An eighteen-year-old Afghan migrant trapped in Greece; an Iraqi journalist dodging bullets; an Ethiopian child bride; a former bomb-maker for Al Qaeda now living a normal life; an Indian widow living in poverty; a deaf Finnish rapper; a Guatemalan woman fighting for justice: stories of struggle, hope and danger. All of these real lives have formed the core of short television documentaries produced by the UN for its monthly news magazine programme 21st Century.
After eight years in production, 21st Century recently reached its 100th edition. It’s a proud moment for Executive Producer Gill Fickling:
“A normal day can find me editing scripts on stories from Congo to the South Caucasus and from Kenya to Palestine; overseeing the recording with our on-screen presenters in the UNTV Studio for both our English 21st Century and French 21ième Siècle; working with our talented editors on new show graphics; or filming a story in a remote village in the Solomon Islands, feeling privileged to tell the stories of such remarkable people in a corner of the planet few get the chance to visit.”
21st Century is distributed to 90 broadcasters worldwide; it’s screened in French by TV5 Monde (audience 250 million), in English by Deutsche Welle (120 million), in Chinese by CBN (30 million), in Turkish by TRT (120 million) among others. Spanish and Arabic versions are also in the works.
“It’s not institutional in feel. It really looks like a journalistic product. I think it’s a turn off for viewers to realize an organization is just blowing its own horn.”
That was the reasoning of former head of UN Television and Radio, and former NBC broadcaster, Susan Farkas when she set up the programme in 2007.
“When we dealt with Rwanda we didn’t shy away from mentioning the fact that there was criticism of the UN’s response to the genocide. We tried to be very even-handed in our reporting – really to tell the story as reporters would do, rather than being completely one-sided. And so that gave us credibility with broadcasters and as a result a whole different set of broadcasters who would never have carried institutional programming suddenly came on board. It really did work. I don’t think TV5 Monde would carry us otherwise.”
As Gill Fickling stresses, the aim above all is to build compelling stories around people:
“21st Century provides an opportunity for ordinary people to tell their stories, stories which otherwise may go unheard. As the UN, we are able to access places many journalists can’t and we focus on the stories outside of the main media limelight.”
Here’s to the next hundred episodes.