With the explosion of Egyptians’ interest in all things political, watching TV talk shows has become a nightly ritual for many Egyptians. So it is no wonder that many talk show hosts have gained celebrity status with loyal fans eagerly waiting to hear their take on the latest news every night. One such celebrity host is Lobna Asal of Al Hayat TV whose poise and professionalism has impressed many viewers. eniGma’s Samia Farid Shihata caught up with her to find out more about her career, her views on the media, and on her life.
Being an avid talk show viewer myself, I was excited at the chance to meet Lobna Asal, the charming talk show host I admired her for her consistently fair and balanced program on Al Hayat TV. In terms of looks I found her prettier in life than on TV. More importantly, I realised she was a savvy media professional with a real passion for her job. Objectivity and respect for the right of viewers to hear the different sides to every story came across as the defining point of her personality.
After stints on Egyptian state television, Dubai TV and Al Mehwar, Lobna Asal was recruited by the then newly launched Al Hayat TV to co-host its prime-time talk show Al Hayat Al Youm (Life Today) with Sherif Amer who had made his mark on the Al Hurra TV channel. Amid competition from a plethora of talk shows that made their way to the small screen over the past few years, the dynamic duo slowly but surely established their program as the place for calm discussions and balanced commentary on matters of public interest.
Over the past few years Asal has established herself as a serious TV personality who can stand her ground with the most intimidating guests. She also developed a good rapport with her experienced co-host Sherif Amer. “It took some time for us to get used to working together. But pretty quickly things went very smoothly. We don’t compete with each other,” she insists.
To glean more on Asal’s experience and her career here are some answers to some questions eniGma posed to her.
Do you prepare for the programme yourself or do you have a team who does that for you?
The biggest part of preparation falls on the team but the host also has to be involved. We discuss issues and brainstorm together. I also do my own research and prepare my own questions. I have to be well prepared especially since I know some guests can dodge answering any question. Preparation and focus are needed to get what you want from the guest.
You are known to be one of the balanced talk show hosts on private channels. Is this the result of a directive from the channel’s management or is it your professional choice?
It’s kind of both. From the day we started this show we decided to be absolutely professional. As host, my job is to present all the information and to allow guests from all sides to express their opinions. I create the space so the viewer can form his own opinion on the issue at hand. Of course there’s no way you can be 100 percent objective, and sometimes your opinion can be gleaned from your reactions.
How different was your experience under the Mubarak regime, then the Military Council, then under Dr. Morsy?
During Mubarak’s time when you’d say something on the program no one in the street would stop you to ask if you were pro or against. There were some taboo topics and you weren’t allowed to mention some people, but you could work round any red line and even cross it. But under the Military Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, people always asked, “are you with us or against us?” The audience wanted you to take their side. They would attack you when you didn’t.
Both the Military Council and the Brotherhood allowed a space for some freedoms, not when it came to insults of course. But you had the freedom to invite any guests you wanted and the guests felt they could attack you if they felt you were being biased against them. This put you, as a host, in a tough position. You had to justify everything you said, so your question wouldn’t be misunderstood. This meant you were carrying a huge responsibility. You are influencing normal people who don’t have a certain political direction.
What do you think about the proposal to have a Media Code of Ethics?
First, let’s admit that there have been some actions by the media that were not appropriate. But when it comes to the code of ethics, it’s best to be done away with any government institution. The state shouldn’t be involved at all, it should be prepared and applied by a committee made up of objective professionals. Of course, at the end of the day sticking to ethics comes back to self-censorship by each media personality. I think the announcement that someone has breached the code of ethics is the biggest punishment for any media personality. It would mean he has lost people’s trust. It is the viewers who judge you at the end of the day, and they decide whether you are being honest or biased. So it is all about whether people trust you or not.
What do you think is needed to reform Egyptian state television?
In order to reform state television it has to stop following whatever regime that is in power. There has to be an independent institution running it and making it the people’s TV not the mouthpiece of the government.
Who is the guest you would most like to interview today?
It was the ordinary regular people who made this moment. They are the ones who went down in the streets and impressed all of us on June 30th. I want to invite someone “ordinary”, whom you’d never expect to be in politics or be involved in it. It would be interesting to hear his opinion, and compare that with all the views we hear from politicians and preachers. The normal Egyptian will tell you much more than any political analyst could.
What do you hope the future holds for Lobna Asal professionally? What is your ambition?
On a professional level you learn something new every day. You work harder and you try to live up to the trust people put in you. You hope to keep getting better at your job. I work in a daily show which has everything I could dream of as a TV host. We can talk about politics, the economy, anything. This is wonderful for any host and I just want to become better and better at my job.
How do you manage to balance your professional life with your family obligations?
It’s difficult. I just got married recently. Before that, I was free to wake up whenever I wanted, to work as late as I wanted and all my time was dedicated to checking the news, preparing and reading. Now things have changed and I am still trying to find a balance. You do what you can by managing your time properly, and by reaching an understanding at work and at home.
Does your husband work in the field? Does he understand the nature of your job?
No he doesn’t work in the field. At the end of the day my job isn’t that demanding. It doesn’t take away from my family time, for example. I go out and come back at a certain time every day, and my husband can watch me on the air! Everything works out with understanding. At the beginning he wasn’t that much into politics but I influenced him. Now he’s really into politics!
What are your hopes generally for Egypt over the coming year?
I hope to see the Egypt Egyptians deserve. We are a great people. In two years we had two revolutions. We forced change, so we deserve a better life, a better regime. We deserve a president who deserves to lead Egypt. I also wish we didn’t glorify our presidents. I wish people would work more. I want to see Egypt become a developed country within a few years because we deserve it. We have the means, the brains، and the potential. Our people shine wherever they go; we need them here; we have to give ourselves the chance to advance. I am very optimistic.
ART DIRECTION & STYLING: Maissa Azab
PHOTOGRAPHY: Khaled Fadda