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

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."


'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'


'Once seen by Arabs as an honest broker, now as every bit as partisan as the USA'

Who's who at Al Jazeera


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.


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.

Suggested Topics
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
I'm not worried about United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

International Promotions Manager - Consumer Products

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: A global entertainment busi...

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker