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News Media Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

A Qatari child is born
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 22, 2006, 00:36

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At last! After years of speculation and months of delay the English-language version of Al Jazeera, the Arab World's most controversial and arguably most successful, television network aired on November 15. It is billed as the first English-language news channel headquartered in the Middle East or Gulf.

The question many are asking is whether it was worth the interminable wait. What can Al Jazeera in English offer in terms of programming to compete with CNN, the BBC or Sky News? Does it deliver a Pan-Arab perspective like its long-established sister network? Or will it be watered down to suit a broader Western audience?

In truth, it's rather too early to say, although it did get off to a good start with an interview of Hamas leader Khalid Mesha'al, who rarely gets airtime on Western channels.

This was followed up with a much publicised coup when veteran interviewer David Frost seemingly got the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to admit what we all know: Iraq is a disaster.

It was reassuring to note that the network's coverage of news gave priority to the Middle East and Africa and rather than relying on agency footage, much was generated by Al Jazeera's own camera crews.

It stresses the fact that it is the only television broadcaster allowed to operate out of Zimbabwe without restrictions and has a team on the ground in the troubled region of western Sudan.

During the past week we have seen several new faces along with plenty of old favourites, such as Rageh Omaar, David Chater, Darren Jordan, Riz Khan, Jackie Rowland, Shiulie Ghosh and Shahnaz Pakravan, who began her career as a newsreader on Dubai's Channel 33 before moving to the BBC and Channel 4.

In spite of inevitable early gremlins and glitches, the new Al Jazeera has received good reviews from both the media and the viewing public. ABC News described the launch as "slick and polished." The BBC World Editor Richard Porter predicted it would be a "serious competitor."

The San Francisco Chronicle compared it to BBC World and CNN International, which may or may not be a compliment. The paper also quoted a spokesman for the Washington-based "Accuracy in Media" as saying, "You can't expect it to run Osama bin Laden's greatest hits or terrorist videos on the first day."

Knee jerk prejudice

This kind of knee jerk prejudice is probably responsible for Al Jazeera's failure to link up with US cable companies, which are citing a lack of interest within America for their own reluctance to team up with the Qatari network.

This is hardly a credible excuse when an estimated 80 million homes around the world have already tuned in. Why should Americans be any less eager? It's far more likely that the US is attempting to shut Al Jazeera out.

Heaven forbid Americans should witness less than sanitised news out of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, as promised by Station Chief Nigel Parsons. That would mean they might actually have to confront the carnage wrought by their missiles, bombs and tanks, which would never do.

It's one thing for US networks, in bed with the government, to target the Middle East in the hopes of winning hearts and minds but quite another for an Arab television station to do the same thing.

Britons, on the other hand, have already succumbed to Al Jazeera's charms judging from comments on the Guardian website. One describes it as a breath of fresh air. Another says, "Hail Al Jazeera, the objectively outspoken channel."

A third writes somewhat tongue in cheek "No celebrity publicity stunts, footballers' hairstyles or Hollywood marriages. It'll never catch on."

Al Jazeera (English) is certainly a serious news and current affairs network. My own initial impressions are favourable. It's slick but not overly so. It is born of an Arab perspective, but doesn't appear to be biased. It is informative without being dry or dull. Most of all, it isn't condescending.

It doesn't talk down to its viewers or dumb down its programming to capture a wider audience. It has something of the pioneering years of CNN International before it lost its teeth and of BBC World before the British government's management shake-up.

The real test, though, is yet to come. We still don't know how Al Jazeera will perform during a crisis or a conflict.

In the meantime, there is only one thing to say to Qatar's overdue offspring: Welcome to the world! You're sorely needed . . . provided, that is, you stay true to your philosophy and refuse to bow to the inevitable pressure that will come your way.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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