Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Arabic News Empire Broadcasts in English

Voice of Arab world goes global

Al Jazeera network launches English offshoot, British veteran David Frost to host the flagship talk show

Nov. 14, 2006

AMMAN - After months of false starts, fine-tuning and a protracted in-house battle for the very soul of the channel, Al Jazeera unveils itself in English for all the world to see.

All the world, that is, except North America, where only those with high-speed Internet access can log on to a live video stream of what the often controversial Arabic news empire has put together in its quest to take a global run at the likes of CNN, Fox and the BBC.

With no major carrier yet in the United States and having not even knocked on the door for broadcast approval in Canada, the world's richest English-speaking market would seem a steep uphill battle for Al Jazeera International. At least one group, the conservative watchdog Accuracy in Media, has launched a campaign to ensure it never makes it to air.

But AJI has the patience to match its pocketbook, and the pockets of this iconic television brand are nothing if not deep — as deep as the natural gas reserves of Qatar, whose royal family has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Al Jazeera since its launch 10 years ago.

Though the burgeoning Al Jazeera empire has yet to turn a profit, money seems inconsequential to its royal backers, who have elevated the clout of their tiny emirate on the back of what is now without question the pre-eminent news voice of the Arab world.

Now that money is spilling over to the English side, which launches its operation in high-definition television, replete with a staff of more than 500, including journalists from more than 30 countries feeding to four state-of-the-art broadcast hubs in London; Washington; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and its headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

British broadcaster Sir David Frost is among the marquee talent enlisted for a flagship talk show. Others in the stable include former ABC Nightline journalist Dave Marash and ex-CNN International anchor Riz Khan. Canadians in the mix include former Global anchor Kimberly Halkett, ex-CBC sportscaster Brendan Connor and veteran ABC News correspondent Richard Gizbert.

But Al Jazeera's ambitions to expand globally in English come with in-house growing pains that appear far from resolved. As the new hires rolled in, many of them refugees from U.S. and British networks, the veterans of Al Jazeera's Arabic flagship began to cry foul, fearing the sister station would become nothing more than a CNN retread at the expense of the staunchly Arab perspective on the world.

"It is silly to pretend there were never any disagreements or controversy. It has taken a year of discussions and soul-searching with the staff of the existing Arabic news channel and the new employees to figure out what we want to be," said Lindsey Oliver, the broadcaster's commercial director."What we came to is (a) global channel that will take the spirit of Al Jazeera to the entire world, with the main mission to be the voice of the unheard. That means a focus on reporting not just Middle East issues, but Africa, South America and many parts of Asia."

"The editorial values will be to look under stones for the stories not told, the people not heard, particularly in areas not covered by Western news media in sufficient detail." Oliver pointed to the establishment of 12 news bureaus in Africa alone as proof of AJI's editorial commitment.

India, Pakistan and parts of Europe are expected to be AJI's points of deepest penetration at the outset, although Oliver was reluctant to give details on specific arrangements with broadcast carriers. The biggest challenge will be the United States, where Al Jazeera is battling its most negative stereotypes.

"Some Americans have an almost demonic image of Al Jazeera in their heads, complete with misconceptions and myths that are absolutely not true. The Arabic channel has been accused of showing beheadings, for example, although it never has and it never would," she said. "All we are asking for is to be given a fair hearing. Give us a chance and you will be surprised."

Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and now director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo, has watched Al Jazeera far closer than most. He too thinks the new English channel deserves a chance."Al Jazeera journalists do not wake up every morning and ask themselves, `How can we screw the North Americans today.'

They report from an emphatically Arabic perspective, they are sensational, they use loaded language at times and they do show the kind of graphic images you don't see on North American TV," Pintak told the Star."The analogy is to Fox (News) , in that they present as clear and overt an Arabic perspective as Fox is American."But it should also be noted that they have reduced the sensationalism and rhetoric in recent years. Al Jazeera today has a much greater awareness of the need to do things in a more responsible and balanced way."

Pintak points to coverage of last summer's Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, during which Al Jazeera dropped the word "martyr" in describing civilians killed in the fighting. The decision triggered a backlash from many viewers. Pintak said Al Jazeera's shift toward more responsible journalism was all the more striking given what he called the "bizarre, frustrating and over-hyped" efforts of U.S. cable news outlets to cover the same conflict.

He singled out high-wattage celebrity correspondents Anderson Cooper and John Roberts as emblematic of a fly-in press corps staring across the border into Lebanon, woefully ill-equipped to convey a sense of the nuance on the other side."Lost in the fog of hype and self-aggrandizement on the cable segments was much of the subtle complexity of the conflict," said Pintak. "Instead, it was too often reduced to the black-hat, white-hat characterization that has guided U.S. policy toward the region."Whether AJI will attain better journalistic altitude, Pintak said, remains to be seen."They have a lot of relatively senior Western journalists and I suppose the real test will come when the shit hits the fan. When they step on somebody's toes in a big way, we can watch how they react and that will give us a sense of their perspective on things."

Whether Canadians will eventually be able to tune in remains to be seen as well. AJI's Oliver said the new channel's strategy is to wait until after tomorrow's launch to present an application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. But Al Jazeera headquarters is mindful of the controversial CRTC 2004 ruling that has effectively kept the Arabic flagship off Canadian airwaves.

Though technically the licence was approved, the permission came with a caveat that required carriers to monitor Al Jazeera on a time delay to prevent the dissemination of "abusive" rhetoric.The ruling balanced off objections from the Canadian Jewish Congress. "As a Canadian I am embarrassed by this ruling," said Gizbert, the London-based former ABC News correspondent who will host Listening Post, an independently produced media show. "Basically they gave Al Jazeera the Don Cherry treatment, but they did so knowing full well that no cable carrier in the country would take on a channel knowing it would have to staff there 24 hours a day monitoring in Arabic."

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