Mishal Husain’s wrist is a strange place to find a clue to her growing stature as one of Britain’s pre-eminent broadcast journalists. But there, just above her right hand, is a grey Jawbone fitness band. She got it because the alarm, which works by vibrating gently, can subtly wake her up at 3am for work without bothering her husband.
Sleep management has been a concern for Husain ever since it was announced in August that she would be joining BBC radio’s Today programme, the UK’s most important morning news show. Its presenters have a similarly outsized presence, which may help to explain why an in-house publicist sits in on our interview in a café at BBC Broadcasting House, studiously writing down every question and answer. The BBC need not have worried. Even in an unmonitored email exchange after our conversation, she is thoughtful and considered.
Husain is one of just a handful of women to present Today since it was launched in 1957, a working mother of Pakistani origin and the youngest current presenter, all of which has contributed to the wide interest in her. When BBC director-general Tony Hall announced her move, he said he was “particularly pleased that her appointment means there will be another female voice on the programme”. Last week, James Harding, the corporation’s director of news, echoed this view, saying she was an example of how the corporation needed to proceed to “look and sound more like its audiences”.
Husain actually believes the corporation has been “quite ahead of the game in terms of diversity” and says, “There was an awareness around the time I joined the BBC that our output should look diverse, that not just our newsroom should. It’s not just about the make-up of our newsrooms but it’s about our look on-air.” Is this level of curiosity unsettling? Journalists, after all, are supposed to tell the story, not be the subject of it. “I understand why it’s interesting because it’s a discussion-based programme, it’s not a programme where you’re just reading the news and so, therefore, you are likely to bring your own hinterland to the subjects you discuss,” she says, adding that there is more interest in her because of the programme’s “place in the national conversation”.
Husain was, in fact, a global star before she became a British one. She was the BBC’s first Washington-based news anchor, where she presented a nightly programme from 2002 to 2003. In the years after the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, she developed a keen following among American viewers who wanted an alternative perspective to the main domestic news networks. “I remember a Pakistani-American friend remarking on the lack of people with names like mine – she meant a Muslim name – doing a similar job on US television,” she says. “And remember, this was the run-up to the Iraq war, with Saddam Hussein considered a major public enemy for the US. So a name like mine might have jumped out at US viewers.”
If it did “jump out”, it was largely positively, with the US press lauding her. A profile in Vanity Fair magazine dubbed Husain the “Belle of the Beeb”.
Husain was born in Northampton. Her father was a urologist and her mother had been a TV producer in Pakistan – “there was a bit of television in my blood” – but gave up work when they moved to the UK. When she was two, the family moved to the Middle East: her father was hired to set up a specialist urology unit at an Abu Dhabi hospital and they later moved to Saudi Arabia. She was sent to boarding school in the UK when she was 12 and went on to study law at Cambridge university and then at the European University Institute in Florence.
By her second year at Cambridge, however, she began to realise that she didn’t actually want to be a lawyer. Although Husain’s father initially disapproved of her decision to become a journalist, she credits her parents with developing her interest in news. “There was always a newspaper on the dining room table, the BBC World Service radio was generally on in the morning.”
She did some work experience at the BBC and, apart from a couple of years at Bloomberg, has been there ever since. She flitted between departments before settling in the business news division and her big onscreen break came when she was asked to stand in to present a business report. By the late 2000s, senior management had identified her as one to watch.
Husain seems to have a glowing reputation among colleagues. One producer told me that she was super-collaborative and willing to be sent to places at the drop of a hat. Another said she was particularly mindful of her team behind the camera, always thanking the crew. No doubt this style is also disarming for those she interviews. She can be tough but her approach is often contrasted with the more adversarial style associated with peers such as her Today colleague John Humphrys.
Niceness could also explain why she refuses to be drawn on the odd hiccup – such as Humphrys flippantly asking her on BBC2’s Celebrity Mastermind if she was only doing her job because she was “good-looking”. She says the incident is in the past and you just need to move on. “In any career and in any professional life I think somewhere along the line you have to toughen up and you have to develop a thick skin, and you have to take the rough with the smooth,” she says.
This all suggests a pragmatic approach to life and career but she hesitates when I ask if she is driven. “I would say I want to achieve my full potential and so I’m always thinking, what will I be doing down the line.” She talks of always having a five-year plan for her career – though stresses that she is extremely happy at Today, “one of the pinnacles of journalism in this country”, she says. However much you love your job, “It’s no bad thing to be on the edge of your seat.”
With three young sons – Rafael, aged nine, and seven-year-old twins Musa and Zaki – and a husband with his own successful career as a corporate lawyer, she is presumably at the edge of her seat a lot of the time. “Anyone who says they don’t struggle to keep it together is putting too much of a positive gloss on it,” she says. “My big fear is being away somewhere and something happening at home that I really need to be there for.” That hasn’t happened yet and technology has helped. When she was working at the Beijing Olympics, she remembers “sitting by the base of the live position on the WiFi doing my supermarket shop at home because I knew that we were running out of nappies”. On another occasion, when she was in India filming a documentary on Mahatma Gandhi, two of her children and her husband got chickenpox and she inspected the spots via Skype.
It helps that her boys are now at an age where she feels able to explain why she is going abroad, such as when she went to Pakistan to make a documentary about Malala Yousafzai (see David Pilling’s interview with Malala), the first broadcast interview with the girl shot in the head by the Taliban. “It was really compelling for them because I said, ‘This is a girl and she’s only 16 and I want to tell her story.’ And actually, as a working mother, being able to talk about my work – having children who are now old enough that I can talk about my work to them – has made it much easier. It’s not just, I have to go away on work, it’s I have to go away on work of this kind of a story and this is important.” She says it is all part of them growing up to be “informed citizens, informed young people”.
Besides, her new job also has its upside. “Yes, I go to work at three o’clock in the morning and it’s a bit tough, but it means at the other end of the day I’m around to see them after school, so . . . it can work in your favour.”
Our conversation draws to a close and we walk out of the café together. As she heads for one exit, the BBC minder accompanies me to another.
Ravi Mattu is the acting deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine
This article has been amended since first publication to reflect the fact that Mishal Husain is not the fourth woman to present the Today programme