We recently spoke with the Pakistani-Briton, one of the most trusted journalists in the world who has covered seminal global events for the BBC. Excerpts:
How did you come into journalism?
I interned at Pakistan’s The News when I was 18. I still remember the excitement of seeing my byline for the first time, although obviously I was entrusted only with the simplest and most straightforward stories. Then while I was reading law at Cambridge, I wrote to the BBC’s legal affairs correspondent who agreed to let me shadow him for a day or two. That was the first time I ever came to the BBC newsroom. I knew it was for me.
Has being a woman proved an impediment in your coverage of warzones?
When I met the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller whose self-immolation began the protests in Tunisia, I told her: I am also a mother and while I cannot know the depths of her pain at losing her child, I do understand how powerful the emotions of a mother are. In Libya, I felt the same when I met mothers and wives and daughters of those who had disappeared in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Being a woman has opened doors and helped me make connections with people.
Are ratings something you consider when picking stories to cover?
I genuinely don’t think much about ratings. That’s not to say I am not pleased to see figures about BBC World News’s audience reach rising. But when I get to the newsroom in the mornings, I try to put myself in the place of someone watching our program and think ‘how can we make the news of the day as compelling as possible.’ Some days the news tells itself. But it’s the quiet days that are the most rewarding because you have the scope to take a broader look at the news agenda and chase a story or guest you might not have had time for on a busier day.
How do you view journalists sometimes becoming part of the story?
There is a greater acceptance today of bringing something of yourself to the story. When I was in Pakistan for the 60th anniversary of independence, I made a film that included the story of my own family’s journey in 1947. The challenge is to connect with the story but preserve your objectivity. Empathy for your fellow human beings is essential to your capacity for telling their stories. However the journalist’s job is not that of a campaigner or lobbyist or aid worker.
How has the industry changed since you started out?
When I joined the BBC newsroom in 1998, cutting pictures or producing graphics on your desktop was unthinkable. Now every producer has that capability. Today, we can conduct interviews on Skype, go live from a far off location with little more than a laptop, find contributors via Twitter and use material our audiences send to us. The frustration comes from the flipside of the coin, when a story is taking place in a part of the world to which journalists have little access, like Saudi Arabia for instance.
How do you wall yourself off emotionally from the tragedies and disasters you report on?
There are days when the pictures we have seen on air have been heartbreaking and overwhelming—the Haiti earthquake, the Pakistan floods, the Syrian conflict. It used to get me down until one day a colleague said to me ‘a tough day in the newsroom makes me so grateful for the life I lead.’ I realized that was the right attitude to have. Now, after a day like that, I count my blessings and hold my children tighter at bedtime.
From our July 5, 2013, issue.