London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sudan-born Zeinab Badawi is a familiar face to viewers of BBC World as one of the primary presenters of its flagship World News Today program, as well as its HARDtalk interview program.
A veteran broadcast journalist with a career stretching back to the mid-1980s, She spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about her career in news, the international media’s coverage of the Middle East, and her thoughts on journalistic ethics and the future of the industry in the age of social media.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you start your career in journalism?
Zeinab Badawi: It wasn’t very dramatic at all. I never studied journalism. I went to Oxford University and studied PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]. While I was at Oxford I joined the Oxford University Broadcasting Society and I did a little bit of radio as a student, and then after I left Oxford I did another year’s study and then I applied for a job as a graduate trainee in television at [British TV channel] ITV. So I got a traineeship with one of the ITV companies and that was it. In those days there wasn’t any kind of media course [at university] or anything like that. I was trained on the job, but ITV [also] sent me to something called the National Broadcasting School, which doesn’t exist anymore, which was in Soho, and I did a three-month intensive training course there and that was it.
Q: Why did you choose to work in the media?
I think that the role of the media, especially television at the time—this was before social media and so on— in explaining the world to others is very important. Television before social media was a very powerful tool; it was a window on the world. I think this distinction between foreign and home affairs that we had was not a very valid one, and with globalization we all realized that. I liked the role of the media, and television in particular, to inform and educate people.
I’ve never really been in the entertainment side of television at all, but informing and educating people [on events] in the wider world is very important. If people live in a multicultural country like Britain . . . it has an impact on the domestic, social and political agenda and on the way they treat their fellow citizens who come from different countries.
Q: As a Muslim, have you faced any problems in your career?
No, I haven’t myself, but what I have noticed, especially after 9/11 is that there is what you can call Islamophobia apparent in the media, for sure. I think after the September 11 attacks you did find there was a demonization of Islam—not so much Muslims, but of Islam. For example, you will have a group that is maybe carrying out terrorist acts, and it would be attributed to Islam. So you would always say the “Islamist extremist group,” and I think that is not helpful. It’s just an extremist group, or a violent group, it’s nothing particularly to do with Islam. You mustn’t use the terminology that people who want to kill other people use and ascribe Islam to it. But I don’t think that distinction is made. I think now, in the media, there is for sure something called Islamophobia where you always have terrorism linked with something to do with Islam.
Q: What news event or region would you most like to cover, and why?
Well, I haven’t covered as much of the Middle East as I would have liked. I do speak Arabic [well] enough to communicate with people, and I think that does give you a comparative advantage as a journalist when you can speak to people affected by major events in their own language, such as Syrian refugees. So I think that is something I should look to a bit more than I have, perhaps. I don’t speak it [well enough to] work in Arabic, I can’t work at the BBC Arabic service, I can’t read or write it, but I can speak [demotic Arabic] fluently. But I have four children, so I’ve been much more studio-based [than] in the past because I can’t really afford to spend long periods of time in Syria or wherever.
Q: Did you experience any difficulties being Sudanese and working in British media?
I’m very proud to be Sudanese, Arab and African, but this is a difficult question for me to answer. Although I was born in Sudan, I came to London when I was under three years of age and so I would say that I have a dual identity. I feel very comfortable in Sudan, but I also feel very comfortable in England.
I can’t say that I am a typical Sudanese person living in England, because I came when I was so small, so I cannot say that I feel as much [of] an outsider . . . In terms of anything like racism or anti-Islamism, I wouldn’t say that there was anything [I experienced]. It doesn’t mean that this doesn’t exist; it just means that I haven’t personally experienced this. I can’t say that I have found it difficult being Sudanese or of Sudanese origin, living here. I think in my case, I’ve been around for so long—I was at Oxford University, I did my master’s at London University—I think that maybe that’s cushioned me to some extent.
Q: Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir recently invited a number of journalists, including yourself, to a conference about the Sudanese media in Khartoum. What did the president, who does not have the best record on press freedom, want from the journalists?
It was last year. I didn’t go. The thing is, nothing is black and white, and I think that freedom of speech and expression is very important; it is a cornerstone of democracy. It’s important that we do have it. But I think that there is some vibrancy in the Sudanese media where you have newspapers that can be a little critical about what’s going on, but obviously there is a limit to that. I don’ t think there should be limits to freedom of speech and expression, and that is something that my father, as a Sudanese journalist, definitely [believed].
In terms of what the government wanted to get out of the conference, I’ve no idea really. It’s much harder to [restrict] freedom of speech in the age of social media. In the old days, before Twitter and Facebook, it was much easier for governments to try and keep back information. Now if something happens, everybody has got a mobile phone, they can take a picture, they can text somebody in a foreign country, so censorship is much harder. So I think that the technological revolution and social media has had a huge impact on the free flow of information. Unless you’re like the Chinese government . . . and spend a lot of time jamming parts of the Internet, it’s not really that easy for any government to try to suppress what’s going on. If you have violence somewhere, then somebody is going to take a picture of it and it’s going to be all over the place. So I think that the technological revolution in social media has really changed the media landscape; not just the technology itself, but [because] everybody is a journalist now. You have these citizen journalists.
Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about HARDtalk?
I think the idea of HARDtalk is to educate and inform, but it is also to hold people in positions of power to account . . . It allows you to discuss at length topics with people in positions of power and to hold them to account about whatever it is they’ve done, about policies, about human rights abuses—that is the aim of it. The idea is that it is a rigorous, hard but not harsh, questioning of what they do.
Q: Have you noticed any bias in western media against Middle Eastern or regional news?
There is so much media . . . If you are talking about [the] BBC, there is BBC Arabic TV, BBC Arabic Radio, there is so much media. If you’re talking about domestic media, BBC1 and BBC2, I think the biggest complaint is that there isn’t enough news about the Middle East. Every region in the world is covered when there are problems, it’s not just the Middle East.
That is the thing about the news—problems and challenges are what make the news, which means that the news has an inherent bent to look at things through a lens of problems. It means that over the years, if there has been conflict in the Middle East, or now with the Arab Spring, people would get the impression that there is nothing but violence in the Middle East. I would say that [there is] a bias . . . because of the nature of the news focusing on problems, not because anybody is saying, ’We don’t like the Middle East and we think that the Arab world is violent.’ It’s the same coverage for everywhere. When [UK Prime Minister] David Cameron lost the vote on taking military action in Syria in the House of Commons, the reaction on the BBC was things like, ‘David Cameron has lost control of his foreign policy.’ That kind of sentiment is used whatever is being discussed.
Q: What about the coverage of Israel? Would you say that it is biased, whether we are talking about pro-Israeli coverage in the west, or pro-Palestinian coverage in the Arab world?
I don’t know. I haven’t watched enough to say if there is a pro-Israeli or anti-Palestinian bias. I wouldn’t say that there is an anti-Palestinian bias at all in the British media. I think that where there may be a criticism made is that the Arab leaders, and the Palestinians, don’t always make themselves available as much as they ought to. It is sometimes quite hard to get hold of an Arab interviewee. It’s much easier, sometimes, to talk to an Israeli, whereas if you have a Syrian or Egyptian foreign minister, it is not always easy to [talk to] them. [Egyptian Foreign Minister] Nabil Fahmi was here a couple of weeks ago, but he pulled out [of an interview] at the last minute because he didn’t have the time. The Palestinians and Arabs in general must also look at the fact that they must make people available. Let me do a HARDtalk with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. You have to look at it from the point of view of people making themselves available.
Q: Have you applied for an interview with Sisi?
I asked [Egypt’s ambassador to the UK], Ashraf Elkholy, and said I was prepared to go to Cairo to do a HARDtalk interview with him, but I haven’t heard back. I’ve asked for the last three months and I haven’t heard back. So if the Arabs complain that there is a bias, I would say make yourselves more readily available in English, because unfortunately that’s what we use mostly, and most Arab politicians speak very good English. So make yourselves available for interview in English and we will be able to get your point of view across easily and effectively.
Q: Who else, beside Sisi, would you like to interview?
Bashar Al-Assad would be wonderful. We very rarely hear from Bashar Al-Assad, but [media adviser] Bouthaina Shaaban speaks all the time . . . Any of the senior Saudis—the Foreign Minister, Saud Bin Faisal, does speak a bit more. The Jordanians do speak a bit. If you think of the stories that are in the news at the moment, it is mostly Syria and Egypt.
As for the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t make himself available much. I interviewed [Palestinian spokeswoman and legislator] Hanan Ashrawi; she’s very good [with the media], she makes herself available. So I think that the important thing is getting good senior spokespeople. So that would be my message, that the Arabs should use the international media much more, especially a channel like BBC World, because it has so many viewers.
Q: If you found yourself seated opposite Bashar Al-Assad, would you be comfortable, after all that he has done?
Yes, why not? You hold him to account. Yes, of course I would be comfortable. The role of the media is to hold people to account. I’ve interviewed people who are [on trial] at the International Criminal Court now. Jean Pierre Bemba, who was vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: I interviewed him for HARDtalk, so that is the role of the media, to interview people, even if they might have blood on their hands.
Q: What advice would you give to young people about to embark on a career in journalism?
When I started—it was such a long time ago—the media landscape is very different now. There is much more media, and social media is an area that has really opened up. I’m very bad on social media. I don’t tweet. I don’t use Facebook or any of these things. I’m quite old-fashioned, so I wouldn’t like to give anybody particular career advice, except to say that a journalist must always maintain their curiosity and an interest in other people, [as well as] caring about those who don’t have the ability to speak to those in power. I think that the role of the journalist in holding powerful people to account is very important.
I was born in Sudan, where we have a lot of pyramids. At the top of the pyramid, you’ve got very few people; at the bottom you have the billions . . . As a journalist I always like to invert the pyramid and try and make sure that those who don’t have access to people in power can know that their situation is being put to those people. So I would say to young journalists: don’t forget this role of the media as almost a tool for development or democracy.