Asharq Al Awsat interviews Reuters news agency’s Saudi correspondent and author of Pop Culture Arab World! Andrew Hammond.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: How did you start your career in media?
A: After graduating with a degree in literature, it didn’t even cross my mind to enter the world of media; my studies were based on languages, history and psychology. During this time, the directors of the Arabic department in the BBC were looking for news readers who could speak Arabic to train them, so I joined, given I could speak the language. It was there that I learned how to use the studio and to publish news – both written and read.
Q: You worked in Egypt in the Middle East Times newspaper as an editor, and you also co-founded the weekly magazine Cairo Times with your colleague Hesham Qasem, today you’re an correspondent for a large news agency, how would you compare the editorial process of the two positions?
A: The editorial process in journalism does not vary a lot from a newspaper to a news agency – both require getting scoops, following up on current news events, and monitoring events for breaking news. Many people ask, how are you able to get scoops in Saudi Arabia when local reporters can’t, and to this I say that Reuters is a reliable news source that continuously receives newsflashes from different sources, whether we seek them or not. When officials hear news that needs verification, they get in touch with us to confirm them, and we do the research side of it to get to the truth behind the news.
Q: You were one of the correspondents who lived in Iraq before and after the war, can you tell us your observations during both periods and how this has affected your journalistic work?
A: Both periods were completely different from one another: In 2002, before the US War on Iraq, I was able to move freely and safely in the streets, catch taxis and talk to people – but there was no freedom of speech and citizens couldn’t speak to me frankly! They always preferred to express satisfaction for their circumstances and surroundings. After the war, particularly in 2004, we had more than one correspondent, especially since events were continuous and constantly changing. We were often left hanging in our offices for long stretches of time pending breaking news, and quite frequently, we were limited to using the phone, receiving faxes and browsing the Internet to write our reports. I rarely went out to the field at the time as reporters were targeted – but I noticed that everyone started to talk openly, describing their emotions without fear, telling us their stories.
Q: your reports vary according to the country you work in. Does moving around and working in different Arab countries force you to focus on certain issues more than others, pending the location?
A: I think it’s only natural that the content of a report reflects the situation and the place in which I reside at the time. In Egypt, I was more inclined to cover political issues, but also the cultural side, such as cinema and music, both of which influence the Egyptian society in a major way. That was a completely different matter when I was a correspondent in Dubai in 2003, where I found an undeniable economic revolution that was worth examining, while in Saudi the changes were of a more social and political nature. In the end, the major issues tend to impose themselves on the media platform.
Q: Your report of Saudi author Rajaa Al-Sanea’s novel The Girls of Riyadh was criticized, what exactly did you set out to convey that was misunderstood?
A: In my report about Rajaa Al-Sanea’s The Girls of Riyadh, I was addressing the dialogue and controversy that ensued because of what the novel revealed; it was not based on my own views. The author exposed a lot of the hidden aspects that existed in relationships between the sexes in Saudi society, and what happens at weddings and other social events. I mentioned in my report that some of these events ran parallel to the stories mentioned in the book, which some people took to be my stance. I did not say that it was a reflection of the truth of my views; I believe that the examples portrayed in the novel represent individuals, not the society as a whole.
Q: As a correspondent, do you prefer to remain in Saudi Arabia because of the lack of competition here?
A: I came to Saudi several times as a temporary correspondent and during the Iraqi war I lived here then returned later. Saudi Arabia is a good environment for news and increasingly, there are a number of changes, other than it being an economic force that plays a political role in the region.
Q: Many correspondents from Reuters and other news agencies, corporations and international television news channels choose to remain here on a temporary basis, or to reside outside Saudi Arabia and carry out their job duties from abroad; why do you think this is the case?
A: I don’t think I am the only correspondent here; there was Dominique Evens, Miriam Esa, and Mona Maqli before me, as well as several other correspondents. I think issuing permits to operate foreign news agency offices used to necessitate a lot of procedures in the past, which is why many television channels and news agencies favored setting-up offices in the neighboring countries, however, currently, there are numerous media corporations who are establishing representative offices here, and that is a step we pioneered.
Q: Can the truth be monitored from abroad?
A: I do not think that working and following up on events from abroad allows for full credibility, and I say “full” as one must track the truth from its source and beyond, when one wants to remain as close as possible to reality – one must live and be aware of all the contextual and tangential issues that surround the news, as well as its consequences and background for the writing to be objective and credible.
Q: Your reports tackle many of the social aspects in the Saudi community, reaching all sectors of society; from officials, citizens and religious leaders, is that hard to achieve?
A: As I mentioned before, we had numerous correspondents here who have networked with their sources and built relationships with distinguished figures and Saudi officials a long time ago. As for me, I regularly check Arab newspapers, news agencies and Saudi TV, I also have several sources who can help lead me to the sources I want to get in touch with. I am Muslim and I speak Arabic fluently, I feel close to the Saudi community and have Saudi friends who are very friendly and enjoy talking to the press.
Q: What about the mashayekh (Religious Authorities), do you actually contact them directly or do you rely on secondary sources written about them?
A: If I use a statement quoted from one of the mashayekh in a particular newspaper, I include the name of the source; but if I have spoken directly to him, there is no need for that. I have contacts that enable me to get in touch with a number of religious leaders and Islamic thinkers.
Q: Do personal feuds exist among news correspondents, as is generally the case in the media field?
A: Certainly, there exist sensitivities in the media environment but it is governed and controlled. Sometimes these afflictions originate out of competition and professional jealousy, which is an incentive to excel in performance, but in the event when matters get out of hand, the institution or press agency will suffer.
Q: Your presence in most parts of the Arab world must have been a reason for you to write your book Pop Culture Arab World! What did you want to communicate by writing this book?
A: I wanted to emphasize the bright and distinguished elements in Arab culture, based on my experience, readings, and my journalistic work in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Al Sham and the Gulf region. I compiled all my experiences and into one book where I focused on similarities in the Arab identity (in terms of Oriental music, cinema and various arts…) – the Arab world is full of charms that many in the western world do not comprehend.