GVS sat down with the prominent TV Anchor, Fereeha Idris, exploring her life and her journey on the road to become a journalist in the UK and Pakistan. We learnt if it was super easy or mighty obnoxious to be both: a female and journalist in the “Land of Pure”.
What inspired you to become a Journalist?
Unlike most people around, I always planned to be a journalist. In Pakistan, a lot of people say we accidentally came into this field or after some stage we decided to be a journalist. But for me, I decided when I was in class 3 or 4.
I was reading a chapter from an English book – I think it was the ‘Active English Book’ and my mother was teaching me and I remember, I read one word as ‘Reeeterss’ and she said, No! No! It’s Reuters. Then she explained the whole chapter to me and it was all about reporters. That day, I decided I wanted to become a reporter.
And you remained stuck to that childhood dream..?
Well! at that time, the media was not considered so cool in Pakistan and even my parents probably thought that I was joking. They never took me seriously; but I actually used to hold mics and pretend that I was reporting and played games with mics with my sisters. So, it was always at the back of my head. I wanted to study journalism. I wanted to write.
That’s why I went towards English Literature and Psychology and later journalism. At one stage, I also wanted to be a writer when I was reading literature. In England, you get more opportunities, to change ideas or career options. On a lighter note, I must admit, I had to unlearn everything I learned in England about journalism, due to work here.
Wow! You had to unlearn everything that you learned in the UK, but why?
Oh! I said it more like an exaggeration and as a joke, but I honestly had to unlearn a few things. For instance, over there you’re taught that you should not run a story until and unless you have some official source to back up what you are saying. Scandal stories are not considered something very respectable, unless it is seen as a big draw story for the audience, such as a mega scandal like we have seen on Washington & NY Times.
But here, I see so many stories coming from ‘other sources’. Its like an everyday thing and not given much importance and I have seen people use this as abusive power at times, like quoting something, and then just saying ‘sources’. I think the government uses this to their advantage by leaking sources’ information, which later they can claim was never there. So, this is something that I had to unlearn for sure because I found out “stories from sources” are completely acceptable in Pakistan, in fact, that is encouraged.
You have worked both as a print journalist and as a TV Anchor. How do you define the difference between the two?
They are absolutely and completely different fields. However, the basic structure is the same. If you want to be a success, you need to have an understanding of the news, you need to have a grasp of the subject, and you should stick to the facts. Nonetheless, I feel in a way, print has more impact, but its slow paced as compared to television because in TV, its instant news produced for the viewers, all the time for 7 days.
So that’s very different than being in the newspaper. So, the way you work, the working hours, your approach towards the subject, everything changes. Then I also think, there is a lot of difference between reporting for TV and reporting for newspapers. The words you use on TV screens should be very simple. It should be same in the newspaper as well, but you can discuss ideas in more depth. There is also a certain decorum that you must follow when you write for a newspaper or a magazine. Then finally, the deadlines are much more difficult to follow on TV than in newspapers.
Journalism is all about making a relationship and getting information from that relationship. How do you balance both?
You know, I read somewhere that to be a good journalist you will either be a friend of everyone or an enemy of everyone, there is no mid-way. So, it’s up to you.
So, what have you decided to be?
I do a TV talk show and not investigative reporting, so that is more about getting opinions and putting them on the table for the public. My job is having good PR with the guests, asking them tough questions but at the same time sticking to the facts and not labeling them with accusations, I ask them questions and let them answer, rather than try to be a judge. I try to be neutral and listen to everyone. There are certain subjects on which you cannot be neutral and then I will give my opinion.
How do you try and stay calm and objective on a story that affects you?
During my journalism course, they taught us how to stay dispassionate and I have later done more courses on this as well. I try to follow the injunctions they gave us at journalism school – how to remain detached and at what point you should step back because otherwise, you are becoming a part of the story.
I remember one of my teachers said, that you should be the camera because the photographer has feelings. So, the best way to report this is to be the cameraman. However, there are always events where we get emotional. On December 16th during the APS massacre, all of us when we saw the scenes, broke down. It was impossible to be neutral and detached.
Let’s take that forward. On the same story hearing that the TTP did that, Fazlullah did that, NDS involvement with him and Indian involvement with NDS and thus with terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Does that then color how you report other stories about NDS or India? I mean have you as a result of the APS event, started viewing them in a different way?
I look at these things in the larger context. I seriously think that we need to have a better understanding and better communication between not just the government but state and media on national issues. I think it’s a lot of confusion because if we are talking about certain agencies present in Pakistan and what they are doing then that becomes a national issue. While there is a lot of consensus in India, about how to report on these difficult issues, I see very varied opinions in Pakistan.
Here I see people labeling each other. For instance, if someone has taken a line where they are blaming an Indian agency, some reporters will say that you are reporting what ‘khakis’ are asking you to report and if somebody is trying to take the other side and maybe they have a genuine reason to believe that this agency is not involved, then they will be labeled as somebody who is not patriotic.
So, there is so much confusion on these issues and I think this is taking a turn towards a very dangerous side because of the fact that if we want to become a nation that will survive the coming centuries, then we have to have a united front on some core issues. Indian media, on the other hand, is very jingoistic and at times it is impossible to watch what they are reporting about Pakistan. Most of the time what they are talking about, you aren’t able to watch. But having said that, I respect them for their unanimity and clarity on issues.
Even in being unfair, they are being very united in reporting on Pakistan. What’s happening in Pakistan is that we don’t even know who our enemies are. In India at least they have identified who their enemy is and they are focusing on that. They know what propaganda they have to work on, so they work on that unanimously. The state is with them. The media is with them. I think they are doing a very good job from their perspective. We have an issue on even reaching a unanimous conclusion on who our enemy is; so how will we take this further internationally to convince the world? So that’s why I think lot of work needs to be done in Pakistan.
What do you think was your first big break and how did it come about?
I remember once I was giving an interview for some newspaper in England and I said, “I am very passionate about my work”, and the interviewer said, “I am not impressed, I don’t think passion is going to make you a good reporter”. But I still think, passion has been the major light for me in my life, which has carried me through all difficult times and other times. The reason I am working is that I enjoy it. I actually carry passion in my heart for subjects that I report on. And I actually believe, that I can make some difference somewhere and that’s the thing that drives me. So, talking about a big break; for me even when my first story was printed in the news magazine in school, it was a big break for me. I was in 4th grade. Then I used to write for Dawn as a child in their children’s section. I used to write about all kinds of things, the environment, love and things like that. It gave me lots of recognition in class and from the teachers. Then I became editor of my school magazine. So, every step turned out to be a break for me. But, if you talk professionally in Pakistan, then when I was working in CNBC, I was moved to SAMAA because the Anchor had left. It was very upsetting in the beginning because I thought I wasn’t ready to switch channels to a bigger screen but it turned to be my big break. When I came to CNBC, I was bureau chief in Islamabad and there I started doing some TV programs. I was more interested in doing camera work, but they used to have this program “Pakistan this week” which was an English program for the CNBC International beam. When one of their anchors left, they wanted me to do an Urdu show. My Urdu was not of a broadcast level at that time. So, they actually hired me a tutor who taught me a lot. She taught me how to control my voice, how to talk in front of the camera, how to talk in a certain language. I don’t think I shot to someplace overnight; it has been really gradual hard work.
Do you think it has been hard because you were a female journalist? Do people stop you from going out and covering certain events or you’re allowed to go anywhere?
I can only speak for myself. I have been very blessed that I never felt any discrimination. To an extent, I faced it but I knew how to deal with it. My father, who was a big supporter of and he came from a Malik family and he faced a lot of pressure for not having a son. But he stood up to the family and he raised us in a way that there was nothing that we were told that we could not do, even if that was riding or swimming. When I wanted to study abroad, he allowed me to do that. He supported all of us in every aspect of life. So, I think he gave me the drive. I never thought anything wasn’t possible when it came to reporting. I never thought that this was a man or a woman’s job at all. In England when I was reporting there for Eastern Eye or Daily Mirror, I could go out and report wherever I wanted to go. When I came to Pakistan, there is one event that sticks out in my mind. It was Benazir Bhutto’s death anniversary and they were sending two boys for covering the news in Sukkur. I asked to be sent and there was a lot of debate on the issue, whether I should go there or not. There were two girls who stood up for me and said, “let her go”. The person who was sent with me – and is now a very good friend –spent the whole journey scaring me by telling me negative stories saying that there will be kidnappers and told me what they do with the women in Sukkur and Larkana. If I went there without a male, they would beat me alive. These kinds of stories were told to unnerve me. When we arrived, the next morning, I woke up earlier than him and I left with the cameraman, who I had already spoken to and we took the camera and reached the spot and started reporting even before he arrived. By the time he came, we had already been reporting for 2 hours and he was shocked. People will often tell you what not to do – not necessarily because you are a woman. There is a very competitive world out there, while you meet people who push you to do things, you also meet the ones who stop you from doing things. Basically, you need to know what you want to do and you need to decide what your goal is. I really get a lot of feedback on different things, which I take in a very constructive way, but also a lot of times, people may give you advice based on their experiences or their dreams and lives, in the end we need to decide for ourselves. You cannot blame someone that this person told me to do this, you should do what you think is right. Use your head.
Who has been your biggest mentor in your life and career?
That happens to be my father and there are many reasons for this. He supported me in my family life and has been there as an active participant in raising my children. He was also the person I could talk to, who could give me advice and tell me where I am wrong. He would always -always criticize me. I can’t even remember when he said something nice about my show. He knew how to let people move forward, but also let them be independent as well. Even in his personal life, he has been a great professional. I have seen him work very hard, I have seen him being very honest, and he was the kind of a guy in my life who could never tell a lie. Even in the case of little lies, my mother would tell him that please tell the maid, that I am not at home and he would be like, I can’t do that because I made a decision that I am not going to tell a lie in my life. He has taught me that once you have clarity about your life or what you want to achieve from it then it becomes easier and your approach becomes positive. This positivity was stuck to me by both my father and my mother. But he was the main driving force behind it.