Get up, go out and get it done!
Interview with Jamsheda Young
You’re the first Muslim woman to be appointed to BBC World News’ team as an Assistant Editor. Can you describe your career progression to this point?
It’s been hard work and nothing has progressed in a straight line! I’ve had to develop a thick skin, and learn how to keep going even when I wanted to give up, or felt as though I wasn’t good enough. Self-doubt is normal and while confidence can be faked, it’s fragile. I’ve had to learn to be resilient, which often just means trusting in yourself to get up, go out, do the work and get through it as best you can. Journalism is a tough profession, and you must never compare your journey to others’ – the minute you try to ape someone else to get the career they have, you’ve lost yourself. There is no career path to follow. More than ever, the industry needs people who will stay authentic in order to truly deliver diverse and inclusive journalism. That means be yourself, follow your own path and never change who you are to fit in. And don’t give up!
I joined BBC World News in the week of 9/11, when the channel really began to come into its own. The world was looking for answers – and it wasn’t getting them from many other places. But even then, as a newbie, I noticed that the majority of voices on air came from the West. I thought, for a global channel, we could do better. I made some suggestions to improve our output; looking at stories from a more global perspective. Change didn’t happen overnight, but I knew my suggestions were worth pursuing. I was new to the team, so a big part of change was learning more about my craft and looking at ways to adapt my suggestions, so that they appealed to senior news editors. It took patience and tenacity, but it’s about knowing your audience – internally and externally.
Over the next 19 years, I kept my head down and worked really hard. I thought, at one stage, I could become an on-screen reporter, since I had presented and reported for radio, but you need a different kind of self-belief and single-mindedness to pursue that as a career. You really have to want it. Instead I set out to become the best journalist I could be.
I spent six months with the BBC World Service working on Newshour, then a year and a half on Newsnight. Hard work paid off, and I was promoted to senior journalist at BBC World News in 2005. Over the years I’ve had the absolute honour to work with legendary journalists such as Lyse Doucet, whom I accompanied to Afghanistan. I’ve travelled to Germany for work a few times, and because I lived there when I was younger, I spoke the language well enough to do simultaneous interpreting for interviews and press conferences. I’ve also covered stories in India, Bangladesh, Singapore and the Philippines, and covered international summits in Spain and the UK.
Before joining BBC World News, I learned my trade in local radio where, in those days, you really earned peanuts. My starting salary for my first job in journalism was £11,000, but I was passionate about the job, and I could live on what I earned (this was outside London, I was eating very little, renting a bedsit, and cycling everywhere). You learn to adapt and apply the same skills whether you’re a beat reporter in Coventry or a field producer in Afghanistan.
All the clichés you hear about how people of colour have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as anyone else – I’m afraid it’s true. But things are changing. We need to remember to be brave: to stick our heads above the parapet. Imposter syndrome, feelings of not being good enough, can make you paranoid about your work. But there’s a silver lining in that I was really thorough. I would check and re-check my work over and over to avoid criticism. I learned from every mistake and experience, good or bad. Every time I thought I could handle a situation, a new challenge I hadn’t anticipated would arise. This still happens – I’ve just had to develop the habit of dealing with it as it comes.
What drew you into journalism in the first place? How do you believe that journalism can create a positive impact on the world?
I really was inspired by my father – it’s a cliché but I really did always want to be like him. He came from rural Bangladesh and ended up working for international organisations, travelling the world, even beyond the Iron Curtain, as it was called in those days. My siblings and I missed him so much growing up: after what seemed like only a few days at home with us, he would leave because he felt other people elsewhere in the world needed him more.
Beyond his religious duty, he believed that his life and the good fortune and opportunities he’d received gave him a sense of purpose – to make a difference, and change the world for the better. I thought his life was impossibly glamorous – he had a clear humanitarian mission, and as children we only ever experienced him in short doses, between trips. I even followed in his footsteps in going to the same university as him, the London School of Economics.
He was very religious and, although I’m not, a lesson I still keep with me today is the true meaning of jihad. For my father jihad was all about striving to be a better person today than you were yesterday. He set high standards for himself, and had high expectations of us. He also believed in ‘simple living, high thinking’, which I hated as a teenager because it meant the TV was kept in a locked cupboard. We rarely got new clothes, we weren’t allowed to go to the hairdressers or to go on holiday to the seaside, or any of those normal, fun things teenagers were allowed to do. It was basically a standard, conservative Muslim immigrant upbringing. My sister and I would spend weeks pleading to be allowed to go to a matinée at the National Theatre. In contrast, my younger brother was able to go to see rappers performing at the Brixton Academy.
I didn’t fall into journalism straight away. I was very rebellious and left the family home to live in Germany in my early twenties. My father and I didn’t speak to each other for seven years. But I found out that he’d still supported me behind the scenes – he had paid off my student loan before I left for Germany, and also paid the tuition fees when I returned to the UK after winning a place to study for a journalism diploma.
Growing up, my sister and I would discuss politics constantly. We read newspapers, literature, anything we could get our hands on. We were both fascinated by what was going on in the world. We would discuss everything around the dinner table. Despite this, I’d actually never thought journalism was an option for me. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. A lawyer was their second choice. I always remembered careers advisors coming to my school when I was 15 or 16, telling us that if we had our hearts set on a career in journalism, that we should forget it unless we were already doing things like editing the school magazine, writing articles, volunteering with local papers. I wrote poems and stories for the school magazine, but that was just for fun.
Years later, when I told my mum I wanted to do a journalism diploma, she said my dad and her both agreed it was not a classy job for a woman because it involved roaming the streets and knocking on people’s doors asking for interviews. That did happen, but it was short-lived, and only right at the beginning of my career!
As someone interested in global news and current affairs, I volunteered with a women’s rights organisation and travelled to a UN conference in Vienna. There was an activists’ newsletter published by an NGO every day during the conference, where I read an article about Islamic fundamentalism. I found myself disagreeing with the author because the article only focused on ideology – it didn’t acknowledge the socio-economic conditions which made fundamentalism so attractive to disillusioned, disenfranchised and frustrated people in society (young men in particular). I wrote a response to that article and it was published in the next newsletter – my first published article at the age of 21. It planted a seed and made me think that perhaps my writing and ideas were good enough.
Did you face any difficulties over your career? How would you describe the landscape for minoritised women in the media?
I think you need to prove yourself every day in journalism. From my experience, minorities are judged differently. Both unconscious and conscious bias is real. If you have beauty and charisma in addition to intelligence, you might have the opportunity to try your luck in front of the camera. But there’s so much more to journalism than being in front of the camera. In fact, we need more diverse faces and voices than ever behind the camera. We need them in technical roles; as camera operators, gallery directors and, of course, in editorial decision-making roles. That’s where the real power lies, that’s where you really have to fight to prove yourself to be good enough to sit at the same table as everyone else. That’s where you decide what to report on, whose stories you tell and how they’re told.
What is the most important aspect of BBC World News’ mission, in your opinion?
To be a journalist is to have power and privilege. It’s a huge responsibility to have a say in what people around the world hear about. My motivation is always to think about why audiences should care about a story: what are we telling them about, and what difference does it make to their lives in understanding our complex world? I’m also very conscious that there is a myriad of sources of news and information now, and so we need to give any viewer a compelling reason to make a choice and tune into us, and keep coming back to us. With every shift I have to ask, did we make the right decisions? Did we do the stories justice? Do we need to follow up?
In a world of fake news, opinion masquerading as fact and barefaced lies, true journalism has become a rare and precious commodity. Our task is to show the world that we ‘do’ journalism, and they should be certain that’s what they’re getting.
What’s the most important story you have covered in your career so far? What’s been your proudest moment in your career so far?
I launched a weekly news and current affairs programme in Bangladesh for the BBC. It was a tough environment to work in; there were a lot of challenges working in such a different environment to London. But, there was no reason to make any compromises editorially, or on health and safety. I wanted the first edition of the programme to really say something about what kind of journalism we were going to do. So, the first edition focused on the security of women and girls.
At that time in Bangladesh, the rate of conviction for sexual assault or rape of women and girls was less than 3% – that’s based on the cases that even went as far as prosecution. The programme addressed the issue as a national emergency. Our main report featured interviews of assault and rape survivors (filmed in such a way and voiced by others to safeguard their anonymity and ongoing safety). I believe this was a first on national television there.
We also spoke to men and women about attitudes towards this issue, as well as lawyers and activists. I invited the justice minister to a live studio interview to come off the back of the report. Before the programme, the presenter and I discussed what we wanted to get out of the interview. I told the presenter to challenge the minister on the so-called ‘two-finger test’ – an archaic procedure survivors were subjected to in order to ascertain whether the girl or woman had been a virgin.
I’d fought to keep the testimony of one of the rape survivors in the report that we were playing out beforehand because she’d said she’d felt she was being assaulted all over again. The presenter pushed the justice minister on this point, and he pledged – on air – that he would conduct a review of the law specifically on the ‘two-finger test’. It showed the power of journalism – a platform to hold those in power to account but also to point out and address injustice.
What do you think will be the most important stories going through 2020, from a global perspective?
This is a big question! Expect the unexpected! No doubt the US presidential election will be a huge story, and the drama could play out over weeks and months if not days. The global pandemic continues to develop around the world, affecting every aspect of our lives – it is far from over and the leadership challenges it has exposed will continue as the story evolves.
Rather than any one event or story, I feel the themes we’ve been grappling with as journalists will continue and become ever more intense. Racism and power inequality, disinformation, the refugee crisis, the search for peace in Afghanistan, human rights for women and girls from around the world, and of course, who can forget Brexit! And what we’ve learned from the last few years is that the unpredictable can and will happen. We have to be prepared to react and respond nimbly, and with a sure footing, when the unanticipated hits us – and try to be ahead of the curve as stories develop.
What do you hope to achieve as Assistant Editor?
My main goal is to inspire people from all walks of life to join me at the table as an assistant editor, camera operator or gallery operator. Too often, I’ve seen people in other departments make it, and then promptly pull the ladder up behind them. I’m determined to flip the script, and change the path, so that it’s easier for more to follow me. And not just in a few weeks or months or years, but now.
To this end, I’ve initiated a series of sessions for colleagues in my team. These sessions are a comfortable and open forum to speak about the racism they’ve experienced and how we should be covering stories. It’s also an opportunity for other colleagues to listen and learn about our experiences.
There are other changes we need to make, not just in recruitment, but also in retention and progression of people from all backgrounds. Often, in journalism, traditionalism prevails, and people with voices and faces that are different from the norm can be left to sink or swim. I’ve been there and it’s tough. We need to embrace those differences and listen to their stories and experiences too. They may have different experiences and can therefore offer a fresh, new perspective that’s revelatory and informative for audiences. We need to look at the potential people have to offer, rather than reserve the opportunities for those who are already on a successful trajectory and are unlikely to need as much encouragement and support.
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted journalism across the world?
It’s been a huge challenge but, on the other hand, it’s also reignited the desire from audiences for truthful, informed reporting, that reflects the global nature of the pandemic – and that’s where my newsroom has stepped in.
On a practical level it has severely curtailed our ability to send teams to the field, with travel restrictions, health and safety concerns and duty of care to our own staff and the public. The whole world has had to adjust to new realities, especially in the way we work – but that means we should appreciate the teams we already have working for us around the world and it’s an opportunity to showcase the talented journalists we have working for us in our bureaux and language services across the world.
Will you be hoping to cover more stories about women in your role?
I never saw my journalism as being particularly niche. If I focused on women, it was because it was interesting and important, and I was sure that audiences would find it equally so. In addition to general news reporting, the more specialised journalism I’ve produced have included segments looking at sexuality in Islam, the taboo around miscarriage and stillbirth, atheism, freedom of artistic expression.
The nature of our war coverage has changed: women and children are on the front-lines, women are fighters, activists, reporters, as well as survivors, so they are front and centre of war reporting too. The BBC is making change in this regard, particularly with the 50/50 initiative which aims to ensure that at least 50% of a programme’s contributors are women, and this is being broadened out to cover other areas of diversity too. I firmly believe that if you have a truly diverse and inclusive newsroom, the output you’ll get will naturally reflect that. That’s the real challenge for newsrooms; output has to be organic and uncontrived and therefore it will be, and this is perhaps the most important point, authentic.