Rageh Omaar: ‘The politics of the journalism world is frightening enough.’ Photograph: Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures
You've just spent a year making a documentary series about 21st-century slavery for Al Jazeera English. What got you on to the subject?
It came from a chance conversation with a colleague of mine who mentioned a startling statistic – that the number of people in slavery worldwide is 27 million. We thought there had to be a story in this. Most people think slavery is a thing of the past, but it's a crime that is happening in plain sight, not just in poor developing countries but also here and in the US, in many different guises.
What shocked you the most while making the series?
There are always moments that stop you in your tracks. One of them happened in Pakistan. We talked to a family of which all three generations were enslaved to work at a brick kiln in the Punjab. They had got into huge debt trying to pay for a marriage. The man we talked to lifted his shirt and there was a huge scar on his side. He had sold one of his kidneys to the slave master's brother, and even that wasn't enough to get him out of debt.
The other thing that shocked me was how common and everyday this practice is. Modern slavery is now a fundamental part of the globalised economy. You have people in desperate need who are now able to travel, and unscrupulous people around the world who are prepared to flout laws and morals for a higher profit. Every country on Earth has a law banning slavery, but enforcing that law, especially in today's deregulated economic system, is very difficult. According to research accepted by the US government, it is cheaper to purchase a slave today than it was at the height of the Atlantic slave trade.
You made your name as a BBC foreign news reporter during the Iraq war. This series aside, what have you been doing since you left the BBC in 2006?
I've been at Al Jazeera English since its inception, making programmes and covering many different issues. I haven't really done any news reporting, simply because I wanted to explore doing longer-form journalism. News reporting is not something I miss, actually.
No. Of course I miss elements of it: the camaraderie, the initial excitement. The three-minute news story is great – and I'm not saying I'll never go back to it – but I wanted to explore different ways of telling stories. Also, I've been raising a family. My second child was seven months old when the war in Iraq started. Now he's just turned nine, and he's got a younger brother, so there's lots happening on that front. That's another reason for not gallivanting around the world non-stop.
You haven't exactly stopped gallivanting. The latest series took you to Brazil, India, Pakistan, Holland, America…
I'm still gallivanting, but at least it's more predictable. This is a more controlled means of working and I don't miss as many school plays and matches and birthdays and so forth. One always needs a decompression chamber as a journalist. You cover these amazing stories and you're constantly on a high and you think that's how everybody else lives. But you need to come back home, shut up, take the washing out, take the kids for a walk. You need that rootedness: it's incredibly important.
Do you think Al Jazeera has broken through to a UK audience?
Oh definitely. I can only tell you that anecdotally, but people stop me in the street to tell me how much they like it. Al Jazeera has an enormous international focus, and it concentrates on subjects and regions that are getting less and less coverage. It would have been very hard to get an eight-part series on modern slavery – a whole year's work – with other broadcasters.
Do you still relish your work?
Oh yes. I still have the old wanderlust and a desire to tell stories and – it's a dirty word among many journalists these days – a sense of idealism.
You've managed to preserve it?
I feel I have: it's certainly what keeps me going. A very close friend told me that one day, and it will literally happen one day, you'll go from thinking: I can't wait to start the story, to: I hope the phone doesn't ring, I can't bear doing this anymore. And it really does happen like that, perhaps because colleagues have been killed, or something you reported fell off the international radar, or you feel that journalism doesn't really change anything. There is that darker side to journalism, and I'm very aware of it. And if that were to happen to me I'd definitely move on and choose something else.
What might that be?
I have absolutely no idea. It would probably be something that tried to tackle international issues, because I'm very lucky to be comfortable in many different cultures.
Would you consider politics?
Maybe – but if you're talking about running for office, I find the politics of the journalism world frightening enough; I can't imagine what it's like in the real thing.
You were born in Somalia before your family moved to England, and your brother is now Somalia's foreign minister. Does having a statesman in the family help you empathise with the politician's point of view?
No, I think it just makes it much harder for my mum: "It's difficult enough with you being a war reporter, now I have to deal with your brother being in Mogadishu. Why can't one of you just be a lawyer in some quiet town?"
It's very interesting though. My brother and I have our different views, as every family does, and our disagreements, but I'm very proud of him for trying to make a difference. He's very committed to what he does.
I'm hoping to do a series about the last remaining global diseases that man hasn't been able to combat. We'll look at why, with the huge advances in genetics, development, aid and so forth, diseases like leprosy, polio and ebola have remained stuck where they have been for the past 40 years. And it's not only a look at the diseases: it's an examination of the health systems of the developing world, what impact aid has really made, pharmaceutical companies and their priorities... Again, it's one of those big, overarching themes that's very hard to get a broadcaster to say: OK, we're going to throw a team at this for nine months. But it looks like Al Jazeera will commission it and I think it's going to be really exciting.