What it takes to make it
featured not only the politics but the social and cultural issues affecting the everyday people of the region, it was here that Hala honed her skill at opening a small window on to the plight of the masses. “It’s the smaller stories that stay with me,” she says, “the ones on the margins that tell the wider story. Not just conflict but the ones that bring a real understanding of what the Arab world is and that doesn’t always have to be explosions and gunfire.”
Elaborating, she says, “I remember we did a story about Gaza to explain why, at the time, it had one of the highest cellphone penetrations in the Arab world. When we went to investigate we discovered that it’s because no one can get out and the only way they can communicate with their families elsewhere is to have a cellphone and an internet connection. So we filmed half a family in Gaza and half a family in theWest Bank and we were the conduit between them, they hadn’t seen each other in four years.” It’s that well-balanced mix of strength and compassion that has made Hala such a wellrespected journalist, for despite having an impressive list of interviewees to her name, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and the Dalai Lama, it is the day-to-day stories that Hala says she is most proud of.
“When I was covering the war in Iraq I did a story on the only spare-limb factory in Baghdad. All these people were having their legs and arms blown off by bombs and there were no prosthetics for them. I also went to the only old people’s home in Baghdad, places that are totally forgotten about in a war zone. It’s not just someone in a field hospital wounded on the frontline but his elderly mother that no one will be able to look after any more. Those are the stories that stay with me, the ones where you tell the story of one family and it tells the story of the whole region.”
Despite her obvious passion reporting on the effects of war, it can’t be denied that Hala also flourishes when holding some of the world’s most powerful people to account. In one seating she is capable of a hard-hitting interview with Osama Morsi, son of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, followed immediately by a grilling conversation with Zimbabwe’s former prime minister and 2013 presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Asked where her strength comes from to ask the questions others don’t dare, she answers without hesitation. “One of the big privileges of the job is that leaders have to answer you. It’s a service to our viewers so I don’t let [the leaders] off the hook if they give me a stock answer. It’s my responsibility to get them to explain.”
With that attitude it’s little wonder she was ranked the 36th most powerful Arab woman in the world for 2013 by a business magazine.
But being credited for the fact she is an Arab woman who has broken on to the international news circuit is not something Hala necessarily approves of. “First and foremost I’m a journalist, that’s the most important thing, I happen to be Arab and I happen to be a woman; I think we will have a gone long way if that is something that isn’t highlighted any more,” she says, while quickly pointing out there is no shortage of women reporting from the frontline. “Anyway, it’s not a handful any more, there are so many women out in the field now, including correspondents, producers and camera crew and they don’t even get any of the glory.”
So with the boundaries shifting within the profession, what advice does she have for those who want to enter the field of journalism? First, Hala believes it’s a trade that can be learnt through experience, not necessarily academic qualifications. “You have to learn the craft of this profession, it’s not something you can just improvise. You need to learn what it is to be balanced, to source, how not to fabricate or just show one side of a story. It doesn’t mean you have to have a journalism degree – I don’t have one – but it is consciously and purposefully making the effort to learn the trade.”
‘ I realise as I get older that it doesn’t mean you are weak or unprofessional if you allow yourself to be touched or moved by something’
This raises the question how one person who has witnessed so many direct atrocities of war and its devastating effects can manage not to become desensitised. “I’m actually becoming more and more sensitive,” she admits. “Which is odd because I didn’t think that would be the case. I think it’s because I realise as I get older that it doesn’t mean you are weak or unprofessional if you allow yourself to be touched or moved by something.”
It is that genuine touch of humanity running through Hala that can best explain her popularity and her success. A unique gift enables her to open the eyes of the masses to see the plight of many through the stories of a few.