of raging civil war.

“People were fighting and killing each other during the week and on Sunday morning people came out and set up little stalls selling the finest French perfume and Champagne.
I turned up to a fine restaurant and I couldn’t believe all the tables were full,” he explains.

But McDonald doesn’t always get the chance to explore when he’s on assignment, so he frequently revisits places where he’s worked: “The west coast of America is one of them –
I love San Diego and Santa Monica. You discover new things every time you go.”

“I’m from Trinidad so I was used to seeing the odd skirmish outside the rum shop, but I’d never heard a bomb go off before”

One of the places McDonald has returned to often, after working there for many years, is South Africa. He was the first person to interview Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison in 1990 and again when he became president in 1994. The two subsequently met on many occasions and became firm friends.

“It was fascinating to watch the country go through all the traumas of what it was to what it wants to be. I saw a lot of changes, but quite frankly on my last visit about a year ago I was a little distressed that some of the changes have not been greater… and quite shocked to see some of the same slums that were there when I first visited 25 years ago,” he says.

As a journalist, he has always been fascinated with meeting world leaders. He was friends with Benazir Bhutto and interviewees have included notorious despots such as Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. He has also been invited to the White House on several occasions, interviewing President Clinton and later President Bush the younger.

McDonald has travelled extensively in the Caribbean, from Barbados and Antigua to
St Kitts and Nevis. “My father was born in Grenada and he always used to boast that their beaches are better than our beaches in Trinidad,” he says.

“What I like about the Caribbean is that it’s always warm after 6 or 7 o’clock. Even on summer evenings here you feel you need a light sweater, but in the Caribbean you put on a short-sleeved shirt and pour yourself a large rum punch, and you can sit out there on the verandah forever.”

Barbados is also one of his go-to places for a relaxing holiday, along with Cape Town in South Africa – “the waterfront area there is very nice,” says McDonald.

Between travelling for work and sojourns in South Africa and the Caribbean, the broadcaster says he has spent far too long in airports, which are his least favourite aspect of his globe-trotting exploits: “I approach them with dread,” he laughs.

That said, his time spent working in troubled destinations around the globe has nurtured a certain warmth for British aviation: “I must confess that it was always nice to get on to a British Airways flight and hear the captain’s voice – you always felt you were heading home and out of trouble.”