In Conversation with Riz Khan

In Conversation with Riz Khan

In an interaction with Riz Khan, international journalist, television host, and author, who has formerly been with BBC World, CNN International, and Al Jazeera English, he shares his view on what he believes constitutes good journalism, and also perspective for journalists everywhere on how they can live up to the high ideals of the profession.

“Having an argument with someone is not how I define journalism – and, sadly, today we have a huge market for such argumentative journalism.”

“I know many people who have fat bank balances but very empty hearts, and I wouldn’t want to be in that position, so it’s my reality check.”

What do you have to say about the Indian media turning so opinionated?

In my view, the term “media” has now changed. Media 25-30 years ago meant something different, with clearly defined outlets such as newspapers, radio and TV, and the absence of any social media or citizen journalism. I believe it is very important that journalists covering stories and news events should not express opinions in their reporting. My training at the BBC was intense and extensive, and emphasized that particular edict.  I was accepted onto a two-year news trainee scheme, where we experienced all aspects of the news and current affairs divisions of the BBC, and in all cases, reporting was about facts and figures – not commentary and opinion. That was left to the guests and interviewees who were brought on for that reason. The very structured training I had has very much stuck with me. I joke that the BBC “beat journalism” into me, and then CNN taught me how to deal with chaos, once I was thrust into the world of breaking news.

For newspapers in Britain at the time, it was different. They could editorialise. For us, as broadcast journalists, it was simply about staying clear of adjectives and simply focusing on straightforward reporting. I never heard any of my colleagues ever saying, “I think – or in my opinion”. That is why, to this day, I still wince when I see this happening in mainstream TV journalism news.

Sometimes interviewers with the aggressive argumentative style end up asking questions as long as the guests’ answers – or longer. On one of the channels in which I worked; someone timed the journalist and the guest during an interview, and found that in the 23-24 minute slot for the discussion, the interviewer had almost 14 minutes and the interviewee had just 10 or so minutes. This illustrates how there is something wrong with today’s media and, so, I am not a big fan of the sadly large number of tabloid journalists on TV these days.

In the 1970s, in Britain, there was Sir Robin Day, who was a bit of an exception in that he was far more aggressive with his interview style. He was considered the Grand Inquisitor for his cutting and tenacious interviewing style. In contrast, around the same time, there was Alan Whicker, who was a journalist travelling the world, telling stories about people.

I was more inspired by Whicker’s style of interviewing because it was more conversational. I still feel that if questions are phrased the right way, backed with a lot of research and information about the subject and the guest, it is far easier to get to the heart of the story and get the most information out during the interview.

Having an argument with someone is not how I define journalism – and, sadly, today we have a huge market for such argumentative journalism. Combative journalism, which is becoming common, is usually more about arguing than discussing a subject comprehensively, and often serves no purpose other than to entertain people with a good “fight” at best. It is really more about who can argue the most effectively and be more assertive. There is often not a lot of room for detailed and incisive discussion.

While at Al Jazeera English, I had a show called, “One on One”, where I did a lot of interviews about the life stories of well-known people – getting them to talk intimately about their history, achievements and goals. I love to do such interviews, where I can discover something about someone. It takes a lot of research to truly know the guest and to get into their space. I aim to do that and bring out the most interesting information.

What is your opinion about journalists who are pre-occupied with their own views even before interviewing a person?

It certainly is not the journalism I was taught. The trouble is that such journalists are coming in with not only a predetermined position which they are expecting the interviewee to validate it, but they often approach an interview with the idea of sensationalizing the story. It’s pointless coming to an interview with someone like George W. Bush, and expecting him to agree with you saying something like, “Well, you led an evil war, and had a right-wing extremist government.”

If I had to interview George W. Bush, I would prefer to challenge him with well-thought out questions and hear what he has to say in response. I am not there to tell him what I think he should have done as President or to express my opinion about him.

Attribution is important too – stating how the information being presented has been carefully acquired, processed, and handled. Sadly, many journalists today are taking shortcuts and not attributing their statements in any way and, often, they are not doing enough research to validate their position. It is just for the sake of creating a sound bite, but they forget that a sound bite, taken out of context, is wrong.

The number of interruptions you see in TV journalism are not healthy, and the trouble is that interviewers are not giving their guests a chance to speak. This is not journalism to me.  This is stupidity. Unfortunately, even smart people do this a lot and too many viewers want to watch such combats on TV.

If I were an interviewee in that position, I would ask the interrupting interviewer outright, “Are you going to let me speak?” My position as an interviewee is about having the chance to speak and answer the question posed to me. I don’t desire to have stupid arguments with someone who doesn’t listen to or understand what I am saying because they are too busy following their own misplaced agenda.

Could you brief us with the problems associated with the channels you have worked?

I’m not sure I would call them problems as such, but if you ask me the challenges that the various channels I’ve known have presented, it would mostly come down to issues of the quality of management. The BBC, for example, is like a large ship, which could often make it feel like a lumbering bureaucracy that is slow to change and keep up with the times. Having said that, it is still, to a large degree, the bastion of good journalism and a remarkable organization that is nearly one hundred years old. It is facing the challenge of diminishing funds that it has split into too many directions – too many channels – in my opinion. There’s less opportunity for quality when everyone is scrambling for resources. CNN on the other hand is fully focussed on being commercial.  It has the challenge of having to make money, which is traditionally a difficult proposition out of news. Somehow it has managed to do so and has built an incredible brand. The trouble is that it is very high pressure and the “people factor” often gets forgotten. The staff end up becoming “warm bodies” – simply filling in shifts to make the big machine work. The burn-out factor is high. Al Jazeera English, which I helped to set up, is a mix of the BBC and CNN in that many of the staff came from those channels and the style of journalism is more like the BBC with an edgier feel closer to CNN. The channel has a lot of resources and can achieve big things that way but has still to sort out issues of negative brand perception in the West, which is a shame because the channel is often misrepresented and misunderstood in the Western media. Having said that, management there is often in turmoil and the morale of the staff has taken a big hit – especially in light of the very expensive venture of launching Al Jazeera America, which has really struggled to get anywhere.

Do you think media nowadays has become a battle of TRPs?

Ratings have a different meaning now. The newer areas of information dissemination, such as social media and citizen journalists, have had a big impact on how the public perceives news. The traditional media, television, radio, and print, may still depend a lot on ratings, especially to generate advertising revenue, but even that is slipping downhill in the face of on-demand media such as YouTube channels and on-line media outlets such as the Huffington Post. Imagine… today someone can get a billion hits on YouTube by singing a song in Korean and dancing like they are riding a horse. The fact of the matter is that it’s a different world now and it’s possible to get rated directly by public opinion, with millions of hits and tools such as the optimization of the websites. The internet is quickly becoming far more influential than anything else.

Are journalists who are pre-occupied with their own views getting a lot of push back?

I know when I’m talking to someone from India who raises such an issue, much of that question focuses on journalists like Arnab Goswami. I am aware, through travelling regularly to India, that people love him and hate him often at the same time. He certainly has a presence, and I know he feels he has a particular role to play. When we shared the stage at a media conference last year, we openly discussed our different styles of interviewing. There was mutual respect for how each of us views the job we take on and an understanding in what each of us is trying to achieve. Arnab believes sincerely that there is not enough accountability – and I believe he is absolutely right in that view – so, he says it is his job to put the politicians’ feet to the fire – to challenge them very strongly. Personally, I don’t do such “hard” interviews, largely because I think the kind of reputation I have is more about conversations that draw out information, rather than combative debates. The world of TV journalism has changed a lot and there are people who want to see Arnab Goswami test politicians in the toughest way possible.

The BBC had, until recently, Jeremy Paxman, as one of the leading interviewers who did extremely tough interviews with politicians. His style was different from that of Arnab Goswami – but he did “go for the throat” in challenging the political world and became hugely successful or it. Jeremy is a very talented journalist, incredibly smart, and very well-educated. Plus, he comes to his interviews and tackles his subject in a very informed manner. I have a huge respect for him and I always remember working with him when he was a newsreader and show host in local TV while I was a trainee at the BBC.

As I say, times have changed since then. My style of journalism maybe a little outdated now, although, I hope not because I think there is still a majority of people who want to see intelligent journalism that does not have to turn to screaming and shouting. Maybe there is room for both nowadays.

Robert Fisk, an incredibly talented journalist, whom I also respect immensely, told me when I interviewed him that there is no room for avoiding the tough issues – whatever the medium. He is a print journalist with incredible experience and does a lot of commentary on news and current affairs and is known, for example, for his strong opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.  He described how he had to crawl over bodies following the massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese at the Sabra and Shatila camps, in Beirut, in September 1982, and said that there is no room for reporting that story without the true horror of what happened. His perspective came across to me as recognizing that times have changed so much that, perhaps, there is no room for simple reporting any more – that journalists have to start using adjectives to describe such horrors.

The extent to which adjectives are used and journalists start to take positions is, I guess, what concerns me. It could mean the broadcasting media changing into mouthpieces for political parties – which is already happening in some places that are meant to be free of any such influences. 

Could you suggest a few measures as to check such kind of opinionated journalism?

Checks and balances come to some degree from the regulators of media in each country, who determine what is permissable and what is not. For example, laws the prevent incitement to racial hatred, or blasphemy, and so on. In Britain, for example, there are fairly established rules about political interviews during times of election, in order to prevent the media favouring one political party over another. However, checks and balances, more and more, come from public demand. The opinions and demands of people – who are consumers and voters – can have a big influence on how the media is shaped. I worry, though, that people are essentially passive and simply take what is given to them on a plate. That way, those who control the media control the public.

Still, on a day-to-day basis, when it comes to journalism, a simple tool for challenging an interviewer who might have an agenda is to simply challenge him or her back. If they are genuinely challenged and have no real clue as to the depth of the story or the details nad history of the subject, it shows they have no real understanding of the situation and are simply taking a position for whatever personal or professional reason. It is true that we, as journalists in broadcasting, are often thrown in the deep end with little information. I’ve done breaking news stories where I start off with little information or background, and have to learn as I go. In that case, I think the responsibility of the journalist is to not pretend to know everything. They have to be honest and approach the story with integrity – not a sense of superiority and having to know everything. Honesty brings credibility.

Today what happens in media is that many of the people working in it want to brand themselves and place themselves into celebrity culture. A reality check is necessary for everyone. I don’t need to try and prove myself to be better than anyone else – I just have to do the best job I can. Too many people try to consider themselves elite.

Personally, I enjoy being part of the real world and being connected with it.  I iron my own shirts – and I am happy to do it because it gives me time to think.  I am very content in doing everyday things that engage me with my family and friends, such as going to the movies instead of desperately wanting to do something that will put me in the limelight or make lots of money. I actually have greater satisfaction going to watch an animated movie with my young daughter than having to sit among Prime Ministers and Presidents at a gala dinner. I get to do such things as part of my work, but it’s more fun to see my child laugh and giggle at something silly because I also enjoy it. I do not see any benefit in simply accumulating wealth. It is better to accumulate great experiences. I know many people who have fat bank balances but very empty hearts, and I wouldn’t want to be in that position, so it’s my reality check.

Could you tell us something about your book?

I have written a couple of books. The first was, “Alwaleed: Businessman, Billionaire, Prince”, which was published in October 2005. It started out as a documentary and turned into a written biography on Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is the biggest foreign investor in the USA and was, at the time, the fourth richest man on the Forbes List. In writing at such length – around 135,000 words when I first completed it – I had to change from my broadcast writing style that was largely free of adjectives. In fact, I had to go back into the book and start adding adjectives! I think visually and tend to write that way too, which is probably closer to a film script. I have had to learn to write more creatively with descriptive text.

The second book has only been e-published on Amazon so far. It is a romantic comedy spoof, with a bit of drama, based on an international news channel. That was a lot of fun to write. I would love to turn that into a movie. I also want to write a lot more. 

Could you tell us how media should actually work and how it will evolve over a period of time?

I am certainly not the one to determine how media will end up and, considering the incredible changes in just the past decade, it is almost impossible to see how it will end up. Technology is changing all the time and that is a big factor. Plus, the public is far more involved in terms of wanting and consuming content on demand rather than adhering to traditional “appointment” viewing where people sat down at a particular time in the evening to watch news.

Still, there are basically there are two considerations needed. One is that training for journalists has really diminished and needs to be boosted. That is crucial, especially with all the sources of information from around the world now available at the touch of a button on a computer. I think journalists should be taught how to research better without being influenced by limiting themselves to just one or two sources, often with a limited viewpoint. People tend to be lazy which is a bad thing.

The other consdieration, which may even be more crucial, is that people – starting at an early age – should be taught how to filter what they read, especially online. They have to learn to discern the sources of information comprehensively. I remember hearing a lecture from an excellent speaker called Julian Sher, about how important it is to research properly when trying to get information. People are prone to believing everything – and don’t look beyond a couple of sites for their information. He gave some great examples of this, and the one that stuck with me was about a website on the black American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. The article started out sounding very positive about him, but gradually – and very cleverly – it started to question his mission and views and eventually started to portray him as a very negative character. It turned out that the sitewas created by a neo-Nazi, white supremacist group. So, it is really important to teach the younger generation how to filter their information.

What do you have to say about people getting so influenced by the media?

Today the news can actually set the agenda and that is the problem. If people don’t question what and whom they are watching, then they cannot filter and discern with any real sense. We can all be lazy and gullible and this is why so many online networks do so well. They are happy to guide us to what they want us to see. Though it can be entertaining it is not generally educating. We are, as a population, sinking into the workd of infotainment, and advertorials. It’s a real shame.

How can we make people aware about this?

As I mentioned earlier, education is the key. I think it has to start in schools from an early age. There are so many things that will change our lives, but only at the mercy of those who filter information for us. That leads to the whole issue of how we get information, how we filter it, and then how we are able to judge it. This kind of education is necessary for journalists too. It’s all about education and training. If we start with the young, there might still be something left of the real media in the future.

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