Understanding Society

Reporting identity: An interview with Megha Mohan, BBC World Service’s Gender & Identity Correspondent

Before her appointment as the BBC’s first Gender and Identity Correspondent, Megha was a senior multimedia staff reporter at the BBC’s Digital Current Affairs department. There, she told stories on subcultures across Asia, Africa, the US and Europe, with a focus on gender. She is also a founding member of The Second Source, which was created by a group of female journalists to tackle harassment and create an alternative network for women in the media.

FO’C: You were hired as the BBC’s very first Gender and Identity Correspondent in September 2018. I’d like to start with your take on the context for your appointment.

There is this whole scope of stories from the human experience that we haven’t touched as journalists and as story tellers. So, I think that’s a context of this appointment. Being part of the BBC World Service means that I’ve got this unique opportunity. I want to be looking at the conversations that are happening with women all over the world.

I had a story coming out about how millennial lesbians in Burundi use secret memes to communicate with each other because it is illegal to be gay there. I was doing an interview with the African breakfast show here, and they were saying that when it comes to reporting in Burundi, we’ve traditionally reported on these ethnic tensions between the Tutsis and the Hutus. As an international reporter, I want to look at breaking down country stereotypes.
That is the beauty of the World Service, that our stories are multi-dimensional and reach multiple platforms. It’s a 43-language service. We think about how we reach those underserved audiences.

The media bubble in London doesn’t matter to me. This has to mean something to the girl in Tanzania and the girl in Hull and the boy in Nairobi and the guy in Alaska. It has to mean something to all of those people, otherwise I have failed.

FO’C: What has excited you most about your first six months in the role?

We’ve got this unique opportunity in terms of galvanising global perspective to show the whole prism of human experience. One thing that has really excited me about this role is that I feel that gender reporting so far has either lionised women to be these, like, badass, trailblazing women or they’re destitute women. The whole experience in between is lost. You don’t really have that when it comes to men; you really do have all those grey spots in between which give it a much more rounded impression of the male experience.

FO’C: And what have been the challenges?

The biggest challenge when you do gender and identity stories is there is so much sensitive language around what people want to define themselves as. So, for example, today I had an e-mail from somebody saying, “why did you say in your headline that it was ‘the secret language of lesbian love’? Why didn’t you say it was the secret language of love?” And she added, “love is love, and it is bigoted to suggest otherwise.”

I understand where she is coming from. Having said that, when you speak to a woman in Burundi and she uses the term homosexual or lesbian because it doesn’t matter to her as much as the woman sitting in London who is much more savvy to all these terms as a micro aggression, you have to reflect that in the reporting by using her language. Language that someone in the West who discusses gender and identity in a very academic way may find problematic. That is really hard because you want to please everyone when you’re doing stories about the underrepresented.

FO’C: How can we try to unpick what gender and identity mean?

One aspect that I’m going to be looking at is the notion of safe spaces. There are arguments on what gender means and the difference between gender and sex and these subjects are emotive. Nepal has a really old transgender community, and they call it “third gender”. It’s a traditional, old identity. In Kathmandu, trans women use female bathrooms, and no one bats an eyelid. However, in more rural areas, they have what they call a third gender bathroom. That comes with its own set of challenges because a lot of trans women get harassed. We can look to other societies outside our immediate filter bubble and see that there are lessons or insights or experiences that we can learn from.

FO’C: Your work so far has covered several situations where women are being silenced by society. How do you grapple with what needs to be said but is often repressed?

When you become a journalist who has a beat, the stories come to you in a way. People will let you know what they want covered. The way some journalists have operated is to call up an NGO and ask for access, and then you get access through the NGO. That is really not how we want to work in the specialist unit. We’re immersing ourselves in worlds where people are coming and telling us: “these are the needs of the communities”.

Once we file these stories, we have to think about how we reach the silenced communities. Media reviews for a piece which has got some lovely graphics for the front page of the BBC are great, but I need the women in rural Burundi to also know that this piece has gone out.

FO’C: It must be very difficult to divorce yourself and your feelings from what you’re reporting and to not bring your lens to bear on a story.

I try really, really hard not to do that, because it’s just not what I’m paid to do. I’m not an advocate and I’m not an activist. I’m here to tell people’s stories and challenge people when I need to. That’s what we’re supposed to do. I am an advocate for journalism, I think that more than ever, good journalism is really needed now. We need more women in this profession as well.

I’m not an advocate and I’m not an activist. I’m here to tell people’s stories and challenge people when I need to

FO’C: There are known initiatives, like the women in journalism and your own Second Source, to support and establish women working in the media.

I think any aspect of getting people together in professions, or any environment where you have a shared goal or a shared experience is only a good thing. It would be nice in journalism if more of an effort was made to be more inclusive of everybody. It’s very hard when you’re starting out in journalism and you want to go to certain events and they cost a lot of money, or you don’t feel self-represented. I think that these initiatives are all a great thing. We’re really trying in the Second Source to be so mindful when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to race, when it comes to socio-economic backgrounds, because all of those things so far have been barriers to people feeling that they can be represented. I think it would be really wonderful if more voices from all those backgrounds were actively looked for.

FO’C: Finally, how can journalism best communicate issues of gender identity and equality to the public?

I think, fundamentally, journalists should be vessels for other people’s stories and literally know them. I don’t think we’re the story. I don’t believe we should ever be the story. It’s a really privileged job. It’s a ringside seat to history and seeing how we all interact with each other. If you disappear and you become a conduit for the story, that’s the best thing. The thorny issue with gender is that because language is so sensitive, you’re in danger of upsetting a lot of people. It may sound trite, but I’m going to be as sensitive as I can to the culture that I’m in. Hopefully, people will understand that we’re doing the best we can.

In conversation with
Fiona O’Connor
Ipsos MORI