“Only a handful of people really know me. Just because I have a loud and forthright personality, people assume they know me and have the attitude that they’ve got the measure of me. I’m not saying I’m completely different. But there are many more layers to me than the ‘bolshy woman from London’.” — NewsEye anchor Saima Mohsin
lt hasn’t been easy getting hold of Saima Mohsin for this interview, not because she sent me to coventry but that she has been juggling between dealing with the logistic issues of DawnNews’ flagship news programme, NewsEye, and putting her life together in a new country and society.
As opposed to the “bolshy woman from England” (as some call her) who snubs interviewees, be it a minister or a common man, is right there “to cut the grey,” nagging for an answer until the truth is blurted out, the off screen Saima Mohsin is not as crusty as the on screen anchor. “When I first came to Pakistan, I was told of the culture of respecting (read: giving protocol) people in authority such as ministers, etc. I wondered as to why we should give them any more respect than everyone else. Haven’t we ourselves voted them into that seat? Why should I be calling them ‘sir’ and kowtow to them? I have had to jump the hurdle for one can revere people but not bow down to them. Also, I couldn’t understand as to why the anchor couldn’t stop the interviewee and say: ‘Wait a minute, you haven’t answered my question’!”
Such audacity comes from a certain level of confidence regarding issues and it must have been quite some time before Saima got the hang of Pakistan’s political issues and problems. Unlike the nature of news in England where politics attracts the least amount of interest, in Pakistan it is the exact opposite. “I worked very hard on the launch of NewsEye, spending every hour I could in the office with my team. It is one’s team basically that puts up the show and I am happy that we are able to make the effort and the research to put NewsEye together. I usually start work at noon and pause only for the half-an-hour meeting before we are ready to roll at 9pm, working almost ten-and-a-half hours a day.”
Born and brought up in England, Saima has spent almost 11 years working for various media organisations such as ITV, Sky, BBC and GMTV. She attended the University of Birmingham and got a Bachelor degree in politics with English literature in 1998, and also did a postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism in 1999.
The offer from DawnNews, the first English Language news channel of Pakistan, however, was quite a challenge both for her on the professional and personal front, as it meant leaving behind a steady job and family. “You don’t realise just how much the network of friends, family and acquaintances means to you, and the kind of support structure they provide until you leave them behind to make a new life. Silly things like knowing your local shopkeeper or bumping into an old school teacher is no more a possibility. Finding food and water wherever you go is never hard but where do you buy a can opener or a sieve? (Don’t worry she has one now).
“Starting a new life in a city you have not been to before, in a country you’ve never lived in, where you don’t have any family, friends or contacts is quite bewildering. I hadn’t thought about it at all when I was coming here. As a journalist I’ve travelled a lot and lived all over England, in cities I’ve never been to, but this has been a whole different ball game. It’s been fun and it’s been downright hard.”
Saima moved into her own place, after having spent months living in what she calls “dodgy hotels,” with only one mattress, two pillows and bedding as her belongings. “I came home one night and found that there was no electricity due to loadshedding. I was too scared to go into the house alone with no torchlight. So I drove around until I saw a place with lights on and just sat outside. I kept on asking myself what in earth I was doing here. Then I realised I’d come here for a reason. That weekend I went to buy a generator and gave myself a pat on the back for learning the ropes.”
After months of planning and pre-rehearsals, NewsEye finally went on air in September 2007. “The programme is an essential guide to world news. It informs you about news down the road, other people in the country and around the world. People should be able to make informed decisions through the news and information imparted in the programme.”
Back in the UK, Saima had been anchoring one of the most-watched programmes in England called Watchdog with almost six million viewers. “People said it was kind of self-righteous, but I didn’t agree with it. We used to get almost 5,000 emails and letters in a week. The amount of interaction was amazing and the fact that it was you basically representing the people. We had a huge team researching the half-hour programme. There, the greatest skill I picked up was to go for the kill and yet keep one’s character on screen at the same time.”
One of a family of three sisters and a brother, perhaps Saima was destined to become a TV journalist after all, though she had some flickering thoughts of trying her luck elsewhere. “The more I’ve done it over the last couple of years, the more I have realised that my original ideals and ideas about journalism weren’t actually far from the truth.
“I remember when I was 16 and I had to choose what I had to do in life before giving entrance exams. My family had always religiously believed in attaining education and I obviously I had to choose what I had to do. I remember when I suggested if I could take up the performing arts, my mum brushed it away saying that Muslim girls are just not allowed to do so, especially in our family.”
Saima adheres to the strong values her family has instilled in her. “I feel many Muslims living in England have held on to their values and culture, but I am really surprised to see that not happening here in many cases. Many a times I see people doing things that I say ‘Hey, wait a minute. I am not or was never allowed to do that’!”
Being an Asian Muslim woman, has Saima found obstacles in working in the media in England? “I’ve never let that classification bother me. The first time I realised the colour of my skin mattered was when somebody called me ‘just a pretty Asian girl’ at my first job in a regional news TV channel in South Hampton. It wasn’t very nice.”
Positive discrimination, Saima mentions, has played a huge role in England in the last few years. “Employers at ITV, BBC and Sky realise that what people watch on screen needs to be representative of what there is in society, and London is a very cosmopolitan society full of different cultures and backgrounds. By positive discrimination I mean that they have actively tried to find people who literally ticked the boxes.
“During the time when terrorism acts were taking place the most in the West, I used to tease my boss at GMTV telling him that he couldn’t be nasty to me because I ticked all the boxes. We really used to have a laugh when I said that I’m Asian, a female, a Muslim and have a back injury which could classify me as handicapped. So I tick all those boxes in one go. I have the distinction of being a British Pakistani Muslim and a woman which I am very proud of.”
So how different does she really find broadcast journalism in England from that in Pakistan? “Television media is new here and so its power and impact is quite misconstrued, considering that this is a country where most people cannot read. Even the government may not have a good concept of this medium. But hopefully now it will. There’s no provision for the media. In England, every organisation has a press officer who is trained to respond and handle media affairs. He lines up interviews, facilitates information, etc.
Here I feel that government functionaries in Islamabad or other organisations are just not ready for it. I’ve spoken to people in the present and previous government, and found that when approached, they seem to be caught in the middle of a situation.
When I interviewed the chairman of Pepco on loadshedding, he said that they had run advertisements in the papers about loadshedding timings. I said I hadn’t seen it in the newspapers (though I had seen them). Then I added: ‘Do you realise that most of the population cannot read, so what’s the point in running such advertisements’?”
Saima Mohsin certainly seems to be learning to swim in these different and not just difficult waters. “Only a handful of people really know me. Just because I have a loud and forthright personality, people assume they know me and have the attitude that they’ve got the measure of me. I’m not saying I’m completely different. But there are many more layers to me than the ‘bolshy woman from London’.