A renowned and respected news anchor, Riz Khan has reported for BBC Radio and Television, and has been a news anchor for BBC World Service News and CNN.
As journalist of Pakistani-Indian descent, how has your ethnic and religious background impacted your career in television journalism?
I feel that having a background that is Pakistani-Indian, being born in Yemen (in British Aden), growing up and being educated in London, then living in America for a third of my life now, is actually a huge advantage. I would like to think that my employers have also thought that way. I was certainly a bit of a novelty in the media in the late 1980s because, until then, the BBC had not had anyone of South Asian background as a newscaster in a mainstream news show. I ended up being the first (also on CNN, as it happens, as I was recruited in 1993) – so perhaps it proved to be an advantage. No doubt there were a few cynics thinking that I was benefitting from “positive discrimination” in the traditionally white, upper-middle class environment of the BBC. Either way, I did have to prove myself as a journalist, because it’s not only up to the managers at BBC who does what on TV; the viewers very quickly let the BBC know if they like or dislike someone. Plus the news environment is incredibly competitive and challenging, so certain skills are needed to survive. In terms of religion – that has never come into it, although being Muslim gave me the opportunity to be the first international journalist to do live coverage of the Hajj from Mecca. Plus, certainly at Al Jazeera English, I have the advantage of being able to understand the negative stereotyping of Muslims in the crazy, post-9/11 era, so I can try to counter the misinformation about Islam that seems to permeate the Western media.
What do you like most about your job as host of the Riz Khan show on Al Jazeera English?
What I love about my job is that there’s something different about it pretty much every day. Of course, there is a routine – that’s inevitable with a live, daily television show because I have to be in the studio, prepared and ready to cover the world’s news and current affairs – but I do get to learn about so many different subjects as a journalist. I also get to travel the globe, which I love to do.
Do you feel that traditional print and television journalism is being overrun by online journalists, like bloggers and other alternative online news sites, which don’t necessarily rely on the highest standards of journalistic practice?
I’m a big fan of the internet and glad that the world is opening up and interconnecting so effectively. The danger is that it’s a bit like the “Wild West,” in that there is little or no regulation (a good thing) meaning that people with negative motives can use it to their advantage (a bad thing!). The problem comes down to people needing education in how to use the internet; how to discern and judge accurately between sources of information. I think it’s great that the “citizen’s voice” is getting out there in the form of blogs and on-line sites, but without proper training, both the source and those accessing it can end up becoming victims to propaganda and misinformation.
The amount of training I had to do at my postgraduate journalism school, and then with the BBC on a two-year training scheme, really helped me to get a good understanding of what is and what is not a valid source of information – and to question “facts and figures.” The problem is that many of the people who set themselves up as journalists nowadays are not qualified for the job, and can end up being tools for misinformation (or themselves be motivated to promote a particular bias). Would you consult someone claiming to be a doctor who has not been trained in medicine? Having said that, the internet has been an amazing place to post video and information that would never make it out to the general public otherwise. A good example is the election in Iran, where the power of the net provided a strong platform for “people power” and the world was able to see what was happening. In the past, a government could lock down information and control outgoing messages which is almost impossible now. Personally, I would never advocate blocking anything – but I would focus on educating the public on how to sift through the mass of content on the wonderful vehicle we call the worldwide web!
You wrote the book “Al-Waleed: Businessman Billionaire Prince.” What was it like meeting and writing about such a high profile businessman in the Middle East?
I think he has a remarkable character and an incredible brain (his ability to handle and retain information is exceptional) – but he also has the problem of being a target, as is anyone with money or fame. He is quite misunderstood by those who don’t really know him. Having said that, I know there are many things people could criticize, but most of it is trivial compared with the positive stuff. Another thing I admire is that he has incredible energy. My friends accuse me of being hyperactive – sleeping only five hours and going non-stop– but Prince Alwaleed puts me to shame; he manages to keep going at a phenomenal pace! I do wish he had better publicity to show the positive stuff he does.
Throughout your extensive career, you have interviewed many famous celebrities and officials, like Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Who was your most memorable interview?
It’s always hard to choose a favourite guest because that decision – or “feeling” of who is the favourite changes from time-to-time – and it may even depend on my mood. Each person I’ve interviewed had something different to offer – and it isn’t always that they are incredibly famous or successful. Sometimes the humble, everyday stories are the most moving. I’ve done more than 10,000 interviews since I started out as a journalist, and I was particularly lucky to have a huge list of significant interviewees over the years, from the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela, to Antonio Banderas, and paranormalist, Uri Geller (still one of my favourites with his spoon-bending and demonstrations of mind-power!).
Have you ever traveled to Syria? If so, what are your observations of the country and the people?
I have been to Damascus – although it was a few years ago. I loved it very much. I found the Syrian people very warm and welcoming. I was mostly in Damascus, but after learning about Syria I wish I could’ve seen more of the country. Whenever I travel, I try not to be a tourist – and I try to see a place through the eyes of the locals. I try to take in the sights and smells, and taste the food. That is the beauty of being able to travel across the world – to experience it as it is – not to look for “imports” from home – as many Westerners do, when they go in search of American fast-food places, or stay locked in 5-star international hotels.
Do you think Syria can contribute to a fostering peace between the Israelis & Palestinians? The West and Iran?
I don’t think Syria can be ignored as a significant force in the region. Unfortunately, the Western media tends to focus a lot on the negative – and on a certain amount of misinformed speculation. Syria has a strong history in the region, with a lot of interwoven connections that include all aspects of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Plus, it is something of a physical bridge between countries in the Middle East. I do get the feeling that there is a growing understanding of that now, finally, but I think it will still take some time for the often negative portrayal of Syria’s politics to ease.