When we think of the BBC, we may well think of good (depending on your point of view) old fashioned broadcast journalism – an earnest presenter looking into the camera to update the audience with the latest official facts and figures. Mohamed Madi is part of a new generation of BBC journalists working to move the organisation away from all that and make the most important news stories engaging for young people who, typically, get their information by very different means than their parents do. “We need to take the news to where they are,” he explains, “and that’s on Snapchat, it’s on Twitter.”
Mohamed knows all about taking the story to a younger audience, having set up the BBC’s first Snapchat account this summer, when he accompanied singer Mika to Lebanon to visit refugee camps and tell the stories of some of the individual refugees he met there. He is passionate about getting this side of the refugee crisis into the mainstream, saying “there was a lot of reporting that focused on all these migrants trying to get to Europe, especially Syrians, but this isn’t the whole story. Lots of Syrian refugees are still in the countries around Syria – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey – and it just isn’t the case that they all want to get to Europe. It certainly wasn’t the case for the ones that we met.”
“This isn’t the whole story. Lots of Syrian refugees are still in the countries around Syria. . . .”
Indeed, some of the refugees Mohamed encountered “were concerned that they might face some hostility or racism in Europe; they’re happy to stay in Lebanon, where local people have been pretty accepting of them”. Despite the economic challenges they face, it is understandable that refugees would prefer to stay in a country in which they face virtually no hostility, and which has a very similar culture to their own. Nonetheless, “some of them are working, and they’ll work for a lot less than the local population, and that is starting to cause some tension”. No doubt this is linked to the fact that “Lebanon and the UNHCR are no longer registering the newest arrivals. There’s still an office, but they’re just processing the people who are already registered”. Surely there can be no clearer sign that Lebanon, which is barely bigger than Cornwall, doesn’t really have the capacity to welcome more refugees.
In an attempt to push against the dominant media narrative on refugees, Mohamed spent five days in Lebanon posting Snapchat stories and videos about the people he met in both official refugee camps and unplanned settlements. Mika’s involvement was of course invaluable in getting the Snapchat generation interested in what was – and still is – happening in Lebanon. Reports of their trip seems to have helped the BBC combat what is known among journalists as “news fatigue” – when people get fed up of seeing many versions of the same story published over and over again, so they switch off from it. While Mohamed’s team also made “traditional” reports with a camera during their time in Lebanon, they took the opportunity to capture the imaginations of the people they “really struggle to push for”, generally assuming “zero background” in the situation in Syria.
Reports of their trip seems to have helped the BBC combat what is known among journalists as “news fatigue”. . . .
Alongside Snapchat, they also created a Twitter hashtag, #myrefugeestory – “we had hoped that we’d get people telling their own refugee stories, whether they were living in the West or elsewhere; next time I’d like to work on that side of it more”. Certainly, what Mohamed has done represents an important step in terms of large media organisations like the BBC allowing people to present their own perspectives, with the videos he posted on Snapchat showing Syrians speaking directly to camera about their experiences.
Familiar with the many difficulties involved in reporting on the Middle East North Africa region, Mohamed is cautious to give his opinion about the situation as a whole, or even in his native Libya – “I think all we can say is that it’s unpredictable. A couple of years ago, no-one would have predicted that we’d have two governments”. This is fair enough, given the way Western media failed to predict the uprisings which took place across the region in 2011, the results of which will continue to unfold for many years to come. When considering the future of the region, however, he argues that Bashar al Assad is “the man to watch” – it may seem obvious, he says, but the scale of the Syria crisis means that how the President behaves and the alliances he makes will make a huge difference to what we see when the fighting stops.