A couple of years ago, Samira Ahmed was interviewed for the BBC’s archives about the roots of her “incredible affection” for the corporation. The interview, to introduce the “People, Nation, Empire” strand of the online history, sits alongside footage of the arrival of the Windrush boat at Tilbury docks and clips from The Black and White Minstrel Show. In it, Ahmed describes a trip she made to the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, aged nine, to watch her mother, Lalita Ahmed, present a Hindustani chatshow in which British-Asian women discussed everything from yoga to domestic violence. Ahmed, a long way from her home in south-west London, sat wide-eyed up in the gallery. “Everyone there, except for [my mother] and her guests was white,” she recalled. “And everyone was so incredibly polite and professional. I remember the director; I think he was called Jeremy.” Looking back on that visit, she believed “it was quite a life-changing moment for me. It made me realise that people like me were welcome. And people like me could have a career at the BBC, which was for everybody.”
A little over a decade later, Ahmed won one of the few coveted golden tickets as a graduate trainee in the BBC newsroom. She became a reporter on the Today programme (alongside a youthful Michael Gove) and then on Newsnight, before going on to present Night Waves, The World Tonight and, currently, Front Row. It has only perhaps been in the past year, however, that she has written a brand-new chapter in BBC history of her own.
That chapter will tell future generations of the story of her successful fight to bring to light the gross inequalities in pay at the corporation between men and women. Last October, Ahmed took her employer of 30 years to a tribunal to challenge that long-standing injustice. To read the judgment in that case is to reflect on the ingrained absurdity of our ideas about “star quality”, and how media “personalities” are created. Pointedly, the case rested on two programmes in which the BBC’s values were held up to public scrutiny: Points of View, presented by Jeremy Vine, and Newswatch, presented by Ahmed. Vine – who then drew a £700,000 salary from the corporation – received £3,000 per episode for his show. Ahmed was paid £440 for, as she said, “doing very similar work”.
A main plank of the BBC lawyers’ expensive case against her was that the enormous discrepancy was explained by Vine having “a glint in the eye” and being “cheeky”. The judge in the case was not convinced. “Jeremy Vine read the script from the autocue,” the judgment noted. “If it told him to roll his eyes he did. It did not require any particular skill or experience to do that.”
Ahmed won an undisclosed six-figure settlement from the BBC – she had claimed £700,000 in “lost” earnings over many years – as well as costs. After the tribunal she briefly put her victory in context. “I’d like to thank my union, the NUJ… and I’d especially like to thank the Ford Dagenham women and the women of the Grunwick factory strike who fought for equal pay going back to the 1960s and 70s. I’m now really looking forward to continuing to do my job, to report on stories and not being one.”
Ahmed has, subsequently, been as good as her word. When she won an award in March for audio broadcaster of the year, largely for her podcast How I Found My Voice, she noted only that “all I’ve ever asked is to be judged on my own abilities and to be given equal opportunities”. She agreed to this interview on the basis that it would highlight her absorbing new three-part series, Art of Persia, in which she was granted unprecedented access to the Islamic Republic of Iran to report on some of its historic treasures, but she has been a journalist long enough to know that the series is only part of her story.
We talked by Zoom last week. Her family lockdown has involved Ahmed and her husband sharing their Wimbledon home with their two children, 18 and 20, and an American university friend who was stranded. Her visits to Broadcasting House have been restricted to a weekly recording for Front Row; frustratingly, given the heightened attention to the politics of news-gathering through the pandemic, Newswatch has been a victim of reduced staffing.
We talked first about Art of Persia – three years (or a thousand) in the making. Like me, Ahmed has only just seen the final edit of the series and is thrilled by it.
She first visited Iran for Channel 4 in 2002, for a programme on feminism in Islam, and had always wanted to return. The chance came in 2015 when the BBC first asked her to front this series; it eventually took two years to negotiate visas before she and the crew were allowed in last year, on two extensive journeys. They were granted some remarkable access to cultural objects and sites that had been off-limits to western cameras since the 1979 revolution. Some, like the original manuscript of the Shahnameh – the priceless 10th-century Book of Kings that provides the narrative for part of Ahmed’s journey – have never been viewed in this way before.
Though tensions were high in Iran during the second of Ahmed’s visits, after an American surveillance drone was shot down last June over the Strait of Hormuz, a BBC camera drone was nevertheless allowed to film over extraordinary desert cities like Yazd, where Ahmed met the original Zoroastrians and toured a bazaar largely unchanged since Marco Polo visited. Only once or twice did they brush up against the secret police of the Revolutionary Guards; mostly they were at liberty to capture that resilient poetic underground spirit of Persian culture, which has always been at odds with fundamentalist Shi’ism.
“People would come up and talk to me at sites, and say, ‘We would like to apologise to you for our government,’” she says of the great warmth of welcome they received from ordinary Iranians wherever they went. “I’m very wary of making comparisons,” she says, “but I did find myself thinking a few times of East Germany before the wall came down.”
Watching the ease and curiosity with which Ahmed uncovers this history, always letting the present of Iran filter into her storytelling, you have the sense this is the kind of programme, mixing culture and politics and history, that she has wanted to make ever since her eyes were first opened to the BBC all those years ago.
Ahmed was the daughter of parents who shared one of those wonderful London love stories of the 1960s. Her mother had recently arrived in the capital from Lucknow in north India, a Hindu on a bursary from the World Service. Her father was a Pakistani Muslim from Karachi. In the absence of family, they took the bus to the register office for their wedding and celebrated with a meal at an Indian restaurant in Battersea, which they paid for in luncheon vouchers.
Ahmed, a frequent contributor to New Humanist magazine, was raised to respect all religions and none. She had an Arabic tutor and learned to read the Qur’an. Her mother used to take her and her sister and brother to the Hindu temple. She went to a Catholic school and, not wanting to be left out, when everyone was doing confirmation classes she did them too. (“I knew it might be the only chance I got to wear a white wedding dress.”) It was a childhood in which nothing felt off limits.
Her dad ran his own business selling catering supplies to Indian and Chinese restaurants; her mother, as well as her work for the BBC that included a cookery slot on Pebble Mill at One, was an actor, with credits including Meera Syal’s Bhaji on the Beach. Ahmed is reluctant to suggest that she fulfilled her mother’s ambitions to perform, though she recalls a conversation in which her mum, now 80, sitting in the garden a few years ago, whispered to her: “You know, it’s not too late, we could go to Bollywood and give it a go!”
Ahmed’s dreams were much more earnest. In 2015 she cheerfully subjected herself to the cringes of Rufus Hound’s radio series My Teenage Diary, reading from her adolescent journals. Though they contained stray fantasies of meeting David Bowie, and speculation about who shot JR, mostly, aged 15 and 16, she kept up a daily running commentary on the Libyan embassy siege and the miners’ strike. She recalled making her parents switch from the Times to the Guardian after the battle of Wapping, and kept all the back issues as a reference library. It was around this time, she suggested laughing, that she decided there were only two kinds of people: “collaborators and the resistance”.
She had identified strongly with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer heroine in Little House on the Prairie, and was “a fiery girl with long plaits”. Her mother insisted she stand up for herself. “The 70s was quite horrible for racism in this country,” she says. “Walking down the street in south London, if some kids shouted some racial abuse at us, my mother always stopped and turned around and gave them this filthy look. She would look at me and say: ‘Don’t ever be afraid of these people.’” Ahmed held on to those principles.
At the end of her Teenage Diary embarrassments, Hound asked her what her teenage self would have said to her now. She replied without hesitation: “Well, you haven’t sold out, I’m proud of you.”
In her podcast interview series, How I Found My Voice – she has interviewed heroes from Gina Miller to Michael Palin – Ahmed proves herself endlessly curious about the choices people have made in becoming successful. After acing her exams at her independent girls’ school she had a front-row seat in how privilege and patronage worked at Oxford. She was a contemporary of Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove. “In my first term people would point out Boris Johnson,” she said, “and suggest that he would one day be prime minister. That idea seemed utterly ridiculous.”
She recalls editing the Oxford Union magazine when Gove was president. He wrote a bracing editorial, which she has kept, about elitism. “I cannot overemphasise what elitism is NOT,” he argued. “It is not about back-slapping cliques, reactionary chic or Old Etonian egos. It is a spirit of unashamed glamour, excitement and competition.”
She chooses her words with consummate BBC care when I ask her if she is surprised how Gove – “always very charming and extremely clever” – has turned out. “I was very interested to see him describe Dominic Cummings as a man of honesty and integrity,” she says. “I am very much a Generation X-er. I always thought when our turn came to be running things, we would do things right.”
Ahmed has interviewed enough campaigners and whistleblowers over the years to know that motivation to stand up and be counted comes from sometimes unexpected places. When she was being interviewed on stage about her teenage diaries she mentioned how once she was called in to be reprimanded by her headmistress for something she had not done and surprised herself by answering back “I think you should challenge the official version more.” “I was just thinking out loud really,” she says now, “but [when I recalled that] the studio audience gave a loud whoop. That was a year before the BBC salary figures were first published, but it stayed with me. Everything I’ve done has been because it felt like the right thing to do. And I think when you do that, you find most people are on your side.”
The reluctant publication of those salary figures of the BBC’s “talent” for the first time in 2017 had a big impact, she says. What senior women at the BBC had suspected just about for ever was now shown to be fact. “I tried to treat my own story as if it was any other story,” she says of her tribunal case, “and approach it as an investigative journalist. I gathered as much evidence as I could, and went through it stage by stage.”
To begin with there was a letter to the papers signed by 33 women involved, asking for things to be put right. That group stayed together, sharing information, speaking regularly, involving the union. At least 20 cases around equal pay are pending, not only from headline act presenters but also from editors and producers.
Just how much of a risk those women have taken to get to that stage was outlined in an open letter by Carrie Gracie, the former BBC China editor, who initially resigned in disgust when it was revealed that she was being paid only a little more than half of male counterparts such as Jon Sopel in Washington. Gracie – who later accepted parity and backpay from the BBC after a brutal year of argument – described how women in her privileged but unequal position “have felt trapped. Speaking out carries the risk of disciplinary measures or even dismissal; litigation can destroy careers and be financially ruinous. What’s more the BBC often settles cases out of court and demands non-disclosure agreements, a habit unworthy of an organisation committed to truth, and one which does nothing to resolve the systemic problem.”
Someone, it was clear, had to break that pattern of divide and rule. Ahmed’s earnings comparison with Jeremy Vine was so stark that it must have looked like the perfect test case…
“I didn’t think of it that way,” Ahmed insists. “And I should stress Jeremy Vine was very decent to me personally. [Vine subsequently accepted a 50% reduction in his pay packet – currently £300,000 – saying “he wasn’t comfortable with what the pay reveal showed”]. “Jeremy gave me all the information I asked for, as did every man at the BBC that I asked,” Ahmed says.
One of her strategies to cope with the scrutiny of the tribunal itself was to remember a childhood TV favourite of hers. “There was an episode of The Goodies that I literally thought about every morning that I walked into the tribunal,” she says, with a laugh. “It is the one called Cunning Stunts. The Goodies set up a newspaper office and they hire Tessa Wyatt to be a reporter, but [subverting their sexism] she takes over and starts sexually harassing them and bullying them back. My sister and I used one of her lines for years after: “If you don’t want it pinched, don’t flaunt it so!” Ahmed met Goodie Graeme Garden recently, who was pleased to hear that the episode had been an inspiration: “You see, satire works – even if it takes 40 years!”
Now she has come out of the other side of the case, and the long months of preparation for it, it’s almost as if, she says, it happened to someone else. “I can’t pretend that I am not pleased. I used to walk from Waterloo station across the bridge to the tribunal every day, and both during it and after it, people were incredibly supportive, they would come up and say: ‘Good on you!’” After it was over, all sorts of different people got in touch to say how much it meant – from Katie Puckrik to Richard Coles. “The Proclaimers sent me a nice message. And so did Margaret Atwood.”
In the course of those months, and despite the BBC lawyers’ efforts to underplay her professional abilities, Ahmed managed to keep any personal anger out of her case. Sometimes, no doubt, that was difficult. When, for example, she heard that inadvertently recorded off-air “banter” between John Humphrys and Jon Sopel about Carrie Gracie’s letter (“Oh dear God,” Humphrys said to Sopel, “she’s actually suggested you should lose money…”) did that sharpen her resolve? She smiles judiciously. “I think what is interesting these days, with social media, is that you can see straight away what everyone else makes of something like that. It didn’t really need me to comment. I would just direct you to read everyone else’s comments.”
In his interview last month with the outgoing director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, Andrew Marr referenced Ahmed’s case (forgetting her name, before correcting himself) and wondering whether the BBC was now on top of the issue. Hall made all the right noises about transparency. Does Ahmed feel that the culture that produced her case has been addressed as she would like it to have?
“I can’t say how far that has been sorted yet. But they understand there is an issue; it is ongoing.”
She did, she says, seriously consider at one point applying to be Hall’s successor, but for the time being came to the conclusion that her heart still is in broadcasting – “though maybe next time”.
She insists that there have been no repercussions professionally from her case against her employer, though it seems slightly odd to me that her Persia series will go out on BBC Four, and not on BBC One or BBC Two, where it would surely have been if, say, Marr or Vine had been granted the access she had been given. Was she disappointed at that?
“I did ask,” she says, diplomatically. “And they are trailing the series, so that is a proper bit of investment in it.”
Because of her long stint on Newswatch, few people understand the labyrinthine internal politics of the BBC quite as clearly as Ahmed. She remains proud that “nowhere else has a programme like Newswatch, which encourages scrutiny and self-criticism – even if people don’t always agree with the answers”. Because the programme is currently off air she has been unable to investigate the story behind the public censure of Emily Maitlis for breaking impartiality rules in her intro about Dominic Cummings for Newsnight – though she will have been as surprised as anyone at the speed of the response from the BBC hierarchy.
After a third request, she was informed at the beginning of last week that there might be a way for Newswatch to return soon, though the decision has to go to the BBC news board, “which might take weeks”. In its absence, Ahmed has plenty to be getting on with. The new series of her podcasts began last week with a live interview with Yotam Ottolenghi; she is preparing slots with Paloma Faith and Margaret Atwood, who has become something of a champion of her equal pay battles.
Ahmed is 51. Historically, I suggest, the BBC has not had a great track record in developing the careers of its female presenters as they move into their 50s and 60s. Is she confident she can become a role model in that respect also? She laughs. “I hope so. I have definitely had some conversations lately that have channelled my inner Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie and insisted I am in my prime.” Thinking of her Indian-Pakistani family, as much as her BBC one, Ahmed has long had the sense that one of the archetypes that the broadcaster could do with urgently reinventing is that of the “wise auntie”, spirited and trustworthy in equal measure. It is, perhaps, the role her nine-year-old self, sitting in the gods at Pebble Mill, always instinctively understood.
Art of Persia starts on BBC Four on Monday 15 June. The third series of How I Found My Voice will be released in July but subscribers to Intelligent Squared+ can watch live online podcast recordings from this week