Adam Ash

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Now the BBC and CNN have competition on the 24-hour world news front - Al-Jazeera English

1. It calls suicide bombers martyrs, has journalistic links to Osama bin Laden and is the fifth most recognised global brand … now Al-Jazeera is ready to go truly international -- by Barry Didcock/Sunday Herald Scotland

WE now know that George Bush once considered bombing Al-Jazeera out of existence, so it’s ironic that the much-vilified Arabic language news network will celebrate its 10th anniversary just a few days after a surgical strike of a different sort – one delivered by US voters – has effectively taken the US president off air. Even more ironic is the means by which Al-Jazeera intends to mark this birthday: with the launch of an English language version, Al-Jazeera International (AJI).

By any yardstick – political, cultural, economic – the arrival of AJI is big news. In 2005, while the service was still only available in Arabic, a poll of US advertising exectives placed the channel fifth in a list of the most recognisable global brands. Ahead of it were Apple, Google, Starbucks and IKEA. Now that it will also be operating in English, the language of business and the preferred second language for millions of people around the world , that brand awareness can only increase. And with it, the network’s reach and influence.

Al-Jazeera International will broadcast round the clock from three news hubs – in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur – as well as from its massive new studio complex in Doha, the capital of oil-rich Qatar. The network has a multinational staff representing some 40 countries and bureaux in places many of its competitors can’t even get into, such as Harare. Moreover, it expects to be available to between 30 and 40 million households from day one and, importantly, it is financed by the Emir of Qatar, a man with very deep pockets.

Among the network’s high-profile signings are Sir David Frost, who will front Frost Over The World and Rageh Omar, who will present a nightly documentary strand called Witness.

Nigel Parsons, formerly of the BBC, is AJI’s managing director and the man tasked with running the new channel. Predictably, he is bullish about its prospects. There is much talk of “360-degree views” and of an “international station with no domestic agenda” and, he thinks, no direct competitors. “I do believe there is a big gap in the market for news and current affairs presented and analysed from alternative points of view and we aim to fill that gap,” he says. “Viewers will see a fresh and energetic channel offering a unique, independent and unbiased view of world events from inside the Arab world. They will hear questions asked that are not being asked by others, they will view fearless reporting and often they will get a different agenda.”

Media commentator Roy Greenslade has no doubts about the professionalism of Parsons and his team. But he is wary of some of the claims he makes. “In what way is Al-Jazeera International going to tell the news any differently from Sky, the BBC or CNN? If it’s going to be just like those channels then there’s no value in it. It has to do things differently,” he says. “My genuine feeling is that it’s only ever going to have a minority audience.”

Still, he adds, “the other channels watch each other like hawks and if Al-Jazeera International really produces stories that the BBC or CNN think they’re not getting to, then they’ll go and do them. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a few more stories about Israel and Palestine on the BBC in the coming weeks. That’s what competition tends to do.”

Talk to some of the others involved in the project – London anchors Stephen Cole and Felicity Barr, say, or roving correspondent Alan Fisher – and that same sense of confidence that Parsons voices is apparent, along with a genuine (and building) sense of excitement.

“This is the last big adventure in global news,” says Fisher, a Scot and formerly chief correspondent with GMTV. “A 24-hour English language news station that’s broadcast all over the world? I don’t think we’ll see another one like it and to get in on the ground floor is incredible. I’m as excited as I was on my first day at Moray Firth radio in Inverness which was my first job as a journalist. To get that feeling back is great.”

Al-Jazeera International’s Knightsbridge-based London news centre houses around 70 people. It is there on Wednesday morning that Felicity Barr will arrive, earlier than usual, to have her hair and make-up done and to run through the day’s schedules. “It’ll be a fascinating day,” she says, “but I’d be worried if I wasn’t nervous.”

The station launches from Doha at noon British time, but Barr and her colleague Stephen Cole won’t be on air until much later. Together they will anchor the network’s coverage in the evening before handing over to the Washington team, which will in turn pass the baton to Kuala Lumpur and then back to Doha. The Qatari HQ broadcasts for 12 hours a day, the others for four each.

Barr was approached by Al-Jazeera via her agent. At the time she was a sports presenter alongside Trevor McDonald on the ITV News. When the offer came, the decision to join was a no-brainer. “I loved the idea that it was going to be a brand-new, global news operation. I think this is the one chance I’ll have to be involved in something like this,” she says. “Twenty or 30 years ago we were talking about big events out of Moscow but that’s no longer the case. The Middle East is where things are happening now.”

Stephen Cole has been here before, having been part of the team which launched Sky News in 1989. “Most people wrote Sky News off straight away as tits’n’bums Murdoch telly,” he recalls. “They said, ‘forget it’. But I knew – I knew – it was going to work. I knew it in my water because the appetite was there.”

Does the same hunger exist for AJI and what it says it will offer? “I think so, but I think it’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be a slow burn. People are suspicious of it, they call it al-Qaeda and all sorts of things. And even friends of mine who are journalists, especially at the BBC, just don’t get it.”

In the newsroom, Alan Fisher doesn’t know what he’ll be doing on Wednesday, though he’s fairly sure it will involve staring into a camera somewhere. “It’ll really depend on where the events of the day take me and that could be anywhere across Europe.” He thinks the new network will take time to bed down and will be slow to pick up viewers, though when it does he expects it to be well-received, particularly in the US.

“I think there are millions of people in the US who want a broader global view but who can only currently get it on the net. Now they’ll be able to sit down and watch a TV station that gives them that broader global view. So I think we will pick up an audience in the States.”

Of course, you can only pick up an audience if it can pick up you. To date there has been no confirmation that AJI has been able to find a cable or satellite company willing to deliver the network to American viewers. A final carriage announcement is expected on Tuesday, the day before launch, but satellite subscribers in the UK will definitely be able to see AJI thanks to a deal with BSkyB.

There have been other teething problems. Al-Jazeera International was meant to launch in May, but June, July, August and September came and went too without any sign of movement. How does Fisher feel about the delay? “It’s been frustrating, of course, but I can understand the decision that we don’t go until everything’s right,” he says. “W hen you think about what we’re trying to do – link up four news centres around the globe in the most hi-tech, high definition way that has ever been attempted in television history – you can understand why there have been a few problems.”

And so a new chapter begins. But Al-Jazeera’s rise looks still more meteoric when you consider that five years after it was founded – let’s pluck a date at random: say September 10, 2001 – few people outside the Middle East had even heard of it. Fewer still had seen it. What made the difference was the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the events that followed: the invasion of Afghanistan, the ousting of the Taliban, the invasion of Iraq, the occupation, the subsequent civil war.

In each of these places was Al-Jazeera, sometimes working alongside other broadcasters, sometimes not, but almost always giving a different side of the story to that aired by CNN, Fox News or the BBC.

Like the other channels, it covered the thousands of human tragedies that form the plankton which feeds the 24-hour news channels, those leviathans of the media world. But, thanks to long-standing journalistic links to Osama bin Laden, it became the chosen conduit for his pronouncements. It also aired the videotapes of Western hostages in Iraq provided by their kidnappers. Most maddeningly for many Western commentators, it referred to suicide bombers as “martyrs”. Controversies such as these have helped make the network the world’s fifth most recognisable global brand .

Before 9/11, when nobody had heard of it, the US government had actually praised the network. After 9/11, when it began to broadcast material the Bush administration didn’t like, the mood changed.

In 2001, Al-Jazeera’s Kabul office was bombed by US planes – an accident, officially – and an Al-Jazeera cameraman, Sami Al Hajj, was detained as an “enemy combatatant” on his way into Afghanistan. He is still held in Guantanamo Bay.

Two years later, during the invasion of Iraq, the channel’s Baghdad office suffered a missile strike which killed a journalist. Another accident. Then, last year, a Downing Street memo was leaked to the Daily Mirror which appeared to confirm rumours that George W Bush had considered bombing Al-Jazeera’s Doha headquarters in April 2004 but had been talked down by Tony Blair. That, at least, was no accident.

These kinds of credentials are tremendously appealing to journalists, of course, though Nigel Parsons claims that AJI’s style book will conform to the strictest principles of journalistic impartiality. No martyrs, in other words.

Nevertheless, Stephen Cole talks glowingly of Al-Jazeera Arabic as a network which champions what he calls “anarchic journalism” and “fighting the establishment”; Alan Fisher, meanwhile, says joining AJI has made him realise a few home truths about the perceived bias in the Western media.

“During the war in Lebanon the BBC concentrated on what was happening to the British people there and didn’t really get into what was happening to the people who lived in Beirut and had to deal with it day to day. That really opened my eyes to what is a real Western slant in the BBC and at CNN. ”

Those channels, he thinks, “are directed at European and Western businessmen sitting in hotel rooms somewhere … our audience is of the street and is on the street and I think that is a huge untapped market.”

So, as the countdown begins in earnest – as the people on Alan Fisher’s notional street crane their necks in interest ahead of the launch – what will be the best measure of the network’s success a year from now?

“If it gets an average viewership in excess of Sky’s, it will have done extraordinarily well,” says Roy Greenslade.

For Stephen Cole, the numbers matter a little less. “There will be an audience somewhere all the time. But if in a year’s time the integrity is still there and we’ve stuck to the brief and we are not part of the media establishment then I think we will have been a success. ”

And for Nigel Parsons, the man in one of the hottest seats in broadcasting? “That viewers throughout the English-speaking world will have come to accept us as a credible news and current affairs service,” he says. Sounds simple enough. But from Wednesday lunchtime onwards, the clock is ticking.

2. Not Coming Soon to a Channel Near You – by ALESSANDRA STANLEY/NY Times

The lead story on the debut of Al Jazeera ’s new English language channel yesterday was the re-election of President Joseph Kabila of Congo.

There were also features on the hip, multicultural scene in Damascus; traffic in Beijing; Brazilian indigenous tribes; and the trials and tribulations of a Palestinian ambulance driver in Gaza. “Everywoman,” a weekly woman’s program, took on “the horrors of skin-bleaching cream” and also spoke to the wife of Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who has spent years imprisoned without trial at Guantánamo Bay.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld once famously denounced the Arab-language Al Jazeera as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable,” which may be one reason that major cable and satellite providers in the United States declined to offer the English version. Yesterday, most Americans could watch it only on the Internet at .

It’s a shame. Americans can see almost anything on television these days, from Polish newscasts to reruns of “Benson.” The new channel, Al Jazeera English, will never displace CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, but it provides the curious — or the passionately concerned — with a window into how the world sees us, or doesn’t. It’s a Saul Steinberg map of the globe in which the channel’s hub in Doha, Qatar, looms over Iran, Iraq, Syria and the West Bank — the dots in the horizon are New York and Hollywood.

While American cable news shows focused yesterday on live coverage of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearings on Iraq, Al Jazeera English was crammed with reports about Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, the crisis in Darfur, kidnappings in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with frequent updates on Israeli retaliatory air strikes in Gaza.

Even on a computer screen, Al Jazeera English looks like CNN International and sounds like a cross of C-Span and Fox News: the stories are long and detailed (that’s the C-Span part); behind the news reports is an overall sensibility that is different from that of most mainstream television news organizations (that’s the Fox News part).

Just as Fox News gives its viewers a vision of the world as seen by conservative, patriotic Americans, Al Jazeera English reflects the mindsets across much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It is an American-style cable news network with jazzy newsrooms, poised, attractive anchors, flashy promos and sleek ads for Qatar Airways, Nokia and Shell. But its goal is to bring a non-Western perspective to the West.

There was no fuss over Naomi Campbell’s court appearance on accusations that she had struck her maid or People magazine’s choice for “Sexiest Man Alive” ( George Clooney ) on Al Jazeera English. A promo for an upcoming program described American policy in Iraq as George Bush’s “alleged war on terror.”

Al Jazeera English — which also broadcasts from bureaus in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — recruited many Western journalists, including David Frost and Dave Marash, a longtime “Nightline” correspondent who was let go by ABC almost a year ago. Both men are showcased in advertisements for the channel, but were not as visible on the maiden newscast. Mr. Marash, based in Washington, is the anchor of an evening newscast alongside Ghida Fakhry.

Riz Khan, a veteran of the BBC and CNN, is one of the channel’s bigger stars — he has his own show, “Riz Khan,” on Al Jazeera English. Yesterday, he conducted separate but equally long satellite interviews with Ismail Haniya, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority , and Shimon Peres , Israel’s deputy prime minister.

Mr. Khan asked the two leaders questions sent in by viewers, including a New Yorker named Danny who asked if Mr. Haniya was worried that he would be killed like so many of his predecessors, a question Mr. Khan described as “morbid.” Mr. Haniya was not offended. “All Palestinians are in danger: leaders, women, children and the elderly,” he replied. “We always expect the worst from Israel.” When his turn came, Mr. Peres was just as unruffled.

The original Al Jazeera, created in 1996 with the backing of the emir of Qatar, boasts that it gets as many complaints from African dictators and Muslim leaders as American officials. American viewers mostly know it as an Arab-language news channel that shows Osama bin Laden videos and grisly images of dead American soldiers and mutilated Iraqi children. If yesterday is any indication, the English language version is more button-down and cosmopolitan.

Though Al Jazeera English looks at news events through a non-Western prism, it also points to where East and West actually meet. On a feature story, a group of Syrian women, Muslim and Christian, let a reporter follow them on their girls’ night out. Topic A was the shortage of men in Syria.

3. Al-Jazeera English: Day One Report Card -- by Lawrence Pintak

Call it the Un-CNN. Imagine that the BBC devotes 24 hours to special coverage of Africa and the Middle East and you will get a sense of the first day of broadcasting for al-Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language cousin of the channel the Bush administration loves to hate.

AJE has the look and feel of the BBC and rival Sky News. The visual identity – graphics, backdrops, audio stingers, precise English and overall pacing – are all straight from the BBC. So is the set, aside from the video wall in front of which the anchors stand, a prop straight from the set of Sky News. There’s an obvious reason for the similarity. Three-quarters of the on-air staff, and most of the management, come from the British and U.S. networks.

Al-Jazeera’s critics have been waiting with sharpened knives for evidence of anti-American or anti-Israeli bias on the new channel; none of that was evident in the first day of broadcasting. One thing was apparent: A self-conscious – sometimes excruciating – emphasis on being the non-Western voice. Like the old 7-Up campaign that positioned the lemon-lime soda as the alternative to Coca-Cola, al-Jazeera International is perhaps trying too hard to show it does not have the Western-centricism of CNN, the BBC and their counterparts.

Don’t get me wrong, it is refreshing to see stories from largely-ignored corners of the world, but on Day One, they came at the expense of other important developments, whether in the U.S., Europe or Japan.

Two news stories dominated coverage, the elections in Congo and the pair of rocket attacks on Israeli targets that left one dead and several injured. Coverage of the Middle East story was carefully balanced, with reports from both sides. The piece from the Israel-based reporter showed footage of the coffin of an Israeli woman who was killed and bloody images of a 17-year old man injured in the second attack. No one mentioned “martyrs” or “terrorists.” In fact, a report from Iraq employed to the aggressively neutral term “guerrillas.”

The weakness was not in bias but in the breadth and depth of news coverage. The day was feature-heavy. A handful of “exclusive” interviews were endlessly – agonizingly – repeated. Breaking news – with the exception of the Palestinian rocket attack in Israel – was the exception, rather than the rule. A timeless feature about suicides among members of a small tribe in Brazil looped throughout the day. So, too, an interview with a UN official about stolen passports and a feature about kids driving fast in China. Not exactly coverage that will change the world.

It was gratifying to see a reporter standing in Darfur reporting on the largely-ignored genocide. Ditto a rare dispatch from Mugabi’s Zimbabwe. It was equally gratifying not to see coverage of Michael Jackson performing in London, carried by some of the Western networks. However, the absence – in the many hours this writer sampled coverage through the day – of coverage of many stories that dominated coverage elsewhere in the world was striking: the Congressional testimony of the U.S. commander in Iraq, the tsunami in Japan (mentioned briefly in the first hours then ignored), passage of a new rape law in Pakistan, John McCain entering the U.S. presidential race, or anything in Europe.

Aside from the Israel-Palestine piece and a report from Iraq, one of the few breaking news stories in the early hours was a speech by the Qatari foreign minister, which raises obvious red flags about the channel’s obligation to its financial benefactors.

In a recent interview, the director general of the al-Jazeera channels, Wadah Khanfar, told me that the new English channel would have a “global” perspective with an emphasis on the so-called “South” or developing world. That was apparent in the coverage. But on Day One, it was as if the “North” ceased to exist. So, too, Asia.

Much hype from al-Jazeera’s PR people has focused on the fact that the channel has a rolling broadcast day, with programs originating from Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington, D.C. and London as prime-time moves around the globe. But as daylight fell on Asia, AJE remained preoccupied with the Middle East, Africa and that one small tribe in Brazil. At noon in Kuala Lumpur, the anchor led the hour by taking “a glimpse back at some of the day’s news and how we covered those stories,” which consisted of a somewhat disjointed series of edited highlights from coverage earlier in the day. An hour later, exactly that same half-hour taped segment was repeated.

If there was any news in Asia – like a tsunami in Japan for a start – Asian viewers couldn’t tell from watching AJE. Rather, the sense was that since it was nighttime in the Middle East, they could just air re-runs. Oh, there was the feature about Chinese kids who drive fast.

Al-Jazeera’s PR machine is certainly right about the failure of Western networks to adequately cover the developing world, but, in its first day at least, the channel was in danger of trading a Western-centric view of the world for one preoccupied with the Middle East and Africa. Nor was there much evidence of the much-vaunted global network of experienced correspondents. With all the delays, AJ-English has accumulated a roomful of features and undated interviews, and on Day One the channel seemed bound and determined to use them. Instead of the “fearless journalism” that is “setting the news agenda” as promised in the self-congratulatory promos, soft news dominated.

Much stronger than news coverage were the current affairs offerings. Under AJE’s format, the first half of every hour is devoted to news and the second half is a current affairs broadcast. Riz Khan interviewed the Palestinian prime minister and Israeli deputy prime minister Shimon Peres (though it was more a series of short speeches than an interview); “101 East” focused on Taiwan politics; and “Every Woman” looked at skin bleaching in Africa and the plight of a woman who’s husband is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

But weaknesses existed even there. Much of the material is purchased from freelancers and what promised to be an interesting edition of “Witness” about Iraq’s oil consisted largely of a segment shot by an Australian filmmaker embedded with the Australian navy in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2005. It had a very dated feel.

There were obvious growing pains, such as an anchor in Asia introducing the wrong reporter for that ever-present Brazil segment and jarring transitions in the edited segments of coverage from earlier in the day. But that’s all part of the shakeout.

One indication that the channel is still trying to find its identity: The name was changed, literally at the eleventh hour. For more than a year, the station has been marketed as “al-Jazeera International.” That’s what the business cards, marketing videos and press releases say. Suddenly, a week before the launch, those press releases were referring to “al-Jazeera English.” Word is that the switch is a concession to the Arabic channel, which, after all, also broadcasts internationally.

But there are bigger questions beyond the name: Can the channel hold its own when a major news story breaks, or is it destined to be a third-world feature service with very splashy graphics? And, will it only “seek out the areas neglected by the Western media,” as one promo promises, or will it find its own balance between the Arab/Afri-centric approach of the first day and the Amero/Euro-centric bias of the Western networks?

As Day Two dawned, there were signs the newsroom was finally kicking into gear with actual news stories being reported from four continents. Perhaps not yet “every angle, every side,” as the channel’s catchphrase promises, but a few more than elsewhere.

The scorecard for Day One: News “B.” Current affairs programming “A-.” Production values: “A.” Potential: “A+.”

(Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo . His latest book is Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas . Email: lpintak AT


At 11/17/2006 9:29 AM, Blogger Nazia said...

As with anything, i do not agree with all which they say but what happened to freedom of speech?


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