A Qatari child is born
By Linda S. Heard
Journal Contributing Writer
Nov 22, 2006, 00:36
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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