The respected broadcaster and former Abu Dhabi resident made her bow on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week in the UK, the latest triumph in a career that has seen her silence many doubters en route, writes Kevin Hackett.
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Four days ago, when Mishal Husain drew her breath the second before going live on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the nation that she was about to address took an even deeper one. Today is a British institution, a current-affairs show that people actually listen to, without the need to have their eyeballs titillated. It’s a radio programme with ultimate gravitas and its political interviewees have, at times, been known to emerge broken into pieces after the grillings that they’ve been subjected to at the hands of the heavyweight journalist hosts. And that’s just how the British public likes it.
Brits are not alone in their aversion to change, but any alteration to the way that Radio 4 does anything usually ends up being on the agenda during Prime Minister’s Questions – it’s taken that seriously. Radio 4 is a part of the family for millions of listeners, and Today, as its flagship programme, has been in need of a shot in the arm for some time now, it’s just that nobody dared mention it. It needed a bit of a shake-up to prevent it being too formulaic, but with a reduction in the role of its long-term host, the superbly named James Naughtie, Husain’s arrival as his replacement has marked the turning of a tide that looked like it might never happen. Gradually, women are being accepted into the fold.
Naughtie will continue to be a regular host on the show, but much of his time will be spent covering the looming Scottish independence referendum for the BBC, and that leaves Husain free to make her mark on the most important show on the most important radio network in the world. But, back in 2010, Today’s then editor, Ceri Thomas, remarked that women didn’t possess thick enough skin to be able to cope with the show’s “incredibly difficult” environment. It was, inferred Thomas, an old-school club that took no prisoners and invited no new members and, as one might predict, the backlash was swift, followed by mounting pressure by campaigners to address the show’s four-to-one presenter ratio of men to women.
Husain’s skin, it would appear, is plenty thick enough. She has risen through the media ranks with a measured and precise career progression, making a name for herself as a consummate professional who’s far more than a one-trick pony. Born in Northampton in 1973, to Pakistani parents, at the age of two she went with them to live in Abu Dhabi, where her father worked as a urologist, setting up a special urology unit at the city’s Central Hospital.
During an interview with The National in 2010, she recalled with fondness her decade spent in the UAE, describing her parents as “intrepid great desert-goers” who often took her camping at the weekends. “My memories of growing up are totally based in the UAE,” she remarked. “My father had a little sailing boat and on Fridays we used to go and meet friends on a little island and take a picnic.
“I have just the best memories of the outdoors and things that my children will really never have, like desert campfires.”
She went on to say that her only regret during her time here was that she never got to properly master the Arabic language – something that she knows would have been a huge bonus for a Muslim journalist. By the time that she was 12, her family relocated to Saudi Arabia and she went back to the UK, where she took up residence at the Cobham Hall girls’ boarding school in Kent. Now, she has little to do with the UAE, although she returned to Abu Dhabi with her family for a holiday three years ago.
“The hard thing about an expat childhood is once it comes to an end, you are not connected,” she recalled. “It is not like you go back somewhere and your friends are around.” But her upbringing obviously did play a part in her eventual career choice. “I grew up in a family that was always very aware of the world around us,” she said. “My parents were big consumers of news and were always reading papers and magazines.”
When she started university studies at Cambridge, a life in the media spotlight couldn’t have been farther from her mind. She read law, going on to complete a master’s degree, but before that was completed, she knew her desire was for a different path. When she was 18 years old, Husain dipped a toe in the world of journalism with a three-month internship at a Pakistani newspaper in Islamabad, before shadowing Joshua Rozenberg, who was then the BBC’s legal affairs correspondent.
This interest in current affairs and politics took her to Bloomberg Television, where she rolled up her sleeves and got involved in a number of activities including producing, writing and, occasionally, presenting. An appointment at the Beeb followed in 1998, as a junior producer on the corporation’s World News, and during a staff shortage she got the break that she’d never even considered, when she was asked to stand in for a presenter at 4am one morning. Her cool and calm performance did not go unnoticed and, two years later, she was a full-time anchor for BBC World News.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the amount of relocating that she did as a child, but Husain has had no problem in uprooting and working in any part of the world, from New York to Washington DC and a spell in Singapore, at least before returning to the UK and marrying her childhood friend, Meekal Hashmi, a lawyer, in 2003. When talking about her husband, she’s quick to point out that he’s been a huge help with her career, supporting her as she raced across the planet wherever the big stories demanded her presence.
Still, she managed to find time to have three children (all boys, including one set of twins) during an extremely busy period in her career, and she says that the experience of being a mother has done much to reaffirm her Islamic and Pakistani values. And it’s her Islamic values, as well as her new role on Today, that have had her in the headlines this week. In what might be termed typical fashion, the UK’s Daily Mail ran a story the same day that she started her new job, with a far-from-subtle headline that stated Husain had been “told to wear a hijab” but had refused, with the inference that it had been her bosses at the BBC putting pressure on her.
Anyone who bothered to read the article quickly found that it had been a male passenger on a train that had given her this piece of “advice”, before discovering the same old, well-worn and clichéd arguments presented by a reporter who was unaware of the differences between various forms of Middle Eastern attire. And, anyway, when did someone’s religion ever effect on his or her ability to read the news or interview a politician? Many of Husain’s online detractors have also forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the fact that she’s British and not an immigrant. But that’s part and parcel of life in the UK. Change is difficult to fathom, but they soon get used to it. And, before long, if the BBC decides that it’s time for Husain to move on from the Today show to something else, there will likely be an outcry about that, too. After all, she’s now firmly a member of broadcasting royalty – part of the family for many millions of Brits, wherever they are in the world.
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