Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

How Al Jazeera took on the (English-speaking) world

The ABC’s decision to use reports from the controversial Doha-based network makes sense from up close

Scott Bridges 19 October 2012 3811 words

Little expense spared: Al Jazeera English’s newsroom in Doha. Paul Keller/Flickr

IT WAS an ordinary Monday morning in Australia when the White House announced that Barack Obama was about to give a special televised address. The internet buzzed with speculation about what could be important enough to warrant a presidential speech, at short notice, very late on a Sunday evening Washington time. And then Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted the bombshell: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”

Broadcasters across the world scrambled to prepare for the president’s announcement and cover what looked like being the biggest news story of 2011. In Australia, ABC television decided not to break into regular ABC1 programming, instead running rolling coverage on its twenty-four-hour news channel from lunchtime on. As the scale of the story outgrew the network’s limited resources, ABC24 handed over to one of its partners. Aunty’s choice on this particular day – Al Jazeera English, or AJE – surprised some people. As the Australian’s Caroline Overington wrote, the ABC “normally uses BBC coverage of world events.” At one point in the coverage, she added, “bin Laden was being described as a ‘hero’ to some in the Arab world.”

A few commentators were incredulous. “When the ABC switched to live coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden on Monday, it didn’t take the BBC or CNN. It took the Middle East network, Al Jazeera,” reported the Australian’s media diarist. “The ABC says that wasn’t because no other feed was available. It actually took Al Jazeera by choice.” “What on earth is the ABC’s agenda?” asked News Limited’s Andrew Bolt. Implicit in these criticisms was the view that AJE couldn’t possibly deliver rigorous and balanced reporting on bin Laden’s death because it is based in the Middle East.

In my experience, criticisms like these often come from people who haven’t seen much of AJE’s news output, which has been extremely difficult to view on broadcast TV in Australia. (AJE has only recently been added to Foxtel’s basic package, and since the end of 2011 it has been broadcast for a few mostly overnight hours each day on ABC24 and SBS1.) Add the fact that AJE sports a calligraphic Arabic logo and its name starts with “al,” and the misreading of its character is even easier to understand.

So why did the ABC decide that a relatively new Middle Eastern satellite channel was a more appropriate source for its coverage of bin Laden’s death than the BBC or an established American network? What propelled AJE from little-known foreign satellite channel to key news partner for Australia’s national broadcaster?

IN JANUARY 2011, I was in Sri Lanka cursing the fact that I’d flown out of Qatar just six days earlier. My first freelance contract as a director for AJE had concluded but, despite having a very pleasant holiday, I would have preferred to have been back in the control room. Instead, here I was, sitting in a guesthouse watching AJE on my laptop as Cairo descended into urban warfare. It was the Day of Rage – day four of what we now call the Egyptian Revolution. Despite an uncertain internet connection and faltering, pixelated images, the scale and significance of the events were clear. Through the window of its bureau, AJE cameras were capturing unprecedented scenes in the Egyptian capital: dramatic parabolas of white smoke trailing behind canisters of tear gas fired by riot police on one bridge towards protesters on another; protesters stumbling through the streets, tears streaming from their eyes and handkerchiefs held over their mouths and noses; crowds of men running away from armoured vehicles, blood streaming from their heads, while others ran towards the vehicles armed only with rocks. It was incredible news and incredible television, and Al Jazeera was about the only place you could watch it.

That night, AJE’s live internet streaming figures rose by an almost unbelievable 2500 per cent as people around the world, desperate for coverage and finding nothing on other twenty-four-hour news channels, turned to the internet. Partly by luck and partly by design, Al Jazeera found itself best equipped and most capable of covering the revolution, and it felt the eyes of the world on it.

By 11 February, when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down after eighteen days of protest, AJE had simply outplayed and outclassed its competitors. According to Robert F. Worth of the New York Times, the network “provided more exhaustive coverage than anyone else”; Laura Washington in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that the channel was delivering “first-rate, incisive content”; it has been reported that White House television sets were tuned to AJE during the revolution.

As I watched during those weeks, I couldn’t help but wonder how the workplace I’d come to know over the past three months was dealing with such a massive and all-consuming event. Former colleagues told me that they were working double shifts and seven-day weeks, and my experience directing the channel’s output gave me some insight into what was going on behind the scenes. Having worked hand-in-hand with journalists and producers, I also understood the size and complexity of the organisation.

After Mubarak’s fall, AJE’s attention turned from Egypt to a more prolonged and complicated crisis in Libya, and I continued to watch its coverage on the internet in Australia. Then, two weeks after the announcement of bin Laden’s death, I flew from Sydney to Doha and began my second freelance contract, back in a newsroom that had changed in subtle but significant ways since the Egyptian Revolution.

WHEN we talk about Al Jazeera, it’s important not to conflate its constituent parts. Al Jazeera Arabic, or AJA, and AJE are related but separate entities with largely independent newsrooms and operations. They share content, some bureau resources, and a commitment to the same editorial charter, but not much else. Recently, however, there have been efforts at upper management levels to integrate the two channels more closely, with cost-cutting being one of the most frequently mentioned motivations.

The sprawling Al Jazeera Network features no fewer than sixteen sports channels, a children’s channel, a documentary channel and a live events channel. In news coverage, AJE and AJA are complemented by the newly launched Al Jazeera Balkans, and plans are well advanced for Turkish and Urdu channels. And anyone who has been following the recent battles over TV sporting rights in the United States will know that Al Jazeera’s non-news reach is expanding at a similar pace to its news operation. Yet this media giant emerged from the sands of the tiny Gulf state of Qatar just seventeen years ago.

Its genesis is found in the story of one man, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. After he seized power from his father in a peaceful coup in 1995, Sheikh Hamad set about liberalising the country’s media by abolishing the Ministry of Information and launching a major new broadcast network. Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula”) was launched on 1 November 1996 with an initial grant of 500 million Qatari rials (approximately US$137 million) and a recurring annual grant of about US$100 million.

Most analysts agree that Al Jazeera was, and is, a diplomatic exercise by the rich and savvy ruler of a small and geopolitically vulnerable nation. But from the moment it was launched, this news network was a radical departure from the kind of state-owned television that is standard across the Middle East. Al Jazeera expert Philip Seib argues that it “reshaped the Arab public sphere by discussing government corruption, the role of women in Arab society, and other matters long ignored by the staid government-run news organisations in the region.” Nor was the fledgling channel afraid of making enemies in the region – by 2002, most Arab League countries had protested at Al Jazeera’s coverage of their affairs, and six (Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan and Tunisia) had at some stage withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. By 2005, over 450 official complaints had been made to the Qatari government by other states.

Even on that most fraught of Middle Eastern issues, Israel–Palestine, Al Jazeera was breaking new ground, even if it didn’t always get the balance right. As the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hassan writes, AJA was “the first Arab broadcaster to offer a voice to Israeli officials.” Hassan refers to British journalist Hugh Miles’s observation that “the interviews with Israeli army officers and military spokesmen were ‘truly shocking for the Arab public,’ especially because ‘many Arabs had never seen an Israeli speak before.’”

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, there was nothing much to worry about. Al Jazeera, broadcasting in Arabic and to a fairly limited audience from a global perspective, was not perceived as a threat to Western interests. If anything, in its early years, it was seen as something of a democratic force in a region light on democracy. But then everything changed on 11 September 2001.

With the Middle East suddenly central to US foreign policy, Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in the region now came under intense global scrutiny. The channel’s reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, coming from a very different perspective than that of Western media organisations, attracted severe criticism from governments and commentators. Al Jazeera was called “Jihad TV,” “killers with cameras,” and “the most powerful ally of terror in the world.” It earned a reputation for airing terrorist videos and bin Laden statements (even though these statements were newsworthy enough to be played by other networks including CNN) and for broadcasting beheading videos (which it never did). For many in the West, Al Jazeera became synonymous with al Qaeda.

AL JAZEERA English went to air for the first time on 15 November 2006 after months, if not years, of delay. It was launched to eighty million homes around the world, costing the Qatari government around US$1 billion on top of existing funding for Al Jazeera.

Conceived as early as 2002 as a translated, subtitled and dubbed repackaging of the Arabic broadcast, the AJE model transformed a number of times before it eventually went to air. An English-language website, run somewhat separately from the Arabic operation and as a precursor to a future television operation, had come online in 2003 but was immediately brought down by repeated cyberattack.

At around the time planning began for AJE, the Qatari government was attempting to moderate the excesses of the original Arabic-language operation in reaction to foreign pressure. In late 2003, the Bush administration downgraded the status of planned visits by the Qatari foreign minister and the emir’s wife, and Qatar cancelled the trips because of this perceived insult. “According to AJE architect Steve Clark,” writes Shawn Powers, a media specialist at Georgia State University, “it was this cancelled trip that solidified [the emir’s] decision to invest substantially to create a news network that would once and for all clear Al Jazeera’s name in the West.”

Al Jazeera International (AJE’s pre-launch moniker) was designed not only to fill a perceived market niche, but also to be another cog in Qatar’s foreign policy machine. As William Stebbins, AJE’s Washington bureau chief until 2010, recalls, “There was an expectation that the English channel would be a more sober and sophisticated Al Jazeera, less parochial and operating with higher journalistic standards. While this perception may have played to the English service’s favour, it reflected poorly on the broad Al Jazeera brand, and that implication was never strenuously enough denied.”

Originally slated for launch in late 2004, there was still no sign of an on-air date by early 2006. At the original Al Jazeera operation, animosity was growing as staff watched their English-language counterparts working in a larger building with superior technology on better pay and conditions. “We felt used, unappreciated, and even ‘colonised’ a bit,” one AJA presenter told Powers. “Over the short period of two years, we had gone from Kings and Queens of the Arab world to peons when compared to a ‘British Boys Network’ that is trading on our names, our blood, and our reputations. Many of us are heartbroken.”

In an effort to ease the tension, Wadah Khanfar was promoted from managing director of the original Al Jazeera operation to director-general of the entire Al Jazeera Network. In May 2006, Ibrahim Helal, one of the launch recruits of Al Jazeera, was appointed deputy managing director at Al Jazeera International, and he set about integrating the new channel with the old. Helal was successful in having the launch put back to the end of 2006 and used the time to recruit from around the world in order to spice up the relatively monocultural flavour of the channel.

A mere three weeks before the channel’s launch – scheduled to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the launch of Al Jazeera – its name was changed from Al Jazeera International to Al Jazeera English at the urging of Helal. He argued that the new name signposted that AJE and AJA would be sister channels of equal status rather than one being a superior worldwide version of the parochial other. And so, by the time AJE launched, it was a very different machine to that envisaged by the Qatari government. “The initial Qatari design to launch a news network independent from the Arabic channel’s origins had failed due to core opposition from the network’s journalists and managerial core,” writes Powers. “As a result, at the time of its launch in 2006, AJE’s operations and mission were very much tied to the overall management and reputation of the Al Jazeera Network.”

To this day, AJA and AJE are defined by their different audiences – AJA’s in the MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa) and the Arabic-speaking diaspora, and AJE’s in the entire English-speaking world. Naturally, this means that each channel has its own set of news values and reporting methods and its own on-air tone. The distinction also allows AJE to cover events taking place in Qatar’s immediate neighbourhood more freely than AJA might for fear of causing domestic political concern.

The official line at AJE is that there is a high level of cooperation between the two sister channels. But AJE’s head of news-gathering, Heather Allan, told me that the two work “totally separately” and that AJA services a more “conspiratorial” audience. Head of output, Sarah Worthington, said AJA’s news planning is more “ad hoc” and its approach to reporting more “aggressive” than AJE’s. While both channels excelled in covering the Egyptian Revolution, each did so in its own way.

BY THE time Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt two weeks after the Day of Rage, AJE had cemented itself in many viewers’ minds as the channel of record not just for the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring but also for news more generally.

Even after the incredible spike in viewer numbers during the Egyptian protests, more and more people continued to tune into AJE throughout 2011. Because it is distributed by global satellite, viewership is very hard to gauge with accuracy, so traffic to the internet live-stream is a better measure. After the record highs of Egypt, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami set a new benchmark, and AJE claims that four weeks after Tripoli fell to anti-Gaddafi forces in August 2011 it had retained around 28 per cent of the surge in new traffic generated by that event. Around 40 per cent of AJE’s total web traffic comes from the United States, where the reluctance of major cable providers to carry the network means that it is available to only a few tiny pockets of viewers.

There’s no denying that AJE’s capacity to provide broad, in-depth and responsive reporting is due largely to its generous budget and freedom from commercial pressures. AJE maintains twenty-eight bureaus around the world and shares another few dozen with AJA – a news-gathering footprint simply unrivalled by competitors. The newsroom and television operations are robustly staffed, and little expense is spared on technology and the day-to-day activities of journalists and producers. This financial advantage was obvious throughout its Egypt coverage.

During the eighteen core days of the revolution, AJE had more reporters in more places across the country than any other network, including no fewer than five correspondents who were either Egyptian-born or who had Egyptian heritage. Other reporters boasted long experience covering Egypt and were supported by producers with similar backgrounds. On the Day of Rage, AJE had at least five reporters plus their teams in three cities across the country, coordinated from the channel’s bureau in Cairo. And unlike other networks that largely relied on journalists “parachuted” into the story, AJE’s journalists were equipped with local knowledge and often spoke the language.

As most viewers during the revolution would have noticed, AJE broadcast the developing crisis in Egypt to the exclusion of very nearly everything else. For over two weeks, the schedule was cleared and the regular day-to-day pattern of news bulletins and recorded programming was suspended. AJE dedicated itself to reporting events in Egypt and airing special in-depth current affairs programs, which meant that viewers knew they could tune into the channel at any time for information on events in Egypt.

Crucially, AJE could afford to move people and equipment around the world at a moment’s notice and drop (already scarce) commercial breaks for days at a time without fear of diminished revenue streams. Once the decision was made to roll with the Egypt story, the prevailing attitude at AJE was “whatever it takes,” and it had the resources required to do whatever it took.

WHEN I arrived back in Doha in May 2011, the AJE team was still on a high from the success of its Egypt coverage. Everyone was conscious of the need to continue their efforts in reporting news from around the world, but coverage of the latest countries playing host to the Arab Spring, Libya and Syria, was obviously going to be a priority. There was a definite sense in the newsroom that the world was watching – a tangible burden of expectation.

For the next few months, the Libyan rebels’ conflict with Gaddafi dragged on with no signs of significant progress for either side. But AJE continued to feature fresh, on-the-ground, daily reporting while other networks lost interest or bumped the story down their running orders. And as with other news organisations, AJE’s coverage of the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was hobbled by an inability to operate journalists within the country, but it did its best despite a necessary over-reliance on Syrian activists’ YouTube material. In the cases of Libya and Syria – and earlier, Bahrain – legitimate questions were asked about how the Qatari government’s involvement in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts may have affected AJE’s editorial lines.

And then, in September 2011, to the surprise of employees and commentators alike, director-general Wadah Khanfar resigned. The reasons behind his decision still remain unclear, but Khanfar is adamant that he departed on his own terms, that it was simply time to move on. Some have suggested the Qatari government forced him out, noting that Khanfar’s replacement is a member of the royal family and has a background in natural gas. Frequently highlighted are allegations in leaked US diplomatic cables that Al Jazeera, at Khanfar’s direction, altered editorial content in response to pressure from Washington.

The cables, published in 2010 by WikiLeaks, paint an interesting picture of the relationship between Al Jazeera and the US embassy in Doha. They reveal frequent meetings between the two parties on a range of issues including content, guest selection, quality control and the airing of sensitive material such as hostage videos. Taken together, it is easy for readers to form the impression that Khanfar and other Al Jazeera employees were responsive to the US embassy’s concerns about the network’s output. On at least one occasion, according to the cables, Khanfar allegedly agreed to alter specific content.

Speculation about Khanfar’s departure led the New York Review of Books to wonder if “the Qatari government may now be more concerned about the appearance of foreign influence than of its own.” It’s an interesting point given that when analysts and commentators have searched for editorial weakness at the network, they have usually gone straight to the emir’s diwan.

In the newsroom, however, there is certainly no evidence of systematic interference in editorial matters from inside or outside the building. I’ve interviewed around two dozen AJE managers, journalists and operations staff, and most of them argue fiercely that the newsroom is independent of the Qatari state. A few alluded to isolated incidents involving possible attempts by upper management to change a line or suppress a story – and these incidents should not be discounted or dismissed – but in most cases the newsroom fought back. This is key.

AJE’s twenty-four-hour newsroom is staffed at all times by dozens of journalists drawn from a pool of employees representing over fifty nationalities. Internal editorial disputes are frequent and fierce; people stand up for what they think. This active streak of independence in the newsroom, combined with the increased global scrutiny of AJE’s output in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, are the channel’s best (although not flawless) defence against editorial interference by the network’s benefactor.

The Al Jazeera network is still a teenager and AJE is not even six years old. The company has expanded at such a rate that its organisational structures haven’t had even a remote hope of keeping pace and adapting to the ongoing change. There is a certain controlled chaos about the way AJE and the Al Jazeera network operate, quite at odds with conspiracy theories of an unbroken and compliant chain of command direct from the emir’s palace to the newsreader’s autocue. As an employee and journalist this chaos can be extremely frustrating – from constant and soul-sapping battles with the human resources bureaucracy to amorphous newsroom workflows – but it can also be inspiring. Everyone feels like they’re part of something a little bit pioneering.

Like any news organisation, AJE has its editorial quirks; and a critical news consumer should never blindly accept the reporting of only one news network, whether it’s Al Jazeera or another. But with a news-gathering operation that dwarfs that of most other broadcast news networks, a unique perspective born of having one foot in the Middle East and one in the West, a growing reputation for intellectually robust reporting, and a broadcasting ethos that eschews brainless chat and empty opinion, AJE’s place within the ABC’s portfolio of broadcast partners back here in Australia makes an awful lot of sense. •

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