Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Q & A with the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Q) You worked in ITV and in Channel 4 before you joined the BBC, what are the main differences that you have noted between those channels?

A) The news values are very similar. However, the main difference is that working at the BBC you are part of a larger family. In ITV on the other hand, you are just a member of the news team. To make this point clear, in the BBC I am not just a presenter. I get the chance to do many other things like special coverages and as you know, I sometimes present “Hard Talk”.

Q) What is the difference between working with a commercial channel such as Channel 4, and working with public media institutions like the BBC?

A) When Channel 4 was first launched it had a public service mandate as well, it is only in the past few years that it has gone commercial. In 1982 when it began, as part of its charter, it had to cover stories, which were in the public interest. I would not say that at any time that I worked on the program, that it was commercially driven.

Q) What do you think of the comments of some people regarding the changes in the program “Hard Talk” after Tim Sebastian’s departure, some now believe that the show should now named “Soft Talk”?

A) I present the news four times a week. so I only present ‘Hard Talk’ occasionally, as the main anchor and host now is Steven Sackur. To answer your question, Tim Sebastian was undoubtedly astounding. However, let us not forget that he had been presenting the show for eight years and it is a tough show to present. Steven had imprinted his personality on the show recently, which differs to that of Tim, and everyone should maintain his or her unique style. On the other hand, by following the responses that Steven and I get from the viewers, I can say that we are doing well. It is also different these days as we now have to record four episodes a week. It is rather difficult to find officials or policy makers to fill four interview slots each week. In addition, sometimes, it may be naïve to be tough on a writer or an activist in an NGO for example because he may be not responsible or may not hold the decision-making powers.

Q) You were lucky to work with the prominent Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow. How do you describe your experience with him?

A) He was a lovely man and he is still going strong. I believe the greatest lesson I learned from him was that you have to be very enthusiastic, as he has a tremendous enthusiasm for the job. He has been working in the media for about 30 years and he has never lost that capacity to be interested in the news. He has a big interest in people, and he cares about the stories that he covers. Recently he visited Africa and did a program about Malaria. I think I do share this enthusiasm with him.

Q) Since you mentioned Africa, it is interesting that you originate from Sudan. This means that you combine both the African and the Arab origins. These two areas are particularly important in media at present. Do you think your ethnic roots helped you in understanding the region more?

A) I was born in Sudan but I lived in Britain since the age of two. At that time, it was not like today where there are many Arabic speakers and many schools where you can learn the language. However, my parents had always spoken to us in Arabic at home, which means I do speak the language intuitively and people understand me when I go to the Arab world, but I don’t speak “Fus-ha” (Classical Arabic). Undoubtedly speaking a language gives you a huge insight to the way people think and you empathize with them. I would say my background has made it easier for me to understand, what is for many people, a very difficult and complex part of the world that is the Middle East. In addition, my studies at university also concentrated on the Middle East, so I managed to combine an interest that I had growing up with a formal education.

Q) Do you think that your origins were important in the decision to employ you at the BBC. In other words, do you think they saw in your origin as a benefit since you know this area more than others do?

A) I started work in the British TV since the 80’s. The first job I got was in fact at ITV in Leeds. My background was not really relevant. I suspect that the British Media is aware of diversity; certainly here, at the BBC it is important that the workforce reflect society. I would actually say that the fact that I was a member of the British ethnic minorities was more relevant than the fact that I was a member of the British Arab African community.

Q) In this respect, how do you compare the French media with the British?

A) I think that is a good comparison to make because if you look at Britain and France, we have a similar population numbers and in Britain, the number of ethnic minorities is about 8% of the population. In France, being officially color blind they do not compile a census but estimates for the non-white population in France is estimate between 15-20% which is a large amount of people, including 6 million Muslims.

If you look at institutions in France, including the media it is appalling how white they are. In Britain, we have had somebody (non-white) reading the national news since the early eighties, whereas in France, they have only had one person read the news on national TV, a woman from Martinique called Audrey Pulvar. So, if you look at the French media compared to the British media, it is appalling. President Jack Chirac is aware of this and he said, after the riots (which occurred recently), that he wants the media in France to become more diverse, but they have a very long way to go. In Britain, it is much better and every network has non-white faces.

I would say this in reference to the media, that there are two aspects to how diversity is covered in the media anywhere in a multi-cultural society. It is not just important to have people visibly appearing in the media like me, you also have to have them behind the scenes where they exercise some sort of impact on the agenda. For example, in France, I have actually met this woman who reads the news and she said that when the riots broke out that she felt very uncomfortable that the picture being shown of non-white people in France were just of criminals throwing stones and setting vehicles alight. She did not like the stereotype and feels that the content in the French media about non-white people in France is quite negative. This is something we have to be careful of in the media of Britain and anywhere else in Europe that the actual portrayal of people in news stories is done in the way that reflect the true picture. When you look at the way that Muslims are depicted in the British media, you have to be careful that you do not just show Abu Hamza with the hook and the bad eye as the picture of Muslims because this feeds Islamaphobia.

Q) Have you sensed any prejudice against Arabs in light of all the abundant accusations to such effect against the western media?

A) I think actually the BBC in particular and even in the Channel 4 when I was there, they do understand the issues if the Middle East quite well including the Arab-Israeli conflict because Britain was the colonial power at the time. I actually think there was greater degree of understanding here then any other Western media because of the Arabist tradition in Britain.

This Arabist tradition goes very far, you see it in the foreign office, in the media totally that the Middle East, the Arab world gets a lot of coverage, in fact people often complain that we don’t cover parts of Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia which are also Muslim with quite the same degree. Obviously, there was a conflict going on between the Palestinians and Israelis and television as a whole has an in-built bias towards covering conflicts wherever they are, Africa, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. This means that the Middle East has been covered continuously for a long time.

To be fair, I would actually say the coverage is balanced on the whole. I would say that certainly we get as many complaints from the Israelis saying we are biased towards the Palestinians as we do get complaints from the Palestinians saying we are biased towards the Israelis. I think when you get that equal response it shows that you are being even-handed. We have always covered the area very well and I would say that the content is balanced. It shows the frustration of the Palestinians, the Intifada was covered, any killings of civilians by Israeli security forces such as the nine-year-old boy which became a real big issue a few years ago, as well as suicide bombing by Palestinian groups against Israelis. The Palestinians have become more cooperative with the media lately.

Q) So you advise Arab officials to “meet the press” more often?

A) Definitely. The Arab officials and decision makers should submit themselves to the Western media and press more often. Radio journalists are luckier in that sense because sometimes all what is required is for the official to talk over the phone. The logistics of coming to a studio and other bothers makes it more difficult for TV journalists.

Q) What are your comments on the crisis caused by the cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)?

A) Since 9/11 there has been a shift in the way Muslims are depicted in the Western media and not always for the better, not just in the BBC but also in all Western media. A firm stand must be taken against this. The moderate Muslims on the other hand, should condemn prejudice more because their ways are better than that of the extremists. They should also condemn violent ways of expressing protest. It is good that some Muslims announce that they are against the cartoons but also condemn the London explosions for example and do not raise a banner that says, “I love Al- Qaeda.”

Q) It has been announced that the BBC Arabic satellite channel will be launched soon. What will be distinct about it and will you be joining that team?

A) I am happy that this channel is being launched and that there are many Arabs who are eagerly await it in the Middle East. BBC Arabic will of course build on the reputation of the BBC’s World Service Radio. It will also build on the giant network of BBC correspondents, which is the largest worldwide. There are very few areas that are not covered by the BBC throughout the world. As for my participation in the Arabic channel, I think this will not be possible as my Arabic is not at the required level.

* Badawi is a prominent figure in British media and is the presenter of “The World” on BBC World and BBC 4.