A correspondent on Channel 4 News since 2012, in March Fatima Manji became Britain’s first (and only) hijab-wearing newsreader on national television. Born in Peterborough, she studied history and politics at London School of Economics, before being accepted on a BBC trainee scheme. In July, she made headlines around the world when Kelvin MacKenzie wrote a column in the Sun questioning whether it was appropriate that she presented coverage on the evening of the terrorist attack in Nice.
When Kelvin MacKenzie wrote his column in the Sun, was it strange to be embroiled in something you couldn’t have seen coming?
If you say or do something controversial, you expect a backlash, but purely for just doing your job on the day… and it was just another day. Yes, it was a horrific, tragic, awful story, but it was another day of news. To go from that to, a few days on, suddenly being splashed all over the place, yes, that was surreal.
Your response – written in the Liverpool Echo – was very strong and combative. Did you consider not saying anything back?
For me to stay silent just wasn’t an option. When I first saw his column, I had a nervous laugh, disbelief reaction. I thought, “Well, I’m not going to respond to that, that’s just crazy.” But as it unfolded and it already had a life of its own, I had to say something. And I had to react to it with strength rather than be a victim. So even though I was worried about my safety, even though it was incredibly upsetting, I felt the reaction had to be, “Hey, you don’t get to say that!” And, “I am Britain, get used to me.”
Are you pleased you did?
You know, it meant an awful lot to people that I reacted in that way. I had so many people contact me, some of whom had been victims of Islamophobia or racism or bigotry of some kind. And they said, “It felt like someone was throwing a punch back.” That’s what it stood for.
The press regulator decided MacKenzie was entitled to criticise Channel 4 News. Do you feel it’s over now?
I was very clear about my reaction, both to what happened and subsequently to losing the complaint. Now I just say I refuse to be defined by the ramblings and bigotry of an irrelevant dinosaur. That’s how I feel about it.
Muslims are under-represented as journalists in the UK – although they are almost 5% of the population, they make up just 0.4% of the media. Why does that matter?
Actually all religious groups are under-represented: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus. It matters because it’s really important that newsrooms reflect the populations they serve. That’s not just a catchphrase, not just because we want to look like some Benetton ad. It’s because it allows you to be in touch with the different communities and to say, “I know someone who’s experiencing that.” It allows us to be better journalists – that’s why it’s important.
What did you make of the recent decision of the culture secretary to block the appointment of a black woman to the all-white, mostly male Channel 4 board?
Let me think about this one… All I’d say is, I find it surprising. I don’t know any of the characters, but it seems to me from the profile of the woman who was apparently to be appointed that she was highly qualified so, yeah, we need some answers.
Well hedged. Why did you become a journalist?
I often say I made a really informed career decision at the age of eight. I wanted to be where history is made, I wanted to be in the centre of things. I’m also very nosy, I love asking questions. Maybe I just didn’t know the reality of news, maybe I thought it was glamorous. No one told me I’d be standing in a muddy field talking about floods, in waders. Maybe if they had, I’d have rethought.
Eight is very precocious. You grew up in Peterborough – was yours a very politically engaged family?
Yeah, I have very early memories of reading broadsheets when they seemed really massive, and that statement in itself now feels so dated. When you’re a minority in a country, you are inevitably more exposed to politics because you’re having to understand why you look different and why you do certain things differently. Or why someone’s calling you a Paki, quite honestly.
After university, your first jobs were in local radio and regional TV. What was the silliest story you had to report on?
I remember one time when I walked into the newsroom at BBC Look East and my colleague told me I had to cover a story about police horses shitting everywhere and causing chaos in a village. And I just lost it and said, “I’m not doing horseshit!” It was actually a windup – even though the story was real – and they kept it going for an hour, just to see me more and more seething.
What do you like doing outside of work?
I’m obsessed with museums. I hate the idea of being ahistorical and they are a wonderful reminder of how things came about. I spend a lot of time at the V&A in London – especially the south-east Asia and Middle East sections – because it really brings home to you the idea of empire and how connected it was to Britain. Sometimes when we talk about immigration or change in Britain, we act as if it’s something new. There’s this false idea that there’s a perfect Englishman and a perfect Englishwoman, which is just not true.
That still sounds a little worky. What’s relaxation for you?
[Laughs] Apart from hanging round in museums? I’ll binge-watch comedies. I can’t get enough of Friday Night Dinner and I constantly rewatch The Thick of It and quote lines from it. I’m really amused when I find things happening in politics that could be scripts, like “trousergate”.
There’s a lot of commentary on social media about how you dress. Does that bother you?
For me it’s less about what people think than how happy I am with the outfit. At the moment, I’m excited by jumpsuits and dungarees. That sounds weird. But yes, sometimes people come out with all kinds of mad things, some of which are amusing, some of which are racist. There’s a fixation with my headgear, obviously, which I find tiring. Not just about me, but I’m so bored of media depictions of women in headscarves. It’s either, “Oh, look at this terribly oppressed woman”, or, “Oh, how exciting, woman in headscarf can play football!” Let’s just get over it.
Many people will have found some of the big news stories this year a bit grim. Does it ever get you down?
I wouldn’t say that. It’s confusing and it’s unknown and it’s obviously a time of massive change, which is inevitably scary. It could be the beginning of great things and it could be the beginning of terrible things. News-wise it’s been nonstop, which has been thrilling but also tiring. I’m looking forward to a few days off and some time to reflect on things over Christmas. I’m presenting Channel 4 News on Christmas Eve and then I have a couple of days off, so I’m really looking forward to just calm.