London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Wafa Zaiane is the first Tunisian news anchor to appear on the BBC since it first began broadcasting more than 75 years ago. She is known as a conscientious broadcaster, often appearing in the field to get a scoop. In addition to appear behind the news anchor desk, Zaiane also hosts the well-received Ana Shahid (Eye Witness) television show.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Wafa Zaiane looks back at her career in the media, speaking about how she first got involved with journalism, her journalistic role-models, and her view of contemporary Arab media.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you get involved in journalism? Was there a specific moment when you were certain that this was the right career path for you?
Wafa Zaiane: After completing my Masters in Translation and Linguistics from Westminster University in London in 1999, I decided to turn a new page in my professional life. I must admit that at that point I was not sure if I wanted to get into journalism but my curiosity drove me to join the United Press International (UPI) in London. Perhaps what was happening in the world played an important part in drawing me into journalism, as I was greatly influenced by the rapid changes taking place around me in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and its major influence on the Middle East.
A lust for the truth and a love of spreading this has always been one of my greatest attributes, so I decided to stick to this field instead of pursuing an academic career as I had originally planned. I realized that I was in the right place when I joined the Arabic team at the highly esteemed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). At the BBC, I moved from writing to broadcasting, and soon found myself facing one of my greatest challenges, namely reading the news.
I don’t hide the fact that I am extremely proud to be the first Tunisian to read the news on the BBC since it was first established in 1938. However my news reading did not take away from my journalism and field work, which I have continued as host of BBC Extra, which was launched in 2005.
With the launch of BBC Arabic I moved to the newsroom and joined its team of presenters. I currently present the program Ana Shahid which explores topics in the media by citizen journalists, from recorded coverage on the ground, to live coverage from London and abroad.
Q: What is your most memorable story?
In my career in radio and television, I have reported on many emotional events that have affected me on a personal level. Most notably was the revolution in my home country Tunisia, where I reported on events live during the first days of the revolution.
One event I would like to see and cover, from both a personal and professional angle, is the election of the first Arab female prime minister or president.
Q: Who is your journalistic role model?
Like every other Tunisian, I followed the late presenter Naijib Al-Khattab who was known for his sharp language and smooth delivery. He was excellent at debating with his guests, whether they were political, literary or cultural figures. Yet, I believe that I learnt the most at the BBC; nobody who enters the BBC leaves the same.
Q: What media figure, in your view, could serve as a suitable journalistic role-model for Tunisia?
Jeremy Paxman, the famous British presenter, is well known for his insistence on getting honest remarks from his guests without being rude or vulgar. This is this is something we lack in the Arab media landscape.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about your day-to-day life in the media? Does your family life suffer as a result of this?
I work about forty hours per week which is standard under British employment laws during which I perform a variety of duties. I only feel stressed or tired when I can’t meet the goals I have set for myself. I also get three days off a week which helps me make time to take care of my family and home life, but I am always interacting with the news. I remember in the summer of 2011, I insisted on joining my husband—also a journalist—when he decided to go down to the streets to investigate the violence in the London riots.
Q: Do you believe that news coverage is an individual, or team effort?
Whenever I present the news I consider what the audience is watching to be the result of a whole team effort from the editor-in-chief to the editors and video technicians. Therefore, I consider myself responsible for presenting the efforts of all these people in the best possible light, and this is the same responsibility I carry regarding my radio listeners.
Q: What’s your view of new media? Do you believe this will take over the role of the traditional media?
Firstly, without new media we would not have the show Ana Shahid which depends on this kind of citizen journalism. New media has definitely tipped the scales, especially when it comes to reporting the latest up-to-date information in the Arab world. This is without a doubt the best way of collecting instant responses, and it is an incredible source for news and information. At the same time, however, it presents a real challenge for the traditional news agencies because of the difficulty of authenticating what is being reported in this manner.
Q: Do you believe specialization is important in journalism? For example, for a journalist to have an area or region of expertise, such as Iraq, or Al-Qaeda?
A specialized correspondent is always a strong addition to any newsroom; knowledge is a great competitive advantage. Personally, I appreciate sports journalists or economist journalists because they are more knowledgeable about their own field.
However, personally, I prefer diversity in my work, sometimes reporting from a war zone, while at other times from the red carpet.
Q: What is your favorite news blog or website?
As I am living in the UK, I follow the digital versions of all the major newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, and the Economist in addition to all the leading Arabic papers. Like the majority of London residents, I like to read the news while on my daily commute to and from work.
Q: What advice would you give to young journalists at the beginning of their career?
My advice to young journalists would be to pursue this profession only if they truly love it because it has its pitfalls.
Q: Can you describe what you view as a successful journalist or media professional?
A successful journalist, in my opinion, is one who has the talent and ability to report the news simply and seamlessly however complicated it may. With regards to presenting, it is the visual presence which is of upmost importance, for without that the presenter simply cannot communicate their message. Of course, this comes after some other necessary attributes including expertise, curiosity and objectivity in handling the news they are dealing with. This last issue has perhaps been lost thanks to the polarized state of the media that we are now experiencing.
Q: In your opinion, what has been your most successful news story to date?
I am very proud of my coverage of the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia. I traveled from the capital Tunis, where the fate of the country was determined, to Sidi Bouzid the cradle of the Arab Spring, and I was one of the few journalists to interview Fadia Hamdi, the woman accused of slapping Mohamed Bouazizi.