When al Qaeda terrorists attacked U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, British Broadcasting Corp. business-news anchor Mishal Husain was preparing to argue at an Amsterdam debate that London was the “economic capital of Europe.”
On September 11, 2002, after promotion to nightly news co-anchor of BBC World, Miss Husain, 29, was sent from London to report on the Pentagon commemoration of the September 11 attacks. She didn’t return to her London studio. Five days after the anniversary, she began anchoring two commercial-free shows five days a week, from the BBC’s Washington bureau.
The BBC and Miss Husain apparently found a bigger story than the economic capital of Europe. Does she now view Washington as the political capital of the world?
“Obviously, today, America is the world’s only superpower. My being here for BBC and the program being here are part of what that means,” said Miss Husain, who seemed nonplussed at the question.
Her ultimate boss, BBC news director Richard Sambrook, hedged a bit.
“A lot of our coverage is political, and the capital is the place to be,” he said from London.
Mr. Sambrook said that basing a British showpiece in Washington helps troll for “opinion makers” to interview. From the White House on down, they visit Miss Husain’s studio at 21st and M streets NW.
Her unusual interview style that one Internet admirer calls “spellbinding” can induce high officials in the midst of an explosive crisis to open up on live television, whether in the studio or by remote. In the aftermath of a suicide bombing or other violent moment, she draws on a mental storehouse of facts to toss out a premise like bait for a bear, then asks her subject to explain why that her premise is impossible or untrue.
She considers breaking news the best and worst part of the job, but fears such stories sometimes are overplayed.
“It can be a terrifying scenario when all hell breaks loose,” she said, recalling how flustered she was on July 4 while reporting fatal shootings at El Al’s Los Angeles airport counter, and simultaneous violence in Israel, amid FBI terrorism alerts.
Mr. Sambrook makes clear that his up-and-coming anchor is the face he wants to put on BBC World, and says she is destined for bigger things, including “one of our main anchor jobs” in London.
“She has a great future with us,” he said, expressing hope the BBC is not outbid for her services. Another BBC source expects her to remain here through the 2004 elections.
Miss Husain broadcasts from a set that looks like a flying saucer, with fake windows that actually are plasma screens displaying live shots of the Capitol, White House, Washington Monument and rush-hour traffic.
“That’s it from Washington,” Miss Husain as she signs off each show with a flex of her trademark eyebrows and a broad smile, no matter how grim the report.
In many parts of the world, the “Beeb” as even the BBC calls itself ranks with the crown as a symbol of British stature. For it to employ U.S. icons on a global newscast instead of Big Ben or Parliament suggests a perception that Washington is the center of things international.
Her two half-hour shows each night cover breaking news and U.S. policy on Iraq, as do the competitors. They also explore in detail topics that U.S. networks gloss over, like Zimbabwe’s racist turmoil, Venezuela’s general strike, French pacification in Ivory Coast and the reunification of Cyprus.
Unlike such news networks as CNN, the BBC World News is not confined to cable. In the United States, Miss Husain’s 7 p.m. report is carried by 220 PBS stations, including WHUT Channel 32 here.
The young journalist is watched in an estimated 840,000 American homes, and by 180 million people in an international audience that the BBC finds particularly strong in South Asia and Latin America, where commercials are added.
The London Daily Telegraph has said the BBC is known for “boozy white males,” but Miss Husain is an exception.
She is a lively contemporary woman, attractive and close enough to the cutting edge for Vanity Fair magazine to be preparing a piece that required her to go to New York for a photo shoot.
She describes herself as a “liberal Muslim,” sensitive to the complex issues in the Middle East. She says “horrible extremist groups” often seem driven more by politics than by religion.
“Islam is one part of their identity, but not necessarily all of it,” she said of terrorists, a designation she said the BBC uses sparingly along with labels like “rebel.”
Online publisher Peter Kilander of Chicago called her “spellbinding” and objective in an Internet posting.
Mr. Kilander called himself “a sucker for a British accent,” and said in an interview he is drawn in by Miss Husain’s mix of “optimism, humor and seriousness when presenting the horrible state of the world.”
“Mishal kind of has an interesting international background,” Mr. Sambrook said. “She has a real authority and a very real resonance in her voice that come over extremely well. I think Mishal at the moment is one of our most talented presenters.”
Miss Husain said audiences recognize she might bring extra insight to stories related to Muslims.
“I haven’t heard, fortunately, people question the reporting, but at the same time I think that if there are stories that have to do with Islam in some way, I’m not necessarily more interested in them but just kind of more in tune. Sometimes I would maybe point out things I think aren’t right,” she said.
Miss Husain was born in 1973 in Britain to Pakistani parents. Her father is a surgeon. Her mother once produced arts programming for Pakistan state television. Miss Husain speaks fluent Urdu and Russian, but delivers news in English with a British accent sharp as cut glass.
Miss Husain lived in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia until she was 12, then went to Cobham Hall, a girls boarding school in Kent, outside London, whose Web site brags, “Mishal is currently making a splash in Washington.”
She studied law at Cambridge University, and after graduating in 1995 earned a master’s degree in human rights law from European University Institute in Florence.
After startup jobs at a daily newspaper in Islamabad and Bloomberg TV in London, she was hired as a BBC producer. She reported from India and Singapore, where she anchored “Asia Business Report.” She returned to London in January 2001 to co-anchor “World Business Report,” which dispatched her to New York to cover the stock market’s reopening after September 11.
Her role model is ABC News anchor Peter Jennings like her, a pioneer anchor from abroad. From 1978 to 1983, he presented “ABC World News” from London, with co-anchors Frank Reynolds in Washington and Max Robinson in Chicago.
“I think Peter Jennings is the best anchor in this country. He obviously is so much more than an anchor,” she said.
Fans started contacting Miss Husain after she shifted her base to the United States, and many now liken her to Daljit Dhaliwal, CNN’s international star recruit from ITN. She is recognized on the streets of New York. People telephone, offer to send flowers or express open adoration despite her recent engagement to London lawyer Meekal Hashmi, 32. Miss Husain and Mr. Hashmi take turns flying across the Atlantic for monthly visits.