You are a broadcast journalist for BBC World News. What does that entail?
This is quite a wide-ranging role, but essentially I’m preparing material to be broadcast around the world. I have to put together news sequences, write and voice up packages, and arrange for guests to come on our programmes.
What is a 'typical day' like?
At the moment, I’m working as the overnight reporter for BBC World News. It’s great, but it means my sleeping pattern is the exact opposite to everyone else!
I’m in the newsroom by 9pm and spend the first hour ‘reading in’, which means looking at what stories are making news and what has been broadcast on the channel during the day. We then have a meeting to discuss how we can put together all the top news stories for a global audience.
After that, I make a quick visit to the dressing rooms to have my hair styled and make up done.
Then the hard work begins! I typically have to put together a news package for the 2am news bulletin. This is usually the top story for the day. Then later, I often write and produce another piece – this is sometimes a lighter, more fun story.
And if there’s any breaking news in the middle of the night, then I’m expected to join the presenter in our studio to talk about it.
I usually finish work and head home around 7am.
You’re hostile-environment trained. What does it mean and why is it important?
If you want to go and report from a conflict zone, it is essential that you go on a hostile-environment course. This is typically a week-long training programme that tries to prepare you for what it will be like in a war area. You’re trained in first aid, key survival tactics, what to do when faced with gunfire, explosions and even getting kidnapped.
Which story or stories are you most proud to have covered?
There are many, from the war in Iraq to the 2010 Football (Soccer) World Cup in South Africa. But if I were to choose one story, it would be the article I wrote on child labour in Pakistan. I was on assignment there for Reuters in 2012 and I was struck by the number of children I saw working. After the piece was published, readers got in touch, wanting to sponsor the children I had written about. For me, that’s what being a journalist is about: covering stories that make some sort of difference or impact.
Before the BBC, you worked for Reuters. You were their Iraq correspondent for two years. What did that entail?
I spent two years in Iraq, reporting on the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the political aftermath. I covered a wide range of stories, from the volatile security situation and almost daily bombings, to the state of the country’s oil economy and its humanitarian crisis.
Your previous posting was in South Africa. What was working there like?
This was my first job as a journalist. I actually started as an equities correspondent for Reuters there, covering banking and insurance companies. But then I started to do more of the political stories – covering elections in Botswana and the rise to power of Jacob Zuma as South Africa’s president. I also got to travel on assignments to Senegal, Zambia and Swaziland. It was great.
All your jobs have been reporting in foreign countries. Why this choice?
It was actually all unplanned! I did some work experience for Reuters in London but then got an internship with the company in South Africa, and later, a permanent job. My subsequent assignments across southern and west Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan, all just happened. I didn’t really extensively plan for them.
You hold a BA in journalism from Rhodes University. How do you use it in your career?
Studying for a Bachelor of Journalism degree at Rhodes gave me the chance to delve into media ethics and some of the core issues of how to cover news in an accurate and objective fashion. We were also given the opportunity to do a lot of practical work – I was news editor for the student paper, hosted and produced my own radio show for four years and helped co-ordinate a national conference that worked on building stronger tied between journalism students and the media industry.
You’ve covered a mix of political and financial news. How do you train to do both?
My mentor at Reuters, Michael Georgy, always told me that I should get a good grasp of covering financial news, as understanding the economy of a country was key to covering its political issues. He was right. I didn’t know much about financial journalism when I started, but I learnt on the job, through asking senior journalists and meeting with analysts and traders to understand what makes the banking industry tick. In turn, the grounding I had in financial journalism helped me in being concise and accurate, as well as quick, in covering political news.
You speak six languages. How is it helpful in your career?
There is no substitute for being able to speak directly to someone when you are doing a story. Understanding their language gives you a different kind of insight into their experiences. Plus it allows you to make a direct connection with the person, rather than relying on an interpreter.
What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career path?
Don’t let anyone put you down because you’re a woman. I’ve worked in tough conditions and been in situations where I’m the only woman surrounded by men. I haven’t let that intimidate me. Know what you want and go for it.
Being a female journalist gives you more access to do certain stories and to speak to women in countries where they are usually kept behind closed doors. Use this to your advantage to cover those stories about women and children that are important but not told as often.
Why did you want to be a journalist?
I’ve always had a passion for news and wanted to be a journalist from the age of seven! But I’d say the turning point was September 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. I was in high school at the time and I remember rushing home each day, switching on the news and watching it thinking, I should be there, covering the story! This feeling only grew stronger, especially after reading journalist Kate Adie’s book The Kindness of Strangers.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing that you still use today?
As I mentioned, my first job was with Reuters in the Johannesburg bureau. I learnt how to break news accurately and quickly, to write well under pressure and to be fast when reporting out in the field. Reuters was a great learning ground for me. I still use all the skills I learnt there.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
The most rewarding aspect is getting the chance to get to the heart of a story. To be the person finding things out, being able to interview key leaders and question them on issues that matter to society. Of course, getting to travel the world too is an incredible privilege.
But journalism isn’t always as glamorous as it may appear. There’s a lot of waiting around, often on the side of a road! And one of the hardest challenges for me is balancing my want to get out there and tell the story and trying not to put too much strain on my loved ones, who stress every time I'm in a region where there's conflict. As many journalists say: no story is worth dying for, but you do at times have to take some risks to tell the world what is going on.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
A passion for telling stories; curiosity about the world; an interest in news and politics.
I've always been an avid reader and from a very young age, my favourite pastime was to sit and read the newspaper from cover to cover. I love learning about different cultures and talking to people. You never know what stories they may tell you. So read as much as you can, look at things with an open mind, and don't ever stop asking questions!
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
That even in the midst of despair and loss, you have to be able to keep it together when you’re covering a story.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
I was in Iraq and there had been an attack on a government building in Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit. My colleague, Sabah al-Bazee, was there, covering the story. We had only just finished speaking to him when minutes later, another colleague of mine learnt he had been killed in an explosion there. The entire newsroom went silent. The most difficult thing was that we had to keep going, reporting the story and doing our job. It was only that evening, when I left the office that I was able to sit and properly mourn for him.
Just a few days earlier, Sabah had been in our Baghdad newsroom, laughing and joking with all of us. He had such a zest for life; despite all the war and devastation he had covered in his young life. That's how I'll always remember him.
What achievements are you most proud of?
My two-year assignment in Iraq had a big impact on me. I'd followed the 2003 U.S-led invasion closely and it was an incredible moment for me when I found out I had been selected for the Baghdad posting. I was one of the youngest foreign reporters to cover the war, aged 25.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
My parents are my biggest role models. I had an incredible upbringing – raised in London, Johannesburg and Athens, with ties to Kenya and Pakistan as well. They taught me to always give of my all in anything I choose to do, to be passionate and to never give up. And above all, to be a good human being, warm and compassionate towards others. They inspire me on a daily basis.
"If you want to go and report from a conflict zone, it is essential that you go on a hostile-environment course. "
"Don’t let anyone put you down because you’re a woman."
"Even in the midst of despair and loss, you have to be able to keep it together when you’re covering a story."
"The grounding I had in financial journalism helped me in being concise and accurate, as well as quick, in covering political news"
"Studying for a Bachelor of Journalism degree at Rhodes gave me the chance to delve into media ethics and some of the core issues of how to cover news in an accurate and objective fashion."
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
Copyright © 2016, Women in Foreign Policy. All rights reserved.