Mishal Husain is fast becoming one of the UK’s most prominent news presenters. Stylist joined her on the set of Newsnight to chat sexism, politics and Paxman.
We all like to feel up to date with the news. It’s the reason we listen to Radio 4’s Today programme over breakfast and struggle with a misbehaving broadsheet on our commute. Nobody wants to be behind the curve. But some people don’t just read and run. The earthquake in Japan, the violent revolution in Egypt, the massive public protests at Trafalgar Square; these events define their day, they define their entire life.
Above all, there’s one show above all others that we look to for a serious analysis of the day’s events; Newsnight. It’s this authoritative, probing news and current affairs programme that has brought me to BBC Television Centre. Or, to be specific, it’s Mishal Husain, the 38-year-old Cambridge graduate who has recently joined the toughest team in news gathering. Many would be intimidated at the idea of working alongside the famously acerbic Jeremy Paxman. But Mishal’s CV is beyond impressive; when she’s not probing cabinet ministers or reporting from war zones she’s presenting BBC World News and BBC1’s Sunday Night News, to an audience of five million. Her Newsnight performances are already gathering significant praise. She holds her own on a show which requires her to switch effortlessly from talking about the no-fly zone in Libya to interviewing a music journalist about Bob Dylan in China, or Anne Frank’s cousin, the “wonderful and inspiring” Buddy Elias.
Standing in the bustling reception of Television Centre, all high ceilings and acres of glass, I’m a little nervous. This is a woman who is juggling motherhood to three small children (Rafael, 6, and twins Musa and Zaki, 4) with the ability to rival Paxman. After watching her Newsnight performances I have a suspicion she’s rather formal. Certainly the kind of woman to see me as rather, well, ditzy.
We see a lot of distressing images off-air that don’t make the programme
In fact Mishal, who sneaks up on me quietly rather than making a big starry entrance through the security doors, is immediately warm, incredibly relaxed and much more smiley than her on-screen persona. She’s also very pretty, with fabulous skin despite no make-up, and tiny despite her kitten heels. And, rather than flaunting her, frankly vastly superior intellect, she’s much more concerned that I don’t think she’s boring or a nerd.
As we walk from the reception towards her office it’s clear how proud she is to be part of such a respected show. “Newsnight represents the best of what we do at the BBC,” says Mishal “It’s wonderful that you can do offbeat, edgier stories as well as hard news – that’s what makes it distinctive.”
The key to succeeding? Expect the unexpected.
“My first day at Newsnight coincided with the fall of [Egyptian President] Mubarak – so it was a baptism of fire,” she remembers. “Stories change, guests drop out and you have to think on the hoof. There is a large element of unpredictability and you have to relish that to do this job.” That’s one reason why she feels the ‘autocuties’ label given to female news anchors is so unfair – not to mention out of date. “I don’t know why people still view hard news journalism as a male-dominated world – there are so many female journalists now. The head of news at the BBC is a woman. So is the editor of my BBC World News programme. I can see why it makes for good headlines but I just don’t recognise it as reality.”
So she’s never experienced sexism? “I’ve had lots of great opportunities and when something hasn’t worked out I have been philosophical about it,” she says diplomatically. “But as a viewer and listener I do get infuriated at programmes co-presented by men and women where the man gets the tough interviews and the woman gets the softer stories. So the man says ‘Thank you, Chancellor’ and the woman picks up with ‘John Lewis is reporting increasing sales of kingsize beds.’ Honestly...”
Mishal’s ‘official’ work day doesn’t start until 1pm but, she explains with a smile, she was up at 7am getting the boys ready for school at the home she shares with her husband, lawyer Meekal Hashmi, in Camden, north London. She is very open about her family, especially her children, and seems completely unflappable in her ability to juggle motherhood and a high profile career. After dropping her sons off, she spent the rest of this morning in her kitchen drinking earl grey tea, reading the day’s newspapers and listening to the radio, “mugging up” on the likely agenda for tonight’s programme.
“I start with The Times and Radio Four’s Today programme. The BBC website is another first point of contact – I focus on the UK or world sections depending on what programme I am doing that day. And Twitter is a great source. I read quite a few articles people have linked to that way – especially the New York Times and the Washington Post which otherwise I don’t get to see.” Mishal varies her focus depending on her current projects. “For instance, ahead of the documentary I am filming on the Arab revolutions for BBC2 I am following the Egyptian papers and lots of columnists and bloggers in the I am following the Egyptianpapers and lots of columnists and bloggers in the Middle East.” For sport, she says she relies on her sons to tell her what she needs to know “Our house was very into the cricket World Cup.”
A National Institution
I’m surprised to find that Mishal’s office is seriously un-glamorous, a windowless box she shares with the other Newsnight presenters, including JeremyPaxman (it ‘belongs’ to whichever presenter is hosting the programme that evening). On the bookshelf is a copy of Who’s Who, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Bible. On her desk is a phone, computer and copy of today’s Times. A sorry-looking house plant stands by the door. The only sign an ‘autocutie’ works here is a pink pencil.
At 2pm, it’s time for an initial meeting about tonight’s programme with the editor of the day. Today it’s Dan Kelly. I perch on a filing cabinet to observe. Discussions ranges from the important stories of the day – Mishal making her views known in her very calm way; I imagine she would have made the ideal head girl at school – to exactly how far Mishal can push each guest to get as much from them as possible. After lunch, she’s back in her office around 3pm, swotting up on the big issue for tonight’s show. It’s NHS reforms – not a favourite subject for someone whose background is in international news. “I’ve had drier,” she laughs. “EU summits are also quite… um, hard work. You have to work harder to sell those stories because the viewer is never going to be blown over by the pictures.”
Her favourite subject is the Middle East. “I would love to interview the Saudi king – but he’s not known for being available to interview,” she laughs. “That’s such a unique country in a troubled region and it’s unknowable because we just don’t have access.”
What about the bad days? “Humanitarian disasters definitely bother me much more now I’m a mother,” she says. “Some days we see a lot of distressing images in the newsroom that don’t make it to air, but it puts things into perspective.”
Mishal was born in Britain to Pakistani parents. “My parents have always been very politically aware, and I grew up thinking that was normal,” she says. Mishal attended Cobham Hall boarding school in England, where she remembers noticing journalists like Zeinab Badawi and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. “At the time there weren’t very many ethnic minority journalists and I think had people like them not been there I don’t think I’d have thought this was something I could do.”
Her first job was behind the scenes at Bloomberg TV before moving in front of the camera on BBC World. It was her big break. “I was working in New York just after 9/11, I was sent over to cover the Istanbul bombings of 2003, I was on air from Washington the night the Iraq War was announced.” It was Iraq that made her a star in the States. Millions of Americans – convinced their own networks were biased – tuned into BBC World for a more impartial view of the unfolding events. Mishal was profiled in Vanity Fair and praised as “spellbinding” by the Washington Times. “The line between being a journalist and a celebrity is much more blurred there than here,” she says. “They expect you to behave in a certain way – to appear in glossy magazines and talk about your personal life.”
Behind the Headlines
Back in Britain, Mishal had only been back at work for seven months after having Rafael, when she discovered she was pregnant with twins. The timing wasn’t ideal – she had just been moved from BBC World to BBC Breakfast. But Mishal insists her decision to take only six months’ maternity leave was not because she feared being forgotten.
“I took the same length of time with Rafael,” she says. “It just felt like the right length of time for me. It’s such a personal thing though.” She credits her “fantastic” almost full-time nanny and supportive husband with making her unpredictable career possible.
At 6pm (having read up on NHS reform and researching her soon-to-be guests), Mishal heads off to get her make-up done. She then slings on a turquoise Chanel-esque jacket over her black wrap dress (Newsnight’s budget is zero) and heads to her office for an editorial meeting with the programme’s producer and editor.
Tomorrow will be less hectic – Mishal is going for a dress fitting for her outfit for the Royal Wedding (as she’s fronting the BBC’s global coverage). The BBC has declared a formal dress code for everybody covering the occasion – including cameramen and producers. “A label called Voy are making me a boat-neck grey dress with a blue jacket,” she says.
But today, it’s back to NHS reforms, Libya supplying the IRA with Semtex for the 1993 Warrington bomb, a possible second dotcom crash and an interview with one of Frank Sinatra’s songwriters. After another editorial meeting, Mishal finishes writing her ‘cues’ (the presenters write the introductions to each story) before the programme starts.
Nerves are healthy. It’s about being on the edge of your seat
Then, there’s just time for a quick make-up touch-up at 10pm before nipping next door to the (tiny) ‘green room’ where she meets the night’s studio guests. (It’s good to have a rapport before going on-air, she says). Tonight’s include Michael Fallon, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and Emily Thornberry, a Labour MP, for the NHS story and the founder of boo.com, for the dotcom segment.
The sound of laughter echoes from the green room as Mishal puts their minds at rest then she heads into the studio for the rehearsal. It’s brief – just 20 minutes – and focuses on the beginning of the programme with the cameramen practising the famous ‘swooping’ movement the show’s opener is known for.
Does she ever get stage fright? “I wouldn’t say I don’t get nervous,” she smiles. “I think nerves are healthy – and if you’re not nervous it means you haven’t thought about it. It’s about being on the edge of your seat – and that’s good.” In 11 years in front of the camera she admits she has, “messed up too many times to mention. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 1996 I was on BBC1 News and I thought we were rehearsing when actually we were on air. Thankfully I read through to the end but I could easily have stopped as I didn’t know we were filming for real.”
They film the headlines (the bit that goes over that famous theme tune) before the show and by now, Mishal is comfortable with tonight’s content. She only questions whether an extra ‘but’ is needed in the intro for the NHS story and whether the words running over Sinatra singing My Way should include the phrase ‘Sinatra’s rat pack’ – or just ‘rat pack’. (“Isn’t it obvious it’s Sinatra?” Mishal asks). The ‘but’ is added – but the Sinatra thing stays as it is.
In the seconds before the programme begins, the atmosphere becomes tense but businesslike. As only a producer and two cameramen stay in the studio while it’s live on air, we are ushered up to the ‘gallery’ where around 30 TV screens show the scene in the studio from different angles – and what the other channels are showing. The programme goes without a hitch – apart from a ding-dong between the NHS guests, which has the staff whooping with delight. Afterwards, Mishal joins the team for a quick debrief. It’s now 11.15pm and everyone wants to leave work. As she jumps in her car, Mishal’s pleased with the way the show went, but it wasn’t her favourite ever interview. That honour goes to Sir Paul McCartney six years ago while on Breakfast. “He was very charming, very funny and very generous with his time,” she says. “We were asked not to question him about John Lennon but we did – and he didn’t get huffy at all. Afterwards, the cameramen – who tend to be rather battle-hardened – all asked him for his autograph. It was wonderful.”
Now top of her list of people to interview are the Prime Minister and his deputy. “No self-respecting journalist wouldn’t want to interview David Cameron and Nick Clegg,” she confesses. “The challenge is that in this day and age politicians are so media trained that you have to work really hard to get something beyond the obvious. I think the challenge is much greater now than it was in the past.”
If anyone can take on the politicians, Mishal can. But for now she has to be content with getting home around midnight and going to kiss her sleeping children good night, knowing she’ll be up in less than seven hours to do it all again.
Words: Tanya De Grunwald, picture credits: Peter Dench, Rex Features