Rageh Omaar: The Scud Stud aims for truth
The Somali-born journalist Rageh Omaar became a celebrity during the Iraq conflict, but he has no regrets after walking out on the BBC. He tells Ian Burrell why he has joined Al Jazeera's new English language TV channel
Monday 15 May 2006
In the eyes of Rageh Omaar, Western news organisations are perpetrating a "fraud" on their viewers with their misleading coverage of the war in Iraq, the conflict in which he established himself as an internationally-recognised journalist.
Omaar is outspoken in voicing his frustrations, and his words help to explain his recent career-path, which has taken him from being the flak-jacketed golden boy of the BBC to a presenter for Al Jazeera who is also writing a deeply personal book about the experiences of living as a Muslim in contemporary Britain.
He won admiration for his cool-headed dispatches from Baghdad during the aerial bombardments of the first days of the invasion of Iraq, and was nicknamed The Scud Stud by the New York Post, but suffered a whispering campaign by British Government officials that his work was unduly influenced by Iraqi information ministers.
Now it is Omaar, 38, who is calling the veracity of the reporting into question, saying that news organisations are failing to inform their audiences as to how their reports have been compiled. "Some of us, I feel, are engaged in some kind of a small fraud on the British public, the readers and viewers," he says. "I feel very uncomfortable that we are not putting a health warning on reports from Iraq because to not do so lends an enormous legitimacy. We are saying Channel 4 or the BBC or Reuters or ABC can vouch for this when individual journalists are not so certain."
Omaar says he has spoken to a number of senior correspondents from different news organisations who feel "less inclined" to return to Iraq because they cannot do their jobs properly. "When a broadcaster says Rageh Omaar, or 'X', reports now from Baghdad it's actually not wholly true, as I haven't shot the pictures because it's far too dangerous and I haven't been to visit the different areas because it's too dangerous."
His comments, he stresses, are not a criticism of his colleagues in the field but are "a reflection of the terrible circumstances in which journalists have to operate". He says: "Unless you explain those circumstances you run the danger of participating in what I think is a small fraud."
It is time, he says, for news organisations to "fess up" and make clear that many of the pictures that comprise what are effectively "pooled reports" have been shot by anonymous Iraqi freelancers, whilst the Western journalists have remained inside the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. "If we as an industry don't grapple with the question of putting up a health warning then we will slowly but surely have some of the legitimacy sapped from us."
His fear is that if atrocities and scandals in Iraq are later brought to light by Non-Governmental Organisations or other non-journalistic bodies, then the public will feel betrayed. "When it turns round in a year's time and Iraq is in even more of a mess, people will say: 'Hang on, I thought you guys were reporting all this'."
Omaar has just celebrated the birth of his third child. He is a family man at heart and far from the tank-chasing war correspondent that the memorable images of him in khaki helmet and red fleece suggested. His reporting from Baghdad made his name but also left him with some doubts as to what journalists could achieve, particularly under the restraints experienced during such a conflict.
His new venture will approach news-gathering from a different perspective, from the first-hand accounts of those who actually saw the events they are describing. Witness, which will be shown every night when the new Al Jazeera International channel launches later this year (after a series of delays) will "give a platform to film-makers from all over the world," says Omaar.
It will feature reports from Cuba, Iran and other countries whose film-makers are invariably ignored by Western broadcasters. Omaar says he will help to select the stories, will interview the film-makers and, in some instances, will go back on the road to talk to eye-witnesses and compile films himself. "We will seek to try to make it as pure first-hand storytelling as we can," says Omaar, who believes the idea reflects the "enormous political and cultural impact" of documentary film-making in the last five years, embodied by the successes of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and others.
But it is not just this new genre (free of the commentary of analysts, experts, spin-doctors and politicians) that marks out Omaar's new career direction, it is the new employer too. Three years ago he seemed to embody all the qualities that BBC news might look for in a correspondent. This product of Cheltenham Boys College and New College, Oxford had a quick brain, elegant diction and a self-assuredness that couldn't be rattled, even under fire. And, having spent his early childhood in Somalia, he was a good ambassador for the corporation as a global broadcaster.
But only months after he pulled out of Iraq, having famously reported on the pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue in Fardus Square, his perception of where his career should go was at odds with what the BBC had in mind for him. After his experiences in Baghdad, Omaar wanted to take on a variety of new projects, from documentaries to series about Islam. The BBC wanted him to remain as a face of its hard-news output, if not at the front line then as a newscaster. "I was offered: 'How would you like to be developed as an anchor?' I can, hand on heart, say I will never be an anchor. I did it once or twice but it's not for me."
He went freelance but now seems more than happy to be associated with Al Jazeera, a news organisation which he describes as having "blown apart the Western monopoly". Omaar is joining a new network that has caused shockwaves in broadcast journalism with its ambitious programme of recruiting senior talent. Sir David Frost is the most high-profile hire, but the English-language channel has poached Veronica Pedrosa from CNN International to anchor its Kuala Lumpur-based output and Five News's Barbara Serra will present from London. Shahnaz Pakravan, formerly with BBC World, is to present a twice-weekly women's show, Everywoman. Richard Gizbert, the former ABC reporter who took the network to court after he was fired for refusing to return to Iraq, will host a media show, The Listening Post.
Equally important, Al Jazeera International, which will operate from Doha in Qatar (the home of its Arabic sister channel), London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, has made a series of top appointments for behind-the-camera roles, with staff lured from the BBC, ITN and the big US networks.
Omaar is heartened by the calibre of his new colleagues but well aware of the suspicion in which Al Jazeera is regarded in some circles in the West. He trots out the accusations: "It's a mouthpiece of bin Laden, it's terrorism TV and - the most outrageous and outlandish - that Aljazeera is in cahoots with al-Qa'ida."
He believes that some people "become demented" when talking about the network, and says the flawed idea that it broadcasts beheadings endures. The reputation is all the more unfair, he claims, because Al Jazeera has dared to "throw political and cultural hand-grenades" into an Arab world formerly used to the stodgy and censored reports of state broadcasters: when the storm over abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was at its height, Al Jazeera dared to point out that conditions in regular Arab jails were appalling too.
But, having been derided by Muslim fundamentalists and Western politicians (including being accused by Donald Rumsfeld of working "in close proximity" with terrorists), the network does not operate in fear of criticism of its reputation.
Omaar feels that Al Jazeera's reputation in the West will rise dramatically as soon as it begins broadcasting in English. "The scales will fall from people's eyes," he says. "Al Jazeera has changed the face of international television. They've brought non-Western journalists to the top table for the first time."
The reporter, who witnessed attacks by the US military on Al Jazeera bureaux during operations in both Kabul and Baghdad, is optimistic that the process of Western audiences engaging with the English-language channel will also help the Aljazeera Arabic service to reappraise its position in the world and to realise "that there's not this enormous conspiracy in the West to get Al Jazeera". Then he adds: "Because frankly they have every reason to believe that, in my estimation."
Profiles of Rageh Omaar tend to dwell on privilege: his looks, his private education, his refined accent and his wife's family's entry in Burke's Peerage. Having been born in "one of the poorest countries on Earth", he has always been careful to acknowledge how lucky he has been. But though it is true that his father, Abdullahi, made good money that paid for Rageh to attend the elite Dragon prep-school in Oxford and that the journalist's wife Nina is the daughter of a baronet, such observations can be misleading.
Omaar is not particularly posh, his wife is a former occupational therapist at London's Charing Cross Hospital, specialising in mental health, and they live in a family home in the west London suburb of Chiswick.
More importantly, Omaar's Somali background is, he appears to suggest in this interview, more central to how he sees himself than has been suggested in the past. He relates not just to his East African roots (his parents have returned to northern Somalia) but to the experiences of Somali family members.
"I have got 20-30 relatives who emigrated here. I came here when I was young and my parents came of choice but virtually all my other relatives - first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles - have fled," he says. "They've come as refugees and been through the asylum system. It's something I wanted to capture in a book that I'm writing at the moment about the experiences of Somalis that I know who have grown up here in Britain, not just as Somalis but as British Muslims. That's a very important aspect that I wanted to write about, not as a journalist, but as someone who has grown up here and feels British as well as Somali."
The book, called Only Half of Me, will be published by Penguin in the summer and is remarkably different from Omaar's last offering, when he was still at the BBC, an account of his role in reporting the Iraq invasion. Reviewers noted the almost complete absence of personal content. "That was more of a journalist's book", says Omaar.
The experiences of his relatives are not something that he has recently learned of. It has been a major influence on his reporting, he says. "It has been a part of me that's fundamental and has informed my work as a journalist. I did have close relatives who fled wars and who lived in Mogadishu during the US intervention, and went through that appalling experience, and who have been asylum-seekers. It's not something that even many of my colleagues in the BBC knew about. They just saw Rageh, a very privileged bloke. But it has been very important to the way I've approached the world and has made me who I am. It has perhaps given me a different perspective to many other colleagues who have not had relatives who have gone through the experiences we are reporting on every day."
The idea of Omaar having grown up in the leafy environs that surrounded his boarding school is also a little misleading. The Omaar family home was close to central London's Edgware Road, or "little Arabia", as he terms it.
After that, the coffee shops of Baghdad, and their hookah or shisha pipes, seemed like a home from home. "They held no surprises for me. When I first arrived in the Middle East they said, 'You must try this,' and I said, 'Look mate, I've grown up with it since I was eight, it's not a big deal. When I got off the bus each day I went through clouds of shisha smoke."
When Omaar left Oxford, where he studied modern history, he did not, as some viewers may have assumed, head straight for a BBC traineeship. "I didn't know anybody at the BBC. I sent one application letter off to the BBC and didn't even get a rejection letter back, so that played into all my stereotypes of, 'Forget it, you've got no chance'," he says. "I had done no journalism at university. It wasn't a crowd I had much in common with and was more a sort of clique."
So instead he approached The Voice, the black newspaper based in a side-street in Brixton, south London. There he met people such as Dotun Adebayo (now a BBC broadcaster) and his brother Diran (now a novelist). "I just got exposed to an environment where I could do things," says Omaar. He gained the confidence to approach the BBC's Africa Service in Bush House with a suggestion that he string for them from a family friend's home in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. He was given a tape recorder, a microphone and some batteries and a letter of introduction on BBC paper, and that was the start of his relationship with the corporation.
A subsequent decision to brush up on his mother tongue by studying Arabic at Amman university in Jordan led to him getting a posting in the Middle East and the opportunity to report from Iraq for six years, on and off, prior to the 2003 invasion. Omaar remembers the country as "by far the most anglophile nation in the Arab world" and he thinks the events of the last three years have damaged Britain's reputation in that region immeasurably.
"There was a sense in which Britain was seen on the Arab street and in Arab ministries as an honest broker. I think that's shattered completely and utterly as a result of Iraq and it is now seen in every way as partisan as the United States."
Omaar says he cannot understand why BBC World and the BBC World Service, which could help to improve Britain's standing overseas, are so poorly funded. The BBC's belated rebuilding of its Arabic service (the dismantling of which led to the formation of Al Jazeera a decade ago) means it faces an uphill battle in a now-crowded Middle-East market where it is in danger of being seen as promoting British values, Omaar says.
He claims his own new network has no allegiances. "It won't be beholden to one sensibility," he says. "This is not an organisation that's going to have to watch its back in terms of what newspapers write about it. The worst has been said already."
ON REPORTING IN IRAQ
'Some of us are engaged in some kind of a small fraud on the British public'
'For the first time, it has brought non-Western journalists to the top table'
ON GREAT BRITAIN
'Once seen by Arabs as an honest broker, now as every bit as partisan as the USA'
Who's who at Al Jazeera
SIR DAVID FROST
A broadcasting legend, and the only person to have interviewed the last seven US presidents and six British prime ministers. Will be based in London but the exact nature of his on-screen role is not yet known.
News anchor in Kuala Lumpur, one of al-Jazeera International's four broadcast centres. Pedrosa grew up in exile in London after her mother wrote a biography of Imelda Marcos. She has worked for the BBC and CNN.
SHEREEN EL FEKRI
Based in London, she will present AJI's business and politics strand People & Power. Raised by Egyptian-Welsh parents in Canada. She joins AJI from The Economist, where she was healthcare correspondent.
Will present a world media review, Listening Post. Gizbert worked for ABC from 1993, but was sacked for refusing to work in Iraq. The London-based journalist successfully sued the network for unfair dismissal.
Will present from the London studios. Studied international relations at the London School of Economics and journalism at City University. She was a producer on the Today programme before moving to Sky News.
Twice a week from Doha, Pakravan will present Everywoman, the first show from the Middle East centred on women's issues. A former news presenter on BBC World, BBC News 24 and Channel Four Daily.
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