Wikileaks Gets It Wrong About Al-Jazeera

We are becoming used to Wikileaks reports of cables from US Diplomats being immediately accepted as factual statements, rather than opinion based on encounters. The latest being the leaked communiqués from the US Ambassador to Qatar, Joseph Le Baron. He claimed that the Qatar based satellite channel, Aljazeera was being used "as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by al-Jazeera's broadcasts, including the United States", and based his opinion on what he had been told by Qatar’s Prime Minister, Hamid bin Jassim al Thani, who said; “Aljazeera’s ability to influence public opinion is a substantial source of leverage to influence opinion throughout the region”.


Indeed it is, as is the BBC World Service. The only difference being that the BBC tends to reflect a Western view of the World, whereas Aljazeera reflects that of the Middle East and the developing World – hence the inevitable conflict between two very different World views.

But the idea that Aljazeera tempers its editorial content at the behest of the Emir of Qatar who mainly finances it is possibly as fanciful as the Wikileaks report that US diplomats believed their South Korean counterparts when they said that China might recognise a unified Korea under the aegis of Seoul.  Conjecture does not always meet with reality. Aljazeera, in its swashbuckling sometimes disorganised way, has shown itself quite adept at resisting pressure wherever it may come from.

Throughout my time as a correspondent with Aljazeera, first at the United Nations in New York and then later in London, I never came across evidence the channel was being “leaned on” by the Qataris. There were other pressures of course – Aljazeera journalists became collateral victims during the war in Iraq and famously former Home Secretary, David Blunkett urged Tony Blair to blow up the Aljazeera transmitter. Had he taken his advice and done so there would have been a good chance that he would also have blown up the head of US Central Command, ‘Centco’who I bumped into round about that time and as he was leaving an interview at Aljazeera’s broadcast centre in Doha. I later wrote to David, inviting him to bomb Aljazeera in America, and pointed out that my office was in Times Square.

The Emir of Qatar has come under the most extraordinary pressures to force the Arabic and English Aljazeera channels to tone down their coverage, not least from the Saudis. The Saudis even set up their own channel, AlArabiya to counter what they saw as the contagious danger that Aljazeera’s free and fair reporting constituted to a region not necessarily associated with democracy and free speech. In recent months, it was claimed that the Jordanians jammed Aljazeera’s coverage of the World Cup in protest at the channel. And if Aljazeera has warmed more to the Obama administration than its predecessor, this could just be because Obama has a more nuanced policy towards the Middle East and one that does not immediately resort to military might. But the latest Wikileaks will be music to the ears of Aljazeera’s legions of detractors, armed now they believe with proof that the channel is the Emir’s poodle.

Of course Aljazeera has put Qatar on the map. People sometimes ask me; “is Qatar in Aljazeera?” Of course Aljazeera also makes Qatar a small state to reckon with. On the one hand fiercely pro Western and home to Centco, on the other home to a satellite station with bite.

Come to think of it I did once witness a controversial intervention by the Emir. My cameraman, Nick Castellaro was filming the arrival of UN Secretary General Ban ki moon in Doha, and inadvertently turned his back on the Emir while doing so. Poor Nick was immediately castigated by a Qatari official for his appallingly discourteous behaviour. He was saved further admonishment by the intervention of the Emir, who had spotted a trademark symbol on his baseball cap; “Don’t worry please, he is from Aljazeera”.

*This article has appeared in The Guardian, Uk 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.