Al-Jazeera English Television celebrated its fourth birthday at the end of last year. Launched with much fanfare, albeit after an eighteen month delay, the channel that promised to tread where other channels fear to tread has failed thus far to live up to expectations. Not that this detracts from the channel’s genuine achievements. For in a comparatively short period of time, it has become the station of choice in many parts of the English speaking developing world, this month claiming to reach 180 million households Worldwide.
Al-Jazeera rivals the BBC in its number of overseas bureaux, and for some time was the only international broadcaster to have bureau in Harare and Teheran. Al-Jazeera never set out to be judged by how many people watched it in Britain, and quite rightly so. But it did set out to conquer America, and four years on, the sheer ambition of that daunting project is yet to be realised in any meaningful sense. At the height of the Bush imperium, this seemed an impossibility, even though Al-Jazeera’s proprietor, the Emir of Qatar wanted to demonstrate that not only was Al-Jazeera a station of integrity, it would prove to Americans that what they said about the channel was simply not true. And for many Americans who have become internet viewers of the channel, Al-Jazeera refreshes where others do not.
At launch, Al-Jazeera English was regarded with distinct envy by many of its established competitors. Not only had distinguished journalists and staff been plucked and poached from across the globe, it’s multi -million dollar broadcast hubs in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC set it apart from the competition. This new, international television station would not only have separate news hubs with editorial independence, its News hours would literally follow the Sun around the globe. No central news hub would mean that the Americas were reported from Washington, Europe from London and the Middle East from the Doha Mother Station, and boasting the longest and biggest video wall of any global broadcaster. But as Al-Jazeera prepares to celebrate its birthday few who have worked for the company or watched the new kid on the block through all of its travails will view with anything other than Schadenfreude the decision of its Director, former CBC executive, Tony Burman, to go back to the starting block, with his recently launched ‘US and the America’s Project’, a plan that recognises that one of the key AlJazeera missions, and a particular mission of the current Emir of Qatar – for Al-Jazeera to be broadcast widely in North America - has not materialised, and that it is no longer enough to simply blame hostile US governments or the conservative cable television mentality.
One of the casualties as he seeks to move journalists out of Washington and into the field across the Americas could well be the flagship broadcast centre, a fate perhaps lying in turn for the London and Kuala Lumpur hubs as well. These could become Bureaus as Doha becomes the the 24 hour broadcast centre. If another casualty is the plethora of re-packaged Reuters and AP wire stories, frustrated hacks will heave an almighty sigh of relief. Al-Jazeera frequently outshines the rest when its reporters are able to get to the story, and because it has staff in places like Caracas or Nairobi with good local knowledge, it is frequently ahead of the pack. Although there are few viewers in countries like Britain, there is some evidence that it is widely viewed in the diaspora communities, because when there is a flood in Bangladesh, Al-Jazeera is there. When some of the stations experienced programme makers are allowed to get on with what they do best, the Al-Jazeera view of the global village is sometimes compelling viewing. Yet with each step forward the channel has made, all too frequently it is forced to move back two.
I declare an interest, as one of the first to join the fledgling company at the behest of one of the driving forces behind the new network. For any journalist to be in at something as potentially big as Al-Jazeera English was extremely exciting, but to be offered the plum position as United Nations Correspondent in New York, and effectively become the Bureau Chief for that part of the operation, was a dream come true. Al-Jazeera Arabic had already trail-blazed its way across the Middle East. Seen very much as the voice of the Arab Street from generations weaned on a turgid state controlled TV, the Arabic channel had, since its $150 Million launch in 1996 become the trusted channel of choice for over 40 million people. While viewed sceptically in the West, more thoughtful observers knew that Al-Jazeera Arabic’s editorial standards were high. True, there were nuances and biases, but no Western channel is immune from such temptations either.
The state of the art Al-Jazeera English HQ stands cheek by jowl with its less blessed, older, more down at heel Arab sister station. And the salaries and benefits needed to lure international journalists to the Middle East in quick order became a bone of contention with many Arab journalists who had literally risked life and limb in the hard times. But then there was always a clearer raison d’être for Al-Jazeera Arabic, itself the result of a liberal minded Emir, who wanted to stamp his small country’s mark on the Middle East and become known for something more than gas industry share prices. To this day, more people have heard of Al-Jazeera than Qatar. I recall hearing someone enquire “whereabouts is Qatar in Al-Jazeera?” Al-Jazeera English was founded with more quixotic, some might say, idealistic motives. “We were”, says one former executive “going to report from those parts of the World the other Networks refused or weren’t able to report from.” That ambition has in many ways been fulfilled. Al-Jazeera English frequently reports thoughtfully and incisively from all corners of the World. Any casual viewer would soon be hearing and seeing news from South America, Sub Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia that is simply unavailable elsewhere. For all the budgetary constraints, poor planning and a confusion that typically surrounds so many Al-Jazeera journalistic missions, reporting is often in the raw, the dedication of the journalists obvious, and more to the point, not skewed to an Anglo American view of the World.
But the Emir still foots 75% of the station’s bills and beyond the occasional advert for Qatar airways, the impression is given of a channel that is not much interested in finding any advertising lest it dilute what is one of the World’s best known brands, which by good fortune is, er, Al-Jazeera.
In common with so many who signed in those heady days four years ago, the Al-Jazeera experience is one that I won’t forget, and for the most part for positive reasons. It was Six months before I even had an office in New York, and in that time my family had come from the UK and returned again as at the time the future looked deeply unpredictable and the promised expat benefits simply hadn’t been thought through enough to work. That said, Al-Jazeera English were the buccaneers, the bad boys of TV.
I can lay claim to making the first direct broadcast from outside the United Nations to the Doha broadcast centre, from the Americas. If truth be known that would never have happened had it not been for the generosity of Eric Shawn of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV, who lent me his ear piece just as I was about to go on. New Yorkers, far from being hostile, were inquisitive, although used to get worried when I would inform them that I was off to Utah or Oklahoma. At launch I was reporting from North Korea and shortly afterwards from the Syrian border with Israel. Recently, checking through an old passport, I reckoned to have reported from eighteen countries on four Continents. And being Al-Jazeera, I might have been reporting on Ban ki moon’s trip to Africa, or on Hugo Chavez’s hilarious photo-call roll through New York. And being Al-Jazeera, a mission to report on a dull oil producer’s conference in Madrid, of which I knew nothing about, could just as easily turn into a night of reporting on a Spain v Germany qualifier, of which also I knew nothing. No one could ever accuse a typical Al-Jazeera journo of coasting. The need to service each of the broadcast hubs might have the average reporter crossing over to Kuala Lumpur early in the morning, progressing to Doha, then London and then perhaps a final "as-live" to Washington. My cameraman, Nick Castellaro, a fantastic Australian, would never cease to remind me, when we were in our cups in some benighted bar somewhere in the World; ‘this is as good as it gets’. And largely it was. I should have known when I first arrived to JFK airport with the Homeland Security officer’s words ringing in my ears; ‘You say you are from Al-Jazeera, the terrorist channel? Good luck! How do you spell Al-Jazeera?
Al-Jazeera will need a whole lot more than good luck if it is successfully navigate the next four years, but I hope it gets there.