Have you interviewed President Obama?
We are still trying. We are aware he may be worried that there may be criticism — "Why is he talking to Al Jazeera" — but he is the president, and he was willing to go to Cairo to deliver his speech about wanting a new page in relations with the Muslim world. If he takes a little flak talking to Al Jazeera, I'd hope he'd be willing to do it.
What differences do you see between U.S. and Arab-world audiences?
There is probably a better degree of knowledge in the Arab world of the United States than the other way around. Every election in the U.S., we provide hours of coverage; in 2008, I think we provided as many if not more hours of coverage than the American networks did.
We try to translate it to people in the Arab world: the electoral college; the gridlock; what are the implications? The U.S. Constitution — how come the U.S. has this document that was written by a bunch of middle-aged white guys [and] has survived in an America that is full of diversity now?
I don't have scientific data to back this up, but I have a feeling that part of the reason [for the] changes in the Middle East and North Africa is the intensive coverage that Al Jazeera and other satellite channels have provided of elections in the U.S. and other democracies. I think the impact has been cumulative: people in the Arab world exposed to the notion that if you don't like your president, you go to the polls and kick him out. I'm not suggesting that people say, "Oh, let's emulate the American system." I'm just saying it stimulates people to discuss their own political systems.
To explain "maverick" you used the metaphor of a bird straying from the flock. How do you make such things clear?
[It's] one of the most fascinating aspects of the job, to translate something from one culture that does not exist in another culture. You have to find intellectual and emotive references to make people get it. The main thing is to convey the flavor of the concept, mechanism and institution.
You are something of a student of American history.
The history fascinates me: How this country has turned out over 400 years. Diversity — I'm very interested in how religious America is; people in North Africa and the Middle East assume this is a country built on money. Money is very, very important here, but it's also a very religious place. When I first went to Boston, on the street where I lived there were no fewer than 10 or 15 churches, on a relatively short stretch of street. That came as a revelation.
How did you become a broadcast journalist?
My family listened to and watched the news a lot. At an early age I used to love pretending I was a radio announcer. Then I discovered BBC World Service when I was learning English. When I finished university in the U.K., it's one of those things fate sometimes arranges: there was a BBC job ad and it looked tailor-made for me, someone who knew Africa and the Middle East and spoke certain languages.
When I joined the BBC [my family] were very excited. They started listening to the BBC Arabic Service even more assiduously. That saved some money because we [weren't ] on the phone every day. They listened to my voice on the radio and they knew I was well!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.