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Samira Ahmed shares recipe for success with George Viner scholars

4 March 2008

Channel 4 journalist, Samira Ahmed, tries to use her background and experiences to give a voice to as many people as possible. She was speaking at an awards ceremony on February 28, 2008, to congratulate recipients of the NUJ’s George Viner Memorial Fund scholarship.

“I may never have experienced a forced marriage or domestic abuse, nor come from a radical Islamic background, but I feel passionately about the importance of exposing them.”

Samira presented the five winning scholars – Samantha Wong, Osman Baig, Natalie Reeve, Sandra Johnson and Julie Bailey – with certificates commemorating their achievements and offered them her insight into the world of journalism.

Samira completed a postgraduate journalism course at City University and was accepted on a BBC traineeship. Like the George Viner scholars, Samira received a grant to help towards her studies, in her case from the Guardian-owned Scott Trust.

It was the first – and last – time Samira got a job without have to attend an interview and prove herself equal to the task.

“Every job I got was through thinking about where I wanted to work and writing to them, even if they were not advertising jobs at the time.
“I wrote to Channel 4 News when there were no vacancies. Twelve months later they contacted me about a position.”

Samira admits that many journalists from ethnically diverse backgrounds can be divided into those who promote ethnic issues in their work and those who avoid them.

“Some Asian and Black journalists deliberately distance themselves from ethnic stories for fear of being typecast or hassled. Once I did some interviews where I mentioned an Islamic cleric with allegedly homophobic and misogynistic views. The head of one of the national Islamic organisations rang me on my mobile and shouted down the phone, demanding an apology.
“I asked how he got my number. ‘Oh,’ he said, suddenly calm and friendly, ‘I met you at a conference and you gave me your card.’ He then started ranting again.
“I learned two lessons from this, you will sometimes upset people – and think carefully before you give out your business cards.”

Samira uses her background and experiences to highlight what many see as “ethnic” problems.

"I have often pushed such stories on to Channel 4 News’ agenda knowing sometimes that, if I don’t, it may not be done as well or with as much knowledge.
“When I was younger, I got one of my best scoops after the Bradford riots in 2001 when I pitched a story that attempted to look at why people were rioting, instead of just the headline of burning buildings.
"I told a fellow news correspondent as we watched the news footage. ‘That’s a great idea,’ he told me. ‘If you don’t pitch it, I will.’ So I did pitch it. I did do it and I got what we call a “herogram” from the then head of news, Tony Hall. I’d have been a fool to play down my ethnic insight.”

Samira advised the scholars to be true to themselves - by doing so, she said, newsrooms would continue to change for the better. Background and experiences were great assets but were never a substitute for working hard, pitching good stories, and writing well.

“Most of all enjoy yourselves. Journalism has been for me fascinating, thrilling and never boring.”

The trustees were shocked this year about the spiraling costs of journalism courses. One college is asking for nearly £5,000 for a seven-month course. Nearly all applicants were requesting funding for post-graduate study.

The George Viner Fund only awarded grants to five students this year. Because of the high course fees and restricted funds, the trustees could only make awards to cover course fees and not help out with additional expenses as they have in previous years.

This year's scholars:

Samantha Wong
A 21-year-old from Wiltshire who is studying at Cardiff university, for a post-graduate qualification in magazine journalism. Samantha received a grant of £4,500.

Osman Baig
A 25-year-old from Bradford who is studying at City University, London, for a postgraduate diploma in television current affairs. Osama received a grant of £4,500.

Natalie Reeve
A 23-year-old from Birmingham who is studying at Brunel University for a postgraduate NCTJ diploma in journalism.  Natalie received a grant of £3,765.

Sandra Johnson
A 32-year-old from Birmingham who is studying at Sutton Coldfield College for the NCTJ fast-track qualification in print journalism.  Sandra received a grant of £1,155.

Julie Bailey
A 38-year-old from London who is studying at NoSWeat College in London for the NCTJ fast-track qualification in print journalism. Julie received a grant of £1,500.

Tags: , george viner memorial fund, samira ahmed, students, black members