Rageh Omaar was never supposed to be a journalist. Having immigrated to the UK from Somalia aged 5; he was destined to get a good education and train in a profession. Yet, as he stood before the Oxford University History Society on 30th May he was the picture of a successful and talented foreign correspondent. A man whose years showed only in his knowledge, he was hopeful, charismatic and radiated excitement.
Omaar read history at New College before graduating in 1991, and spoke passionately about the role that history had to play in the rest of his life, arguing that “history is enriching in its own right” as well as improving his understanding of the nations and situations on which he would eventually report. Omaar began his career as a freelance journalist for the BBC, but made a controversial move to Al Jazeera English in 2006. He had much to say about the BBC, criticising its lack of confidence following the Hutton affair and the lack of freedom granted to its senior journalists.
A broadcasting corporation dedicated to neutral journalism in an age where “the notion of journalistic neutrality is paper-thin”, Omaar discarded criticisms that the BBC’s ethos is strongly biased: “it is too big as an organisation to have a central ideology”. Omaar went on to state instead that each individual programme is known for its own identity and priorities. He recounted watching a crew enter a press conference: “when asked if they were from the BBC they said “No, we’re from Newsnight””. The BBC’s main issue is not its ethos or an ideological bias but its identity as a predominantly middle-class and newly self-conscious organisation.
Al Jazeera was less of an old-boys club. In fact, when it was created it was ground-breaking. Denying rumours that the station had ever broadcast unsuitable material, Omaar argued that its creation was “like a sort of rock through the glass house”. The station, which was created out of the ashes of BBC Arabic, represented a freedom of the broadcast media which had not been seen before in the Arab world. Omaar recounted the first time he had seen the channel: “I nearly fell off my chair when I saw an Israeli officer being interviewed”.
The conversation quickly turned from the established media to the role of social media particularly within the Arab Spring. A former BBC Middle East Correspondent and the creator of monthly investigative reports focussing on the area, Omaar seemed optimistic about the prospects for North East Africa and the Middle East. The Arab Spring remains “very hopeful, very positive and very moving”. Omaar acknowledged that after over 30 years of domination by single parties or individual people, their downfall “is always going to create a vacuum” and “vacuums will always be messy”, reminding us that it was unwise to predict the sweeping dominance of democracy in the region.
However, he remained positive about the impact of the movement: “Don’t lose sight of the huge psychological impact of the Arab Spring”. The “sheer courage it takes to hold a demo in Syria” and to protest throughout Tunisia is remarkable and has led to a change in the self-consciousness of the region and its leaders. Although there may be turmoil now, one thing which will remain with whichever leaders come to power is the newly established truth that there is “nothing you can do to control people intent on broadcasting their plight”. With this, new leaders will now have to accept and continually acknowledge the need to treat citizens with fairness or else “they might get me out”. It will forever be known that the people have “lost their fear”.
Omaar held in high regard the social networks and media which had enabled the Arab Spring to take place. “Of course, social media can exaggerate things”, he conceded, but what usually remains in the public mind is the important images, like Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian woman who was killed during the turmoil surrounding the 2009 Iranian elections, or Mohammed Zizzi, the Tunisian fruit-seller who burnt himself alive in Tunisia in December 2010 and could be said to have begun the movement. “The social media is part of the real-time news” and it is, “on the whole, a positive force”. “In Tunisia particularly the social media was essential”, however it is its ability to cross borders and allow individuals to identify with each other which is truly astounding. For the Arab people, videos posted on the internet of protests and oppression are powerful: “on websites in your own language, whether in Tunisia or the Lebanon, you can see your own life”. The social media allowed the Arabic people to “identify” with each other.
Although the international media has been attracted to Northern Africa by the Arab Spring, it seems a fair judgement that the continent as a whole seems to lack the media attention that it deserves: “in Africa it is always difficult to get enough coverage”. When I asked about the coverage of the Ivory Coast in particular, Omaar responded that the violence in the region had represented “elements and issues that go beyond Francophone and Anglophone reporting”. Although the Financial Times had covered the area well, this had not extended across the media simply because the issues raised were not those which our societies grasped. What was essentially a struggle to ensure that power was removed from an electorally defeated incumbent president, his ideology and his followers, was lost to the Anglophone media.
The attention turned to Somalia. The nation of Omaar’s birth, Somalia continues to be wracked by civil war and discontent. The issue which emerges from this region to touch the international community is that of piracy. This issue is “incredibly serious” and yet is not showing any long term improvement. There simply “hasn’t been a concerted approach that recognises the situation”. A long term solution would rest on land and with the Somali government. Although this seems impossible to achieve Omaar maintains that it could be done. However, as the Somali government continue “failing to give confidence to international partners”, NATO is left in an uncomfortable position of having to take action to patrol the area by boat and intervene in pirate activities. Once the Somali government can prove to the international community that a long term ground-based effort to remove piracy from its waters is going ahead, perhaps the situation will change.
Before our conversation ended we returned to the role of the media in conflicts across the world, and particularly its role in showing conflicts to viewers in the UK. Omaar was disparaging of the dominance of 24 hour news, which he claimed “on any channel is an echo chamber”. He spoke of one general in Iraq who was given instructions by Alastair Campbell to simply “keep it moving” in the media. This led to the issuing of statements which rumoured Basrah to have fallen a total of 17 times before it actually did. This form of media, he claimed, “is very easy to manipulate”.
Finally, our conversation turned away from the stories of conflict and hopes for progress to those who told them. Being a war correspondent is, almost by definition of the task, “very frightening”. However, Omaar reminded us of the beauty as well as the fear which is experienced within the job. War correspondents are “in a very privileged position being able to not only see but describe the rough draft of history”. They “see the best as well as the worst of human nature”, they see people “in situations you could barely imagine and transcend that”. Further, there is an awareness and choice in this career move: “No one should, or on some level does, hide from themselves that very bad things happen in that environment, as well as wonderful things”.
Rageh Omaar was never supposed to be a journalist. Yet as he stood before us, talking passionately, openly and frankly about the issues which affected the Arabic, African and British people alike, as he criticised his profession and measured its impact, as he held up the power of alternative forms of the media, it seemed clear he could have been nothing else.