Riz Khan, veteran reporter and interviewer for BBC and CNN, was seeking inspiration for a new direction. Sehr Karim interviewed him for TBS.
TBS: Riz, you are a man who has taken on many challenges including Q & A, a documentary on the Hajj and Hardtalk Pakistan and India for the BBC—so you have to be at the threshold of a new challenge. What are you up to?
Khan: My new challenge is discovering the business side of modern journalism, and that is being able to put together a new show independently. Which in effect means securing the funding, structuring the show so it's viable, and so on. I think I have a good idea and the people I have shown it to like it. But the problem is that the bill needs to be footed somehow, by commission or by being funded by a sponsor. But it's hard and I'm learning a different side of the business. Personally I like the creative side of things, but to go independent, I have to delve into the business side of things before I can get creative.
I'm referring to the behind the scenes aspects of journalism. Modern journalism is not the same; it's far more dependent on the sponsorship of shows, advertising. I am working on creating a commercially viable show.
TBS: So you can't give us anymore clues as to what you are currently working on?
Khan: I will say this, that despite its being an original idea, it is still along the lines of what I used to do. I am keeping it truly international and I will still be profiling and interviewing. So there is a journalistic aspect to it, which I will be involved in. I'm trying to learn how to make the most out of the people that I meet here. Also I'm looking at what niches I can fill here. For example, is there any radio documenting? When Kofi Anan comes to speak, how many ways can what he says be put to use? If the content is unique I could perhaps use it for radio, print, and television. I'm trying to make it useful in every way possible.
TBS: What year did you leave CNN?
Khan: I joined in May 1993 and left May 2001. I like things to be neat. I did eight complete years.
TBS: Why did you leave?
Khan: I wanted to get on and do different things. I had done eight years with BBC and eight with CNN and it hit me that I was turning 40-no wait, I was going to be turning 40 in a couple of years. A lot of people think it was because I was Muslim and that I was fired. There was nothing sinister about my leaving CNN. I'm still in touch with them and I'm even talking to them about the possibility of a show. In my opinion the two key players are BBC and CNN. It's nice because I have the emotional security of knowing the people on TV. Also it's kind of nice when I'm back in Atlanta and I can meet up with the old group of friends I had there from CNN.
TBS: Describe the difference between domestic CNN and CNN International in terms of how they have evolved since September 11th.
Khan: Since I'm not working with CNN today, it's not appropriate for me to comment on it as an outsider. It's a constantly evolving company. When it comes to CNN domestic, US news tends to be very introspective; CNN domestic does not seem to have the advantage of being more international, whereas CNN International is far more global in its outlook. CNN International makes more use of people around the world and they are great mix of people. When I was in Atlanta, it was really nice because we had a great international clique of friends from CNN.
TBS: But don't you find it disturbing or strange that CNN domestic has a limited global outlook in today's world where a phenomenon like globalization exists and where there is so much cross-cultural mobilization and exchange of people and ideas?
Khan: If I ruled the world everyone would have global news everywhere. Sadly human nature dictates that what we want from TV is to watch and find out news closely related to us. People in China want to know what is happening in Beijing and are less interested in Alabama. So it's what human nature dictates. Now the difference is that some countries, for example Great Britain, having had its fingers in many pies, using a euphemism for an empire, has had more contact with more countries. I mean the Queen's head is still on many currencies. So this explains their awareness and the importance British media gives to the international world.
TBS: How do you compare CNN International's coverage of the war in Iraq to its coverage of previous wars, specifically the Gulf war?
Khan: I've been away from CNN for two and a half years. I think it was difficult for anyone. Partly because of the way it was set up by the military, which made it a tough one to cover, and I have friends who were out there. Even they said it was a tough one this time.
TBS: This conference is a way for Western and Arab media to have dialogue to discuss differences. In fact much of what we've heard sounds more like a slanging match. How do you feel about being lumped with "arrogant western journalists"?
Khan:The first thing I will quote, which I think were the most important words spoken at summit, was from [Khaled] Al Maena: "There is no such thing as the western media. There are many components, British, American, European." What he said is true: the kind of coverage that Britain and US do is different. Once people start lumping the Western media in one basket and the Arab media in another they are moving away from journalistic ethics and are actually giving up journalistic integrity. It's like saying every Arab is Muslim.
I think it is sad that it has become such a slanging match, which was not the intention of this conference. At the same time, the conference has opened up the floor for discussion. There seems to be a common path. To answer your question though, I think people like to sensationalize. Personally I would say that I'm such a mix of different backgrounds, I grew up in the west with roots of the east so I think they are giving up credibility.
TBS: At this summit, the Arabs are complaining about the Western media's ignoring some stories, or using biased vocabulary. But this is all correspondents talking to correspondents. Shouldn't these questions be directed to editors and accountants? Would you agree that what should and should not be published doesn't lie in the hands of correspondents?
Khan:You are right. It is important to put the questions to those who make financial decisions, whether it is the budgeters or the spenders. They tell the editors how much they can spend. The high profile faces of press and media, these are the people audiences come to talk to, but they're not the most qualified to talk to because their job is to stick to the facts. And this conference discusses opinions and motivation and yes it should go to the editors. Those who control are really the ones who should be questioned. It all comes down to budgets. If it wasn't for that we would have cured cancer and AIDS for that matter. It's very sad; it's very sad, the casualties of budget cuts and financial constraints such as training. I know that it was my training that set the base for me.
I did my training at BBC, it was famous for its training. Unfortunately since then it has been chopped and chopped. I don't know if they have a pronunciation unit anymore. They used to have a linguistics professor who had a unit and they could give us a guesstimate of how to pronounce any word. And they were right 99 percent of the time. The first causalities are the training units. I know a lot of people from my generation who would agree.
TBS: How much of that is temporary?
Khan: I think that has been the trend all along. The whole world in every area and every field wants to go from training to instant success. People are impatient to succeed; they take the path of least resistance. You can trace it all back to advertising and conditioning and that makes our work goals. It sounds cynical, but it's a genuinely sad observation of how our lives have become. We are victims of this conditioning.
TBS: Being in Dubai for about a year now and familiarizing yourself with the local media industry, do you think the Dubai media industry will every make it's mark on an international level and become a leading international player in media?
Khan: Let's put it this way. It is very young, if you look at the age of publication. The Times of London has a history. Asking whether or not Dubai will make its mark is like asking if a baby who just learnt how to walk is going to win the Commonwealth Games. Abu Dhabi TV, prior to that Al Jazeera, they're taking their first steps. It's part of the whole development. The local people are enthusiastic, and this is accelerating the process. If it carries on at this rate it has its prospects of making its mark. It's still dealing with Arabic language and the legacy of constraints. People have to adjust from self-censorship and dictates.