Shereen El Feki: My Life in Media
'We are exploring shifting balances of power - who wields it, who wants it and how it is being used, for better or worse'
Monday 02 October 2006
The new twice-weekly current affairs show on al-Jazeera International, People & Power, will be hosted by Shereen El Feki, 38. Before joining the 24-hour news channel, which launches later this year, she worked from 1998 to 2005 as healthcare correspondent at The Economist. She was born in Oxford, grew up in Ontario, and studied at Cambridge. Most of her family live in Egypt, though she is based in west London.
So what inspired you to embark on a career in the media?
I'm an accidental journalist. My grand plan was to become a clinician-scientist, but I've always enjoyed literature and the arts. After finishing a PhD in immunology at Cambridge I had a chance to spend a few weeks on the science and technology section at The Economist. That eventually led to a job as the healthcare correspondent, combining my interest in writing with my love of science.
When you were 15 years old, which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?
My father read Al-Ahram, an Egyptian newspaper, but I didn't speak Arabic at the time. I'm now studying the language, but it's not easy. Arabic words are based on three-letter roots - all consonants. Getting through a newspaper is like playing scrabble with no vowels.
And what were your favourite TV and radio programmes?
Growing up in Canada, my weekly treat was Sunday's Masterpiece Theatre, which broadcast BBC adaptations. Through it, I got hooked on Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse, which shaped my writing style and kept me off the mean streets of small-town Canada.
Describe your job.
We're gearing up to launch the channel, so it changes by the day. As presenter of People & Power, I'm closely involved in shaping the editorial line, pitching stories that fit our remit of exploring shifting balances of power - who wields it, who wants it and how it is being used, for better or worse. The show is a mix of short documentaries and studio discussion, so I'm also learning the basics of TV presenting - skilful interviewing is so much harder than it looks - and filming documentaries.
What's the first media you turn to in the mornings?
The Net for news and blogs.
Do you consult any media sources during the working day?
Too many - occupational hazard of being a journalist.
What is the best thing about your job?
The chance to learn a different way of telling stories - via pictures, not just words. And the shift from writing anonymously at The Economist to fronting a show on al-Jazeera.
And the worst?
It's early days yet. Even the most boring bits of TV-making have a delightful novelty at this stage.
How do you feel you influence the media?
On People & Power, we try to commission independent producers wherever the stories are. Our aim is provide a platform for those not usually heard on the international stage, bringing new voices and different opinions to mass media.
What's the proudest achievement in your working life?
A few years ago, I wrote a special in The Economist on the value of intellectual property rights for developing countries, including an Indian network working with poor inventors in rural India. I later learned that a patent lawyer in Boston had read the article, and contacted the network to offer his expertise in filing patents in America for these grassroots inventors. It's gratifying to think that my article helped to forge a link across the world, and reward a bright idea.
And what's your most embarrassing moment?
Ah, yet to come. Wait for my debut on international TV. There are bound to be some choice moments.
At home, what do you tune in to?
I mainly watch Channel 4 and BBC2.
What is your Sunday paper? And do you have a favourite magazine?
The weekend FT and International Herald Tribune. I particularly enjoy Prospect magazine - interesting stories and good writing (with the occasional thrill of seeing my own stuff in print).
N ame the one career ambition you want to realise before you retire
I'd like to write a book about the Middle East and its history, to help baffled Westerners understand what makes Arabs tick.
If you didn't work in the media what would you do?
If talent were no object, I'd be a concert pianist. But it's much more likely I would have become a public health specialist.
Who in the media do you most admire and why?
My former colleagues at The Economist, for their knowledge and wit. But as they don't have bylines, I won't blow their cover.
1991: Graduates from Trinity College, University of Toronto, and returns home to England
1993: Completes masters degree in biochemistry at Trinity College, Cambridge
1996: Starts working as an intern at The Economist
1997: Finishes PhD in molecular immunology at Cambridge
1998: Becomes healthcare correspondent of The Economist, a position she holds for seven years
2006: Having spent much of this year waiting for the much-delayed launch of al-Jazeera International she is set to become presenter of the channel's twice-weekly show People & Power
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