Al Jazeera: Good morning, Doha
This week - after countless rows, delays and cultural mix-ups - TV history was made with the launch of a global, English-language version of the controversial Arabic channel Al Jazeera. Station boss Nigel Parsons opens his diary on a tough year
Sunday 19 November 2006
5 January 2006 Wake-up just before 5am, as every morning, when the loudspeakers on the mosque opposite resonate into action. After 18 months living in Doha with my wife and five-year-old daughter, the call to prayer remains a daily reminder of where I am, and also why I'm here in Qatar - as managing director of Al Jazeera International, I am responsible for launching it as a worldwide English language news and current-affairs channel to complement Al Jazeera's existing Arabic service.
Outside the sun creeps up over the tower blocks that seem to grow in number daily on the Doha skyline. This place is changing rapidly; the Qataris themselves are a minority in their own country.
And then to the temporary office where we are camping out waiting for our studios to be completed. We're due to launch in June. My team is spread out between an old, decaying villa with a beautiful internal courtyard, full of fig trees, a Portakabin and a large tent - all air conditioned.
At the moment, we are doing "paper pilots" [rehearsals outside the studio] with the news anchors, who will be based in our four main locations: in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC. Not all those we've recruited are on board yet, but for the ones already here, we need to get the on-screen chemistry right. Doha is our hub because it is the home of Al Jazeera, which is funded by the government of Qatar. Also because a vital feature of Al Jazeera is that it is anchored in the Middle East, broadcasting from the developing world, to the developed world.
17 January When I arrived in Doha in 2004, there was a site for our new studios but nothing more. Today the building is up and we've been declared dust free - a real landmark and no mean feat in a desert. If everywhere isn't clean it can play havoc with the systems.
I spend a lot of time with Wadah Khanfar, my opposite number at the Arabic language service. We are working on a common code of ethics and practice. One issue that has come up is that of language. Will we, for instance, use the phrase "suicide bomber"? Al Jazeera tends not to. In Arabic the word suicide carries with it a moral judgement that it does not in English. The phrase they use, however, translates as something close to martyr, and we can't use that. (omega)
24 January Several of our key presenters have just been in Doha for the second annual Al Jazeera Forum. Sir David Frost was here, taking part in debates. He will host a weekly show for us, not a million miles from Frost on Sunday, but not, of course, on a Sunday. He and I drew up a wish list of guests for him to interview. Tony Blair was on it, as was Robert Mugabe and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
8 February The clock is ticking down and work on the studios continues. We have been unveiling some of our broadcast plans. Shahnaz Pakravan, once of Tomorrow's World, is fronting a slot called Everywoman. Women in the Middle East have issues like women everywhere. It is just that here it is a different culture. Karen Hughes, a senior figure in the Bush White House, on a trip to Saudi Arabia recently, suggested that women there needed more freedom. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But as they heatedly pointed out to Ms Hughes, they neither want nor need outsiders imposing cultural changes.
From this vantage point, I can see that there are a lot of double standards at play in the West. You can't criticise anything Jewish but Islam is a fair target. It's fine for Israel and India to have nuclear weapons, but not Iran or Pakistan. I have been privileged here to be a regular guest of a majlis, a place of gathering for men usually hosted by the most senior member of the majlis' family where anything can be discussed: the world at large, jokes to politics. A regular theme is that Islam is under attack from the West. I'm not saying that my fellow diners are right or wrong, but they do seem to be given a lot of ammunition to make their case.
20 February There's a lot of bureaucracy here that can slow us down. Thankfully the newsroom carpet is now out of customs and laid, so the sets are being built. Among the news staff there is growing frustration that we're still doing paper pilots and can't get in the studio.
22 February This week we had our first rain for over a year, a real thunderstorm which made front-page news in Qatar. True to form, the villa sprang a dozen leaks, soaking carpets and blitzing computers.
23 February Staff from the Arabic and English language channels came together to mourn the murder of former Al Jazeera correspondent Atwar Bahjat and two of her colleagues near Samarra in Iraq. Ironically, Atwar had left Al Jazeera only weeks earlier after a series of death threats, in the hope that she could work more safely under a different banner.
25 February Symbolically, the fence hiding our new building is removed. It's as if we have come out of the box where we've been hiding. From the outside the building looks like it has been inspired by a shoe box. It is the interior that is stunning and futuristic. The newsroom is double height and at the heart of everything, surrounded by glass-faced offices so you can always see what is happening.
2 March Bad news - and inevitably it's technical. Our systems' integrators finally come clean and admit they are having problems. They still insist they will deliver on time, but aren't clear about how it will all work. Our technical people are jittery enough as it is. I get a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, but we have no choice except to stick with our timelines and keep planning.
15 March Troubles mount as we get a fax from some group in the United States calling itself the United American Committee. The fax announces that it is (omega) going to begin an indefinite demonstration outside our studio in Washington DC from 30 April. We call in extra security. The fax rants on about how Al Jazeera wants to broadcast beheadings and send terrorist messages to their children, and attacks Al Jazeera for showing the bodies of dead American and British soldiers in Iraq. Al Jazeera has never shown a single beheading, nor do we condone acts of terror. And how come it is acceptable to show dead Iraqis, but not Americans or Brits?
16 March The Washington protests turn out to be a damp squib. Fewer than half a dozen protesters turn up for three hours before drifting away.
21 March Our relationship with our technical consultants is becoming very strained. It is clear that they are not going to meet the initial deadline for hand-over of the studios on 8 April. At present they are suggesting a month's delay. That would leave us with a tight schedule of rehearsals and pilots before going live at the end of May, but we could do it. I swallow my scepticism about the consultants' promises and agree.
25 March As a morale-boosting trip for staff, we head to the Inland Sea, close to the Saudi border. The activity is dune bashing, stomach-churning descents of vast sand dunes in vehicles at 45-degree angles.
5 April Travel to Washington to check progress there, and stop off in London on my return leg. The studio is all coming together. Seeing the daffodils and blossoms out, I feel for the first time a twinge of regret about returning to a desert landscape.
8 May Go ahead with first rehearsal as planned. Seeing the "On air" red light flash is a thrill
9 May Yesterday, it is now clear, was a false dawn. We are going to have to abandon the trials to allow the technical consultants yet more time to finish their work. Morale takes a dive and is not helped by Doha being engulfed in a windstorm with hot, 100mph winds sucking any oxygen out of the place. Decide to put back launch until after the summer. Negative stories are already appearing in the media, but it is much better to wait and get it right, than rush it now.
30 June Return from a visit to London to learn that our Intrusion Prevention System will not be ready until mid-September. Without it any hacker could take us off air in hours if not minutes. Huge sense of frustration.
7 July Doha empties as expatriate wives and children fly home leaving behind a colony of sad bachelors. Even the hotels are offering special "bachelor set menus". The dust storms are still blowing, which makes people irritable. Our collective mood isn't helped by a seemingly endless list of technical snags.
13 July Our commercial director has to cancel a trip to Beirut because the Israelis have bombed the airport, following the capture of two soldiers by Hizbollah. Several of our staff who were on holiday there are stuck, and head for Damascus. We watch the conflict with a mixture of astonishment, anger and frustration - anger at the destruction being wrought, frustration at not being able to cover it. Our colleagues at Al Jazeera are once again almost alone in showing the full horror of the war.
24 July Establish audio-visual contact with the London studio, but then a Saudi construction team building an artificial island in the Gulf slice through our underground cable. It will take at least a month to fix.
30 July Release new rehearsal schedule in an effort to focus minds and keep morale up. Visit from President (omega) Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who salutes us as "warriors for truth". He's not short on charisma.
3 August Every part of the technical system crashes. We still have mountains to climb. What the technicians call "high-resolution ghost orphan items" are filling up our server space.
18 August Return from recharging my batteries with my family in the Seychelles to find the studio far from ready - no carpets in some places, wires everywhere, desk monitors missing and low staff morale.
10 September Some days everything works. Some days nothing does. I get hugely frustrated, but this is a culture where it is counterproductive to have tantrums or lose your temper in public. There is a fatalism here. Most sentences end with the equivalent of "God willing". The only way forward is to find a way round problems.
A new video from al-Qa'ida threatening all expatriate targets in the Gulf causes us to upgrade security on the housing developments where our workers live.
13 September With the start of Ramadan, all staff are advised that they must not eat, drink or smoke during daylight hours in front of those who are fasting. We erect a tent on the front lawn so that smokers can avoid being seen, and black out the doors to the canteen.
17 September 44 days to go to our new launch date, 1 November, though it may be better to count the hours because then it seems like longer. Our news pilots are getting better but we still need to raise our game. The Pope's comments on Islam while in Germany upset the Muslim world and provoked an emotional debate in our newsroom as to how we would cover the story.
2 October Things are looking up. At 8am we start running our 24-hour schedule and keep our fingers crossed. The system is working. No one can quite believe it.
4 October 50 hours in and were still on air! There have been a few glitches, but we've kept going, and every day we look better. We have moments when we feel we outshine our competitors. My confidence is growing. If we remain stable on air for 10 days, at last we will feel we have a system we can finally go to air with.
11 October We're still going. Everything has remained more or less stable.
16 October Get board approval to announce a launch date. Decide to go for November 15 - and leave 1 November for celebrations of Al Jazeera's 10th anniversary.
17 October Tell staff about launch date. It comes as a huge relief because rumours have been circulating that it was to be delayed again until New Year.
2 November Our latest recruit, Darren Jordon, until recently a BBC news anchor, arrives in Doha. His profile fits our channel. He is the sort of steady hand we need to balance some of our younger presenters. He will work in a pair with another UK recruit, Shiulie Ghosh, until recently at ITN.
7 November Excitement is mounting. In the days that have followed us making public our launch date, we have had dozens of emails from the public welcoming our plans. But I know, too, that knives will be being sharpened. It goes with the territory. There are plenty of people who want us to fall flat on our faces. I'm having trouble shutting down at night. My brain is full of things we still need to do before the launch.
12 November There's no turning back. We have crews deployed across the Middle East preparing reports. At the Doha HQ people are tired and nervy but excited. We are about to set sail on the most exciting international television endeavour of the 21st century.
Nigel Parsons' diary was co-written with Peter Stanford
Poached! Al Jazeera's star line-up of British presenters
Sir David Frost
A broadcasting legend who co-founded both LWT and TV-am. He has hosted a string of TV shows since the 1960s, and interviewed the last six British PMs and seven US presidents.
The newsreader has presented just about every high-profile news show on the BBC, including the flagship Six O'Clock News. He is now working as a news anchor in Doha.
Pakravan has presented for BBC News 24 and Channel 4's breakfast news, as well as fronting Tomorrow's World. Now presents the twice-weekly Everywoman show from Doha.
A star performer for the BBC during the Iraq War. Claimed western news organisations defraud viewers over Iraqi coverage. Has been given his own daily show, Witness.
Former ITN correspondent, famous for her award-winning coverage of the Asian tsunami and the Kosovo war. She is now working as Al Jazeera's news anchor in Qatar.
The Italian-born former Five News presenter is the only second-language English speaker to have presented a British flagship news show. One of Al Jazeera's London-based news anchors.
The former editor of Tribune magazine and regular contributor to The Independent has also worked for the BBC in Iraq and China. Al Jazeera's UN correspondent in New York.
And one that got away... Paul Gibbs
Former editor of BBC Breakfast, was hired as the new station's director of programming, but left in August, after a clashing with the management.
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