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News junkie thrives on her daily fix

Published on Friday, 27 Nov 2009
Mishal Husain is keen to continually extend her range in broadcasting. "I don't want to be pigeonholed," she says.
Photo: Jonathan Wong

As a young producer co-ordinating live reports and writing bulletins in the BBC's London newsroom, Mishal Husain felt she already had her dream job. So when the editor called her in and, without preamble, said, "We have no one to do the 4am shift; do you fancy a go at presenting?" she wasn't sure how to react.

"I can't say I had ever thought of being a presenter or going in front of the camera," said the anchor of broadcasts that reach a global television audience of untold millions in 200 or so countries. "Presenters seemed to exist in a different stratosphere and all I really wanted was to be a BBC journalist."

Something obviously clicked. A year later Husain was still on air and fronting coverage from New York's Times Square on the day markets reopened in September 2001. For someone used to life in the studio, it was a baptism of fire. Called on for live updates, recaps and instant analysis throughout the day, she had to convey the right tone while tracking market moves and reflecting distinct aspects of a fast-developing story.

"I learned so much, how to pace yourself, which things to repeat, and what to freshen up," she said. "It is a different skill. You are on camera, but you have to get the story for yourself, so between the live parts you are making phone calls. There is no substitute for saying I have just been speaking to ...."

The biggest problem was not knowing what was happening in the studio and just hearing someone say, "Stand by, you're next." But she coped with the pressures, quickly picked up the technical side and established her credentials as someone capable of handling the highest-profile assignments.

That has meant stints in Washington and Asia hosting nightly programmes and interviewing newsmakers, politicians and business leaders. There has been location work reporting on everything from terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the 2004 US presidential campaign to Benazir Bhutto's assassination and China's "coming out" during the Beijing Olympics.

Keen to keep extending her range, Husain has moved between the BBC's international service and its main domestic channel in Britain, where she has appeared as evening newsreader and a breakfast show presenter. "I love that; not many people straddle [so much]," she said. "I don't want to be pigeonholed or known for telling only certain types of stories from certain parts of the world. My job is to be curious about everything. It is to see inside the mindset of people and know why they think the way they do."

Whatever the topic or whoever the interviewee, her basic belief is that every story is interesting and that there are always two sides to hear. Putting the alternative point of view has therefore become second nature, as has the need to read, research, prepare meticulously and pick the brains of experts.

"I usually start with our own material. It is accurate because it is double sourced, but I also learn from my colleagues all the time," she said. "Unless you've got a solid foundation, you're unlikely to last very long."

Her own foundation, in academic terms at least, includes boarding school in England, a law degree from Cambridge, and an MA in human rights law completed in Florence. The latter entailed a dissertation on Bosnian refugees in the mid-1990s and Husain finds the detailed knowledge it gave of things such as war crimes, contempt and concepts of international justice very useful in much of what she does today.

Perhaps as important in shaping interests and later career choice was being part of a home environment where international events were always a main topic of discussion. Growing up in Abu Dhabi, where her Pakistani father worked as a doctor, some of Husain's earliest memories are of her parents talking about the famine in Cambodia or the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

A key item of family lore recalled how an uncle, who was a prisoner of war in Eastern India in 1971, had heard a BBC World Service radio report about wives trying to call their husbands from England. No phone call ever got through to him, but a message did, and a connection of sorts was established. "That story always stuck in my mind," Husain said.

It was only at university that she began to contemplate a career in news. She wrote initially to the BBC's legal correspondent looking for work experience, later did a spell in the newsroom which proved a real eye-opener, and soon realised she was hooked. "I was desperate to be offered a job, but they were not hiring, so I went off to Bloomberg," she said. "But what I wanted was to work for the BBC and, a year and a half later, when I got the job as a producer I felt I had arrived."

That early sense of excitement and enthusiasm has not diminished. It comes from being part of an organisation that has "tremendous access and privilege" around the world and having an unrivalled range of work.

More recently, it has brought the chance to branch out with a three-part documentary on Gandhi: The Road to Freedom. Despite a gruelling travel schedule around India and the time away from her husband and three young children, Husain found it fascinating.

"In a 24-hour newsroom there is not always time to get your teeth into things, so I love the idea of being able to do more documentaries," she said. "It is tough to be on the road  filming, but it helps you develop a natural broadcasting style."

This is the fourth in a seven-part series on influential women who are based overseas

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