How I handle difficult interviews – Kadaria Ahmed | Dailytrust

How I handle difficult interviews – Kadaria Ahmed

Ace broadcast journalist, Kadaria Ahmed
Ace broadcast journalist, Kadaria Ahmed

Ace broadcast journalist, Kadaria Ahmed, recently moderated the 18th Daily Trust dialogue and we took time out to interview her on several issues, including how she was able to carve a niche for herself in an otherwise male-dominated profession.

She also spoke about her radio station and mentorship programme.

Journalism is seen by many as a men’s profession, what was it like starting out, and how has the journey been?

First of all, that thinking is very old fashioned. While it is true that it might have started out like that, just like many other professions, things are changing.

The truth is that women are as fully human as men; therefore, they have the ability to pursue whatever they put their minds. Our brains are the same. It is also clear that if you are going to have a balance, if you are going to have societies that are fully functional, then you must bring to bear the talent of all your people. What that means is that you can’t exclude women.

Has the journey been easy for you?

No, but nothing good is ever easy.

Do you face sexism? Is it difficult to be in a newsroom where you know you are a minority?

Yes. I have had that experience, but not just about gender. I have had it across multiple sources of demography.  I have been in newsrooms where, perhaps I was one of a tiny minority of black people because I started my career at the BBC. I spent periods within parts of the BBC, where I would stand up in the newsroom and look around and I would be the only black person. Being in a minority can happen. By the same token, you could be in a place where you are a majority and other people are the minority. I think what matters is to focus on why inclusion matters and why diversity matters.

Would you say that women in Nigeria, for instance, are now getting that inclusion in journalism?

No! They are nowhere near where they should be. Fundamentally, Nigeria is a place where there is contradiction, which is basically partly due to our history. We were colonised by the British, so there’s a part of us that is very Western. Although our traditions are also still very strong, we still added religious traditions.

So, generally, this country is a patriarchal society, which means there is a general system that sees the man as superior, and therefore, gives him prominence. And I think that continues to be the case for many women.

In our spaces among our families and friends we may take it for granted because we have grown up in a middle class, where women are sent to school and all that, but that’s not the case for everybody in the country.

I come from a state, for example, where the illiteracy rate, depending on which statistics you look at, ranges from something like 80 per cent to 97 per cent, and that’s across both genders.

So my life is a miracle. To have come out from that type of a place as a woman, and to be where I am is God’s grace – coming from a place where maybe they didn’t believe in sending women to school and at that age there’s nothing you could do about that. So, women are not where they are supposed to be in journalism, business, law, medicine and others. They are not even where they are supposed to be when it comes to basic things like primary and secondary education. That’s why we have to keep talking about it and actually cultivating male champions because some of these changes are not possible if we talk to only ourselves. We must convince men that it is in their interest for women to do well.

Is there any particular thing female journalists can do to be better in the industry?

In everything you do in life, there’s a degree of personal responsibility one has to take. So, make sure you teach yourself skills that are required in your job, apply yourself and work hard.

And for people like me who are a little bit more well-established, we have a responsibility to mentor and take young people under our wings; to give back. I have been supported by some very amazing women, particularly in the second half of my career.

I had what I consider a full career in London, spanning 13 to 14 years. Then I came back to Nigeria and spent maybe a year doing other things and later decided that I really wanted to do journalism, so I tried to dive back into it.

My Nigeria’s journey wouldn’t have been possible without Mrs Sola Momoh of Channels. It is important to note that she gets a lot of credit for what my life has been in journalism since I came back to Nigeria. This is because essentially, she took a platform and handed to me. She helped to make me visible. I know she mentors young journalists, and it is in that same way that I am also trying to hold the hands of other female journalists and try to mentor them.

You have moderated several high-level events on very crucial issues. How do you prepare, considering that each is different?

There’s no one way to prepare; it varies. The truth is that sometimes no matter the preparation, you have to be able to think on your feet, particularly when you do live events because things can just go pear-shaped; it can go wrong.

Generally, as a journalist, to be able to do your job and perform as expected every day, it helps if you are on top of what is going on. So, just immersing myself in news is not because I’ve gone to study it but because as a journalist, my passion is news. I live and breathe it. I read, I listen.

So you look at what you are going to do and read up the most recent information regarding whatever subject you are discussing; then you do your research. If there are areas that you are not 100 per cent sure about, it is always important to actually pick up your phone and reach out to people who are experts to explain it to you better.

But the most important thing when you do broadcast journalism in particular, perhaps the biggest skill you can have, is that of being a listener because if you don’t listen you may end up with a conversation that is not dynamic. Then you end up with a very stilted conversation because you are sticking to your script. Those kinds of conversations tend to be boring. They lose life.

Have you ever had a bad reaction from an interviewee?

Yes, during and after. I haven’t said this in public but I will say it here. When I saw Femi Fani-Kayode in the big fight with a Daily Trust journalist, I started laughing because I had gone through exactly the same thing with him. In fact, my team was terrified. My producer, who would normally be with us, was away in Canada. We were actually doing the interview in Femi Fani-Kayode’s house. One of my cameramen sneaked out to send an SOS, saying, You better come and save us, this man might get us dealt with today.’’ Because of the brickbats, he started shouting ‘‘they sent you, they told me that they were going to send you.’’

He said, “What sort of question is that? I’m not sure I’m going to do the interview.’’ And we had a back and forth. I refused to back down and we did the interview. If you go online you would find the interview there. It was when I used to produce a programme called “Straight Talk,’’ which was the equivalent of  BBC’s  “Hard Talk”.  I did that for about two years.

Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me when I see that kind of situation. The culture here in Nigeria is that journalists have not always been able to tell truth to power. People need to forgive me for saying this, for a myriad of reasons.

A lot of Nigerian journalists are spoilt. When interviewees sit before a journalist, their expectation is that they have done you a favour, therefore, you should not ask hard questions.

As a journalist, you cultivate a relationship that assures them that you would deal with them professionally, that you will not misrepresent what they say, that you will not misquote them, that you will give them the right of reply to allegations against them, all of those things that are part of standard journalism globally. Never in that relationship should it be fair that that means I am not going to ask him the question. But I think that among some Nigerian journalists, the situation is changing. And it should because the job of a journalist is to hold power accountable. You can’t hold power accountable if you do not ask tough questions.

During the last debate, President Buhari’s supporters accused you of being rude, how did you feel about that?

Pro-Buhari people said I was rude, Pro-Atiku people said I was rude, even Yele Sowore’s people said I was rude. Kingsley Moughalu’s people said I was rude. It means I am doing something right. Every interview has a different dynamism. So, if you end up in front of someone who is firm, but polite, you probably have a very vigorous but polite conversation. If you end up in front of people who are combative and rude, depending on the kind of journalist you are, you may scuttle away or push back. I tend to be that type of journalist, actually. If you want to get the best out of me, the best thing is to allow us have a very civilised conversation. The moment you try to attack me, I also will reply because I am not going to back down. I am doing my job. It is constitutionally mandated.

Have you ever been intimidated by any personality?

I don’t know what you mean by intimidation. I am still quite nervous before I go on stage. I am still nervous before beginning interviews. I worry about making mistakes that will come back and haunt me. I have a prayer that I say every time before I go on stage. I always ask God to enable me manage a conversation in a way that is useful to Nigeria. I don’t pray that I come out of it looking good because I could moderate an event, come out of it looking good and it is bad for the country. Try not to center on yourself, and as much as possible, just keep the conversation on the issues; it makes a difference.

My first ever presidential interview  was with Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as a rookie reporter in London. I was totally inexperienced. I had never done anything like that as I had just started working in the BBC, just really little bits and pieces; then he came into town. My boss called and told me to get dressed, go and interview President Museveni. My boss helped me to work through the issues. She was an amazing mentor. We got there and my lack of experience kicked in. He was sitting in those massive big chairs. What I should have done was to pull a chair in front of him and face him. But he had me sit beside him in another big chair, so I had to turn right; and the chairs were so far apart.  In those days we had the microphone. I was facing him with my microphone, and within a short period of time, my hand started getting tired and started dropping. He took his hand and put it under my hand and I started becoming very agitated because here, I was worrying instead of concentrating on the conversation I was having with him. I was worrying about the fact that the president of Uganda was helping to keep my hand up.

I ended up with an interview that I thought was not as great as it could have been because, instead of focusing and listening to him 100 per cent, then responding accordingly, my mind was drifting between my hand and the interview.

When I do training now, one of the first things I teach people is how to scope a room and actually set their interviews in a way that allows them to be very comfortable and not to accept what they are told.

You recently set up a radio station, why radio?

Two things: I started in radio. My master’s degree was in documentary filmmaking. When I left Nigeria on a Chevening scholarship to go to the UK and do my master’s degree programme, I was inspired by Professor Ali Mazrui, who at that time used to do this amazing documentaries. And I wanted to come back to Nigeria and tell our stories in that way.

But when I got to the UK and finished my programme, I had an opportunity to do a part time role in the BBC, then a fulltime role became available and it was radio. I dived into it and I fell in love with radio. I realised how amazing it was in its simplicity and effectiveness.

I also realised that because radio’s tech was simple, you could travel; it doesn’t have the complexities of television; therefore, it doesn’t have its ego, as far as I am concerned. Some of the best television journalists in the world are people who started out in the radio because it forces you to know your onions. Because it is an audio medium, and doesn’t have sight, you have to basically tell your stories really well.

I had always thought that radio wasn’t being done as well as it could be here because it tends to be a lot of entertainment. I think that now, more than ever, Nigeria actually needs journalism. When I say journalism, I am not talking about just the reporting, the usual five Ws (who, what, why, where, when). We have a dearth of context, we have a dearth of analysis. We are not doing a good job of letting people know what this means for them, and why they, therefore, should be interested, and how they should get engaged.

So, public service journalism in radio, for me, is a passion. I had always said I was going to do my best to own a radio station. It took a while, but I got a license and we are broadcasting now.

It is not easy because of the skills to do radio. I have a very young team, but they are all really bright, hard working and learning really quickly. You know, if you put in the work you find out that they are actually hungry for the skills. The intention is to do public service journalism. The intention is to essentially give people context for stories, explain why they matter and even tell them ways of getting involved if they want to.

You talked about mentoring young journalists, is the radio part of it?

Yes, it is one of the other things I am doing. I have two foundations I run, along with my sister, so I set up a foundation in my dad’s name. Part of the work of that foundation is scholarships. When we launched it, it started with me basically. When I decided that I wanted to give back to journalism, the best way I could do it was through young female journalists because my dad believed so much in me, our education and all that.

We give out scholarships to six female students in the Lagos State University, University of Uyo and Bayero University, and the scholarships are full; that is, from the point of getting admission till they graduate. It includes tuition, accommodation and a little stipend.

Now that the radio station is running, there’s an opportunity for them to come and intern with us. And if they can prove themselves to be qualitative, they can actually get a job.

My sister also took what she has a passion for and put in the foundation. She is doing a lot of drug education and rehabilitation. She is building a drug rehabilitation centre in Kaduna, in his memory as well.

With the social media, where do you think is the place of the traditional media, going forward?

If you talk about the traditional media in terms of platforms, like newspapers, radio or television, they would always be, in my view. I mean they have been shouting that newspapers would die in the last 30 years, but they are still here. There will always be a niche market of people who read traditional newspapers.

But if what you are talking about genuine journalism that is qualitative, the media might change. In other words, you may not end up in 10 years with everybody reading a physical newspaper, you probably get people who do newspapers online; you know what I mean, or apps that look like newspapers. And what you are getting is that there is a convergence.

But it is important to say that quality will continue to matter. So, if what you are talking about are traditional values of the media of investigating or verifying, making sure it is factual, of balance, those things will continue to differentiate you and everybody else that is just throwing content on the platform.

You are not just a media personality, the nation saw a little bit of activism when you protested against insecurity in your home state, Zamfara.  A lot of people called you names. How did you feel; will you do such thing again?

Absolutely, I am still going to do it. I don’t see how you can do proper journalism without being an activist. Activism is being an advocate for good governance. On the particular issue of Zamfara protest, part of my frustration was that it was not getting any traction. It was one of the biggest violent problems we had.

At some point, there were more people dying in Zamfara than Borno, yet it was underreported. That was part of the reasons it was important to join the people.

Funniest part, I didn’t even organise the protest; it was organised by a young group of activists. I can’t remember their names. The only boy I remember his name was Morocco.

I happened to be in Abuja and they asked for my support. And it made sense to me because this is my state. A lot is going on. At that point, I had written articles for the BBC, trying to raise awareness, but they did not really gain the traction and I thought it was important to draw the attention of those in authority to how bad the situation was. I was also frustrated with the person in charge at that time. He had done a few things, including saying that he was no longer the chief security officer of the state. I wondered how you would abdicate your responsibility of looking after your people and still keep the position.

In my books, if you abdicate major responsibilities you have to resign. It is not a job you do halfway. You can’t continue to enjoy the benefits of your office and say you are no longer the chief security officer when security is the biggest issue.

So, I joined them. Of course I was the most visible person in the street and the media picked it up because they are my constituency. They all know me personally, so they asked for comments. I was happy to give them, and we saw some improvements. It wasn’t a wasted effort at all. However, the state of security in the North generally leaves a lot to be desired.

I am not ruling out the possibility of taking to the streets again; we have to speak out.