Meera Selva is an accomplished senior journalist with experience in Europe, Asia and Africa. She joined the Reuters Institute from Handelsblatt Global where she had been working out of Singapore, having helped launch the digital daily business paper in Berlin in 2014. Her previous experience includes several years as a London-based correspondent for the Associated Press (AP), and three years as Africa correspondent for ‘The Independent’ based in Nairobi, along with stints in business journalism at a range of publications including the ‘Daily Telegraph’.
Meera knows Oxford and the Reuters Institute well. She studied for an MPhil in European Politics at St Antony’s College, was a journalist fellow at the Institute in 2007-8, where she conducted research on media coverage of the Darfur crisis and worked as the first Oxford-based English language editor of the European Journalism Observatory website in 2013-14.
In an exclusive interview, this week You! talks to Meera Selva about journalism and her thoughts about the industry...
You! Why did you become a journalist?
Meera Selva: I always wanted to write and become a journalist. I never wanted to opt for finance or law where you are putting your intelligence and your expertise into a structure that already exists. In journalism, you create the structure and you are part of the building process.
You! Tell us about your journey into journalism.
MS: I started with journalism in the year 1999 but left it for a while in 2001. I went back to a publication called ‘The Business’ - a weekly newspaper - and worked with Andrew Neil who was the editor at the time and is now in politics. I worked very closely with two people who are now leading the biggest centre-right publication - Allister Heath who is the Editor of ‘Sunday Telegraph’ and Fraser Nelson who is with ‘The Spectator’ - we were all working together there. I joined the Associated Press in London as the staff correspondent for the print section and I joined them just before the financial crisis in 2008.
You! You worked as a foreign correspondent. Tell us about that.
MS: I had studied European politics and worked at AP. I really wanted to work globally, so this company brought an opportunity for me to become their Europe correspondent and cover the entire continent. I then moved to Kenya partly because I got married and my husband was posted there. I really wanted to see if I could be a foreign correspondent and a business reporter, so going to Kenya seemed just a good opportunity to do this. I worked as an African correspondent there for ‘The Independent’ newspaper. I was based in Nairobi but covered the entire Sub-Saharan Africa. However, during that time, the biggest stories on the continent for the western press were in East Africa - the Dafur Conflict, and what was happening in Ethiopia and Somalia. So it was a good part of the region to be in. Normally the foreign correspondents are in Johannesburg.
You! What has been your experience as the director of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism?
MS: I’m the first woman to do this job. Also, my predecessors were very nice and have always been incredibly supportive. Certainly in the beginning when I started the job in 2017, I noticed while chairing seminars that people took a while to pay attention so I just learned certain techniques to command a room. But to be fair, I hadn’t done that sort of thing before as a journalist, you don’t normally command seminars so I learned this as part of the job.
I think there are different assumptions made about my role, so when people walked into a room, they would not always assume that I am the one chairing the seminar or that I am the one in charge even now. I think both my boss Rasmus and I are very conscious about it so we work very hard for this. I will always speak and speak first when it’s my programme. I won’t let other people take the stage; it is not done in a confrontational way. It is partly in the way I dress; I wear bright colours and I kind of make sure I have a presence so that people notice I am there.
You! Why don’t we see a lot of women in high positions in journalism?
MS: When my children were young, I had to make very conscious choices of how I worked, what my husband does and the tradeoffs we needed. I think that’s the time when it’s the hardest to keep hold of your career.
I also remember when I was doing the fellowship in 2007-8, and I had been a foreign correspondent, I got pregnant and hadn’t fully gone back to work. Amid this, I heard Dorothy Byrne, Executive Editor at Channel 4 News, at a seminar where they were talking about the pressures of motherhood. What she said stuck with me that it is much easier to be flexible and be a good parent if you are at the top. The more senior the role you have, the more money you have, eventually you are more able to buy in flexibility into your work and the help you need at home. So, it is easier to go all out and really focus on your career when your children are young, because at some point it will all click into place.
You! Women work twice as hard but are not paid well. What should they do?
MS: I think women need to keep asking for better salaries and it is a key that you constantly ask for it. It would helpful if people were more open about how much they earn. This simple information exchange can take away power from the hands of the management to workers. In Britain we have the gender pay gaps and every organisation has to publish it. A lot of organisations work around the practice that their lowest paid, like the cleaners, are women and the executives are men - it is not an excuse but just an explanation.
Whereas, I think if everyone openly shares what they earn, you’d immediately know who is doing the work at the same level while working for the same hours. And, practically one just needs to go for the jobs with the money. Sometimes young women don’t always think about the careers that are going to earn the most. They can be driven more by passion and compassion or the desire to help people...
You! Women are stereotyped in journalism and sometimes not given ‘serious beats’.
MS: Starting with the unglamorous series as a reporter, you have little choice. When I started financial journalism, it is an unglamorous section so it was easier than politics. It was not a female section at all but it was something I could get into. It also acquired a skill set that people didn’t have, which also gives you authority to switch.
I think I was very clear on what I wanted to do and I think I was just interested in politics and economics. It only happened to me once after a career in financial journalism and foreign correspondence that I came back and went to ‘The Independent’ where I asked if they can find something for me in London. They offered, health or fashion writing but I didn’t actually stick around, came to the fellowship and joined AP and covered politics. One or two people have suggested it but I’ve always had choices. It is right, people do get shoehorned.
I think there are two ways to look at both health and fashion - they are two of the biggest industries in the world, there is a huge amount of money in them, they affect everybody. So firstly, I reject the idea that it is a female area or somehow not important. If you are not interested in it, you just have to fight and if you are interested in it, you shouldn’t feel the shame in doing it but you should also follow the money in it.
This is also true of everything like if you are doing health reporting, follow the money, follow politics, corruption and stories ditto in fashion. You’ve seen the stories about slave labour and the ethics, and the environmental implications of fast fashion; there is money, power and corruption in all these sectors. So I would love to say that if you get shoved into these sectors, just go and find the hard story.
You! What advice do you have for women journalists who face sexual harassment on field and offices?
MS: I would be cautious in speaking in general because I think women face issues at so many different levels. It really depends on what threats you’re facing, what your environment is. And, if you go to the extreme end of the spectrum, I would say it’s your safety and then the rules become the rules that would apply to any personality safety. So don’t travel alone, make sure someone knows where you are, always check your exits -the same kind of basics.
On the other end, about sexual harassment, I think ideally there are environments that have places for people to complain; and hopefully men change their behaviours.
You! What about the online harassment that women journalists face?
MS: Online is slightly different, I think there are tools that the UN is developing along with a growing recognition of how much women get attacked online. Unions can help provide a forum of saying ‘we believe you’. Also, what I would really like to see is a development of guidelines for newsrooms and for editors for their newsrooms that set the appropriate lines of behaviour.
Crucially, if female reporters come to you saying that ‘I am facing harassment online. I am getting rape threats on my twitter feeds’ that they [editors] know what to do. And they just don’t say well change your name or go to the police. But there is a set of editorial guidelines and policies in place to support female journalists - providing legal options that this is what we can do and these are the techniques.
You! Who can apply for the Reuters journalists’ fellowships?
MS: The journalists’ fellowships are open to everyone around the world. We’ve several fellowships that are helpful. What we try to get are people who are already experienced journalists, so we are not providing basic level training to them. They are the ones who have done a substantial body of work and are on the cusp of changing their career or role or what is far more likely is that they are taking on bigger stories and thinking in wider terms.
Basically, we want people to come here to take a bit of time out and to think about the state of the industry, the state of their country and the state of the world. We expect them to come up with a project that will be of very direct benefit to either themselves or their newsrooms or ideally both.
You! What’s the future of digital and what can be done to make journalists earn money with this platform?
MS: The future is digital, I think this is absolutely clear. So, we will have to think about the digital space and how we engage with it. Advertise and revenue as a business model, as a way to support journalism is also up in flux. There still is advertising revenue; the industry is getting a share through ad sharing models. Some form will continue but it will shrink as percentage, so we need to think about the business models. The flip side of this digital disruption is that the barriers to entry are much lower. So you no longer need to own a printing press, you no longer need to own a television studio in order to broadcast the news, you can just do this using your mobile phone. In a way, it is easier and cheaper than ever to produce and distribute journalism, but it still needs some money and possibly not as much money as before and not in the same things.
You! Will journalism survive?
MS: Journalism will only survive if it is good journalism because no one has an incentive to pay for bad journalism. There are bad actors who will pay for bad journalism like despots, authoritarians, populists and demagogues but good actors want good journalism. There is a degree of independence as well as criticising the people who are paying you starts being the fundamental issue of journalism. We need the right to conserve the right to criticise everybody including the people who pay our bills, which is a tricky balance. But, you know, people are looking for ways to do that.