• Women
  • July 27, 2007
  • 11 minutes read

Zeinab the global messenger

Critics claim TV news is dumbing down but Zeinab Badawi is determinedly high-brow, reaching an audience in 200 countries,  

“Don”t make me sound too serious,” are Zeinab Badawi”s parting words, which is a strange request given that she has been deployed by the BBC as a serious presenter of the most serious of its current affairs output.

“And don”t make me sound like I”m foreign – I”m a Londoner,” she says. “Some people think my name sounds funny – “Zeinab Badawi, she comes from Malawi”.” She wiggles in her seat as she sings this.

There is a fun side to the most highbrow of British newscasters, and she claims that a quality she most admires in the political, cultural and religious leaders whom she grills on behalf of the corporation”s global audience, is the ability to have a laugh. The Dalai Lama is, she says, a hoot.

Badawi interviewed the Tibetan leader last year at a gathering of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Colorado. “What I liked about him most was that he takes his subject matter seriously without taking himself seriously. He has a terrific sense of humour – I have a great deal of time for people who bring humour to difficult situations and he does that,” she says.

Under interrogation from Badawi over criticism of his “complete failure” as head of state, the man whose name translates as “Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom” responded with apparent irreverence. “He said “Yeah, I know, even my own brother calls me a sell-out”,” Badawi recalls. “That was his response and it was quite disarming.” When she asked the Dalai Lama, a representative of a pacifist faith, whether religion played a role in conflict, he grinned and pointed at Desmond Tutu, saying only: “Ask that mischievous friend of mine over there.”

It might not exactly have been Pete and Dud, but there was an intimacy to the exchange not always associated with Badawi. After the interview, the Dalai Lama even made her a gift of a Tibetan peace shawl. “Somebody said, “Sell it on eBay,” but I said, “You must be joking.” He gave me a sweet as well, which I”ve hidden in case my kids find it.”

Badawi, 47, who has four young children, is being re-positioned by the BBC as a figurehead for the most heavyweight of its foreign affairs coverage. On weekday evenings at 7pm, she will open BBC4″s schedule as the host of World News Today, a programme which goes out in an extended 60-minute version to 200 countries on BBC World.

If the BBC needed to cite an example to counter accusations that it”s dumbing down television content, this programme would be it. According to Badawi, who was born in Sudan (not Malawi), came to Britain at the age of two, there is an appetite for international news that needs to be filled. “We are all at the mercy of global forces – drug trafficking, migration, fighting terror attacks – and globalisation means that what happens abroad affects your daily life. No longer can you say that “foreign” is something that deals with the other, that doesn”t affect me.”

In a promo for the new show she claims it is “the global news programme for the global citizen.”

Though she is careful not to criticise individual news organisations, she clearly has reservations about elements of international coverage in the British media.

“There is far too much talk of this potential clash of religions and about Islam being inherently violent. I”m not an expert on Islamic law but I know there”s nothing that justifies blatant murder and when you read that the Taliban says, “You can”t educate girls”, that”s complete rubbish again.”

Badawi graduated from Oxford in politics, philosophy and economics before completing a post-grad degree in Middle-East studies at the University of London. Her great-grandfather, Sheikh Babiker Badri, who fought against Kitchener”s British forces at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, pioneered women”s education in Sudan and her uncle still runs the country”s only university for female students.

“I read a lot about Muslims and obviously I come from a Muslim family. My namesake, the late Zaki Badawi, the Egyptian cleric, who wasn”t a relative, believed in trying to emphasise the shared history of the three monotheistic religions and that is the way I would favour.”

Though she accepts that most British media organisations try to avoid inflammatory language, she would like to see changes in the terminology currently used. “One has to be careful when one uses expressions like “Muslim extremist” or “Islamic extremist”. I would prefer “Islamist” just as you have “Pacifists” or people who use a religion in their own way. You could say it”s just semantics but I do think that “Islamic violence” makes it seems as though it”s inherent.”

Badawi says that “as someone who comes from a British-Arab-African-Muslim background, I see now that public opinion does need a lot of guidance on a lot of issues.”

The coverage of the country of her birth, she feels, often misrepresents the tragedy of Darfur. “I think the Darfur conflict has been simplified as Arab militias from the north against the Africans. It is depicted very much as a black and white conflict whereas there are many areas of grey,” she says. “When you say Arab you tend to think of Middle-Easterners, don”t you? My family would be as Arab as Sudanese Arabs would get. The terminology is a bit loose and the distinction between Arab and African is a very blurred one. True, the Arab tribes speak Arabic as their native language and the Darfuri Africans have their own language, but Arabic is the lingua franca and both groups are Muslim. Yet there”s this convenient language of good guys and bad guys, Arabs beating up black Africans, the extension of that old slave trade thing.”

Badawi reported on the effects of famine in Sudan during her 10-year stint at Channel 4 News, with whom she will go head to head in her new slot.

She thinks British television outlets should be more aware of the consequences of making Westerners the main characters in stories about the developing world.

“You have to commend the efforts of people like Geldof, but the images which these initiatives give rise to can result in a slightly negative portrayal of Africans – they are cast as the junior partner almost like passive spectators in their own destinies.”

She says she would like editors to place “more emphasis on home-grown initiatives” such as the New Partnership for Africa”s Development (Nepad), “though I agree it”s not a very sexy word. Kneepad, as some people call it.”

On World News Today, “we strive to always get indigenous speakers and representatives,” says Badawi, who also looks to give a cultural context to stories where possible. “I often think you can get more from an anthropological approach than a straight analytical interview.

“For the Iraq war, if you want to see what Iraqis think of the war it”s instructive to see what paintings are being done by Iraqi artists.”

She claims international political and cultural figures are keen to come on the show because it offers the “double whammy” of a live British audience on BBC4 and a slice of BBC World”s monthly global reach of 76 million people.

On this particular day, she is disappointed as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, pulls out of an interview on global warming at late notice, though Badawi claims an exclusive in speaking to Pelosi”s colleague, Congressman Ed Markey.

She is at pains, she stresses, to speak in plain language when addressing such issues as the Chinese stock market, the Nigerian elections, climate change talks in Freiburg. “Although the subject matter might be quite difficult to deal with, I really believe it has to be presented in an informal, very palatable way, otherwise you end up lecturing viewers. We are not didactic – I prefer a conversational style of presenting. I use words I would use in normal speech.”

International viewers, she claims, are more prepared than British ones to engage with discussion-based programmes, partly because the media in their own countries is often gagged. Badawi is a regular presenter of Hard Talk, which airs on BBC News 24 and BBC World and has a large international following.

Her most difficult interviewee was US General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “He is a huge guy, 6ft 6in, and used to leading the troops. He just talked and talked and I could hardly get a word in edgeways, it was very, very difficult. I can”t say it was bullying tactics because he was a charming man but it was a bit like trying to heckle a steamroller.”

Even so, she has come a long way since she went for an interview as a researcher on Yorkshire TV science programme Where There”s Life and instead was offered a reporting role on the local news show, Calendar.

Having worked in Leeds for six years, she was a reporter on the BBC”s gritty Brass Tacks, before becoming deputy presenter to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. She joined BBC4 in 2005, when her show had the all-encompassing title The World, which Badawi says reminded her of the Coca-Cola advertising song.

Her career path has brought her to the attention of everyone from Alan Partridge (who referred on The Day Today to a racehorse called “Zeinab Badawi”s Twenty Hotels”), a stalker called Ronald Ellis, who claimed aliens had identified her to him as his future wife, and the security service MI5, which reportedly has a file on her.

The latter doesn”t seem to concern her unduly. “My father was involved in pre-independence politics in the Sudan and he lived here in the early Sixties as a political exile,” she says, by way of a possible explanation.

Whether the file exists or not, Badawi has unquestionably become an influential figure in British cultural life. She sits on the board of the British Council and is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, where the collection includes a photograph of Badawi taken by Cinnamon Heathcote-Drury, for whom she sat at her north London home in 2005.

What really excites her, though, is the work of the charity Africa Medical Partnership Fund (Afrimed), which she runs with clinician Daniel McCloskey, delivering old incubators and kidney dialysis machines, discarded by the NHS, to hospitals in Sudan.

As she departs to edit her interview with the Congressman and prepare for the evening”s programme, Badawi might not want to be seen as overly serious but admits it is the seriousness of World News Today, its willingness to tackle difficult issues, that helps it secure good interviewees.

“We are not asking them, “Where did you go on holiday?” These are matters of significance and public opinion needs some sort of guidance to throw light on these issues,” she emphasises. “But please don”t make me sound pompous because I”m not at all.”