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Al-Jazeera: The new power on the small screen

2005 October 26
by Paul Vallely

It must have been seen as something of a back-handed compliment in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. The BBC yesterday confirmed it is to axe ten of its World Service radio services to find the money to launch an Arabic-language television station. The decision is powerful testimony to the extraordinary growth of al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite station which in less than a decade has developed from the personal indulgence of the Emir of Qatar into a global player on the international broadcasting stage.

Founded in 1996 the Qatar-based news network – which became a potent media force in during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when its ability to report events in the Middle Eastern domain from an Arab perspective contrasted with the difficulties faced by other media organisations – al-Jazeera was recently voted the fifth most influential global brand (behind Apple and Google). That status can only increase from next year when it launches an English-speaking international version, with a raft of top ITN and BBC executives behind the scenes, and Sir David Frost – who has interviewed seven US presidents and six British prime ministers – signed-up as its big-name presenter. Its intention is to rival CNN and BBC World as the globe’s biggest broadcaster.

In some parts of the world that notion will be greeted with a mixture of derisive mirth and horror. The station gained worldwide attention after September 11 when it began broadcasting videos in which Osama bin Laden and his sidekicks sought to justify the terrorist attacks on the United States. Al-Jazeera has, ever since, been routinely accused by the US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and others of “consistently lying” and “working in concert with terrorists”. He has even accused it of taking women and children to places where US bombs had fallen and pretending they were victims of the US attack. It has not entirely been to their disadvantage. “The more Rumsfeld attacks us, the more popular we are with our viewers,” the station’s communications director, the surreally-named Jihad Ballout has said.

But then things have been complex at al-Jazeera from the outset. It began in 1996. In April that year there were tear-stained faces at the BBC as 250 journalists were told that the BBC World Service’s Arabic television station was to shut. It had been a joint venture with a Saudi company and a lack of common ground on editorial policy came to a head when the Saudi government tried to censor a documentary on executions under its brutal interpretations of sharia law.

But the Emir of Qatar – a man sitting on the third-largest proven reserves of natural gas in the world – was waiting in the wings. A moderate Muslim he had liked the short-lived BBC Arabic, and believing that the long-term interests of Islam were served better by the truth than by censorship, he stumped up $150m and founded al-Jazeera. Large numbers of the BBC staff transferred wholesale from London to Qatar to run it.

There are 100 or so other Arabic TV stations available to those with satellite dishes. But all are either state controlled or not trusted by viewers. From the outset al-Jazeera was different. It ran stories about the corruption of government officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere. It aired debate of a kind rarely seen on Arab television. It even interviewed Israeli officials – never seen on other Arab networks. Its motto was “We get both sides of the story.”

But there are always those who do not want the other side to get an airing. And not just totalitarian governments in the Middle East. When George Bush launched his “war on terror” he pronounced that you had to be either with him or against him. And though al-Jazeera in total showed just five hours of bin Laden’s speeches in total (compared with 500 hours of the US President) it was clear that al-Jazeera was seen as being in the enemy camp.

During the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 al-Jazeera was the only station with a round-the-clock satellite link from Kabul to the outside world – until, that its, two American “smart” bombs hit its office. Something similar happened in 2003 in Iraq when the station’s office in Baghdad was attacked by US forces, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub, after the US had been given the office’s precise coordinates.

During the war al-Jazeera riled the American and British coalition further by broadcasting a 30 second film of the bodies of two dead British soldiers in a “flagrant breach” of the Geneva convention. Those who knew Arab culture pointed out that it did not share Western taboos on pictures of the dead, with graphic footage of dead Palestinians and Israelis alike commonplace on Arab TV screens. But the outrage was undiminished.

The differences were not merely cultural but propagandistic. Al-Jazeera had equipped ordinary people around Iraq with phones and cameras as the invasion got under way, anticipating that communications in Baghdad would deteriorate as the US forces closed in. As a result the station was broadcasting pictures from hotspots like Fallujah which openly contradicted the claims the US military was putting out. “The contradictions were much in evidence in Fallujah where the Americans one day announced there was a truce that was beginning at 12 noon,” said one al-Jazeera journalist. “Then we would transmit images of American jet fighters bombing the city and breaking the truce.”

Even so there was much debate internally in the station about how its reporters should remain even-handed. At one point senior editors banned journalists from describing American troops as an “occupation” and those attacking them as a “resistance” movement. And although throughout 2004 al-Jazeera broadcast several video tapes of kidnapping victims – with hostages often blindfolded, pleading for their release and reading out their kidnappers’ prepared statements – the station assisted Western governments in attempts to secure the hostages’ release. And it always refused to show the beheadings posted by terrorists on internet websites.

None of that impressed Washington. It put pressure on the Emir to sell the station, which he still subsidises to the tune of around $30 million a year (because almost all Arab governments boycott al-Jazeera’s advertising – a fact which on wag said was “about the only thing the Arab information ministers can all agree on”). Ernst and Young were hired to look into possible privatisation models earlier this year, but the idea seems to have been shelved since, possibly because al-Jazeera means the little emirate now punches above its political weight.

But the political pressure on the station is unrelenting. Since the start of 2002 one of its cameramen has been held by at Guantanamo Bay. The same year Bahrain banned al-Jazeera reporters – because the station was “biased towards Israel and against Bahrain”. Then two of its financial journalists had their credentials to cover the New York Stock Exchange revoked. In 2003 its reporter in Spain was arrested and accused of being an Al-Qaida agent. In 2004 the Algerian government froze the activities of Al Jazeera’s correspondent there and later in the year the provisional Iraqi government shut down its offices in Baghdad. Problems have been created for the station in Canada, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia where it has even been banned from covering the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Its website has been attacked by hackers, who redirected users to – a revealing combination – US patriot or porn sites.

Despite all that – or perhaps because of it – subscriptions to al-Jazeera doubled in a single week after the war on Iraq began. They have increased steadily ever since. It now has around 50 million viewers worldwide.

Today al-Jazeera is in the middle of a major expansion. In addition to its news network it has al-Jazeera Sports, the al-Jazeera Children’s Channel and al-Jazeera Live, which broadcasts conferences in real time without editing or commentary. The new English-language service, al-Jazeera International, will launch in March. It will broadcast round-the-clock 7-days a week from its Qatar headquarters and bureaux in London, Kuala Lumpur and Washington D.C. Unsurprisingly it has yet to find a US cable outlet prepared to carry its broadcasts.

But the likelihood is that it will find a ready audience elsewhere. “The brief is emphatically not an English translation of the Arabic channel,” says Nigel Parsons, al-Jazeera International’s managing director, who was previously a senior executive with Associated Press Television News and the BBC. “It will have international appeal and fill a lot of gaps in existing output.”

That means he expects viewers outside the Middle East to tune in for its angle on general stories. The network’s English-language website drew a huge number of hits during the July bombings in London. “One of the aims will be to try and bring better understanding of each other’s positions,” Mr Parsons said. “We’ll aim for balance. . . It’s not going to be anti-western or anti-American.” Indeed that some staff at the channel fear it could end up being too Western and unpopular with English-speaking Muslims.

The gap in the market comes, Parsons believes, from the fact that CNN has been dragged to the right by Rupert Murdoch’s outrageously partisan Fox News Channel Fox. CNN’s coverage of the Iraq war cost them a lot of credibility on the international stage. And the BBC’s international coverage –  particularly of the developing world, he says, “are 40 per cent of what they were when Michael Buerk first did the Ethiopian famine.”

He has convinced many in the industry. Behind the big name of Sir David Frost lie a raft of seasoned professionals. They include: John Pullman, a former editor of News At Ten; Paul Gibbs, a former editor of BBC Breakfast; Steve Clarke, an exec producer from Sky where he produced Richard Littlejohn’s show; and Al Anstey, who has just quit as ITN’s head of foreign news. On-camera will be Susan Phillips, previously the London bureau chief of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Mark Seddon, the former editor of Tribune who will be New York and UN correspondent. Parsons has had more than 4,000 applications for the 40 jobs in the Washington bureau from staff at CNN, Fox, Sky, the BBC and Australian television.

Will the new BBC Arabic service make a dent in al-Jazeera? Washington has already launched its own rival called al-Hurra. It has made little impact. So has the Saudi-backed station al-Arabiya, though it has made some inroads among viewers in Iraq and Bahrain. “Al-Jazeera,” sighs Mouafac Harb, director of the rival al-Hurra, “has hijacked the role of the mosque as the primary source of information and views. Al-Jazeera is the only political process in the Middle East.”

Even some Americans have been forced to agree. “For the long- range importance of press freedom in the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately have for the west,” says Kenton Keith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, “you have to be a supporter of al-Jazeera, even if you have to hold your nose sometimes.”


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