Edward Victor and Sarah Smith interview award-winning Arab Market News CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera journalist, Afshin Rattansi, about newsgathering and his novel, “The Dream of the Decade – The London Novels” published by Booksurge and available on Amazon.com.
Edward Victor: Afshin Rattansi, your new book looks at -among other things- the way news is made in newsrooms. Given that you have worked at three top networks, the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, do you think there has been any change since you wrote your book?
Afshin Rattansi: A character in the third novel of the quartet reappears to work at a large media organization around the time of the war on Yugoslavia. That war was covered in an extraordinary way and was widely criticised afterwards. After all, reporting on hundreds of thousands of people dying in the heart of Europe is what journalism textbooks after World War II were written for and yet, anyone using TV news to find out what happened in Sarajevo would have been confused at best. It was only after the war that some excellent programmes were made.
“The Dream of the Decade” deals with unwitting bias or unwitting lack of balance. Every story was nuanced by the life experiences of the kind of people that get the jobs in newsrooms. Though the book deals with coverage of stories on the environment, healthcare and many other issues, the in-built bias of journalists reaches its apotheosis with regard to war reporting. Whether it be the wars on Latin American states in the 1980s or the war on Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it’s remarkable how hard it is for a viewer to hear a spectrum of views on any war.
Edward Victor: You also started the developing world’s first English language 24 hour satellite TV news and current affairs network, based in the Middle East. As the man in charge, did you use your experience to produce news differently?
Afshin Rattansi: I hope so. Though I was the editor of the channel, there were the constraints any manager would have on the way we broadcast news. Most recently, at the BBC, one realised the constraints on a very well established network when reporting the run-up to the war on Iraq. At the Dubai Channel, we came from a developing world perspective and concentrated on the financial background. “Follow the money” was the watchword when we covered, say the Ethiopia-Eritrea war or the privatisation of natural resource management demanded by the IMF. I always thought it was interesting that Business Week outsold The Economist and that Business Week magazine was often the best source for really getting a balanced view of a story. Everything from the most local – for example, food resources or crime prevention – to the most global – say, Kyoto, the drug trade or nuclear arms – usually has private profit at the heart of it.
Whether it be Hollywood or the matter of Palestine, following the money is a pretty good way for journalists to cover a story…and being very wary of Microsoft’s “copy and paste” functions when allied to Reuters and AP wire stories. Reuters, after all, is mainly a financial services company and though it has excellent journalists, their “daily wraps” of the main stories of the day will not be those that most concern ordinary people, certainly not the greatest proportion of humanity or the greatest audience.
Sarah Smith: Al Jazeera is launching an English language station. The expert on Al Jazeera, Hugh Miles, wrote about (in Al Jazeera : How Arab TV News Challenges America) how the Arabic language station hired you -as an award-winning journalist- once the channel became more successful and wanted to raise its profile. Will you be working for the English language station?
Afshin Rattansi: I certainly haven’t been approached. And whilst I think it has the potential to be something great – even building on the work that developing world international stations have been making since the Dubai Channel – I’m as yet unsure of the direction the channel is taking. They’ve taken on some excellent personnel. I think what will be critical – not only for sound editorial reasons – will be whether they can carve a niche that separates them from industry leaders such as CNN, the BBC and Fox. There are a lot of free-to-air international TV stations, now. But Al Jazeera Arabic was different because its perspective was shared by a swathe of people from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean that just wasn’t compatible with the big corporate names in news.
Sarah Smith: But why have you not wanted to be part of such an exciting project – given your published work on managing start-up TV stations, getting cable access, writing remits and so forth? You were, after all, the first ever English-language recruit to Al Jazeera.
Afshin Rattansi: So far, I’ve already been told that there is no place for me on the network so, obviously, they’ve missed something very important in the start-up of the new channel! But, more seriously, it has to be said that within the industry, there are some great journalists who, I would have thought, would have been ideal recruits. International TV station start-ups are always complex and perhaps management of the new station has a long range plan that involves more commercial BBC-style news at the beginning to gain market access. My first boss at the BBC, Paul Gibbs, is one of the directors of the new channel so I know that they have some heavyweights when it comes to knowing the industry. He will be commissioning programmes and at the BBC Business Unit was known for innovative strands of programming.
Sarah Smith: The channel has hired some journalists very much from the neoliberal right. David Frost who is a friend of Israel even checked with the U.S. and UK governments before he would take on a job at the station. Their head of news, Steve Clark, produced extremely right wing programmes that were pro-Israeli. Do you have any fears about the channel?
Afshin Rattansi: As I said, start-ups are always quite fraught. And one must remember that there are a lot of people who are willing the failure of Al Jazeera International. I know Steve and he seemed relatively sane! I certainly don’t think it can be said – as some are alleging – that the English language station has been hijacked by the CIA or something, as some are having it.
As to the more disturbing bits of news we get about the start-up of the English language Al Jazeera channel, I think we should wait and see. Frost is a big name and TV stations do need stars. With all the money being thrown at the new channel, let’s hope that they are getting the really top notch producers and reporters and not those who are merely the dregs of big, corporate news broadcasting, looking for a tax-free salary and a bit of sun!
Edward Victor: The book that concerns TV news in “The Dream of the Decade” has been compared to Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”. Should it be read as a satire or did any of the things in the book actually happen.
Afshin Rattansi: Of all the books in the quartet, perhaps that one, “Good Morning, Britain” is the most autobiographical. Alas, some of the crazier things regarding the naivety of reporters are basically true. I certainly remember a very posh reporter who was unaware of public healthcare and when he went to cover a story about hospitals went to the only hospital he knew – a very expensive private one – so that the whole report became an advert for how wonderful medical care was in the UK. I’ve also met my fair share of war correspondents who delight in the perceived Hemmingway persona, obscuring the issues of geopolitical power in any theatre of war.
Sarah Smith: What broadcast news services do you think are good and how can journalism in general get better?
Afshin Rattansi: I think there are some gold standards at the moment. One of them is BBC World Service radio which whilst showing little in the way of innovation and often obscuring power-lines, still manages to feel truly global. Obviously, CNN when my little brother
is anchoring is also excellent! I have to admit that Fox News, which is doing well in the ratings, at least puts its heart on its sleeve – tacitly admitting it has an angle. It is much more frightening to watch news which suggests that it is unbiased when it is.
Ultimately, it will be up to the kind of people employed in journalism. At the BBC Today programme – shortly before the editor was fired – there were the beginnings of a recruitment process that was genuinely based on grouping people from different backgrounds to be in the newsroom. In Dubai, there were journalists from every country East and South of Algiers. But it’s not just ethnic diversity, it’s class diversity. You wouldn’t find many frontline journalists at the BBC from London’s Peckham area, nor at CNN from Dixie Hills.
Ironically, the ratings on programmes which employed them would do well as so little on TV reflects the aspirations and concerns of the majority. However, I don’t think advertisers are that interested in those with low disposable incomes. And, in the UK, which has weathered the dumbing down of international TV better than most places, executives at government-funded stations feel the need – for complex reasons – to compete with commercial content.