Al-Jazeera UK

At long last, the English-language version of the controversial Arab TV station launches next week. But what is it for?
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It is said that al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel funded by the Emir of Qatar, owes its growth to pornography. One year after launch in 1996, desperate to expand from humble beginnings, it sought access to a Saudi-controlled satellite used by the French network Canal France International (CFI). Enquiries revealed that no space was available. But then a CFI engineer pressed the wrong button and transmitted hardcore porn into Saudi homes, so infuriating the Saudi authorities. CFI was expelled from its slot and Al-Jazeera got bargain distribution. Sceptics say the new English language channel, al-Jazeera International (AJI) which is due to launch on 15 November, will need a similar stroke of luck.

There is speculation in television circles that AJI has secured one: an exclusive interview between its star presenter, the BBC veteran Sir David Frost, and Tony Blair to be broadcast on Friday 17 November. Downing Street declines to confirm the arrangement, sticking to the standard formula that officials do not normally give advance details of the Prime Minister's meetings or engagements. But, if it happens, it will be a huge coup for producers whose Arabic language counterparts are treated with suspicion by the British government and reviled by President George Bush and his administration.

AJI certainly needs a fillip. Originally scheduled to begin broadcasting in late 2005, its launch has been repeatedly delayed. The official justification is construction and technical glitches at the four broadcast centres in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC. Insiders blame bigger problems.

"Morale has been plummeting throughout the year," says a source at al-Jazeera's Knightsbridge bureau. "There is serious confusion about what the station is for and real tension between al-Jazeera's Arabic programme makers and the new international team."

Wadah Khanfar, director general of the al-Jazeera network, has said: "The launching of the English channel offers the chance to reach out to a new audience that is used to hearing the name of al-Jazeera without being able to watch it or understand the language." But British sources describe huge difficulties in reconciling al-Jazeera's established editorial identity with Western ideals of balance and impartiality. One describes the visit of a Qatar-based editorial consultant to al-Jazeera's London offices in August: "He told journalists that the events in Iraq and Palestine which we usually refer to as suicide-bombings should be referred to on air as 'martyrdom operations'."

Such claims recall the controversy sparked by Arabic al-Jazeera's willingness to broadcast taped messages from Osama bin Laden. Since it earned its spurs by being the only station with a constant satellite feed from Kabul during the 2001 Afghan War, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has accused it of being "slanted in ways that appear at times just purely inaccurate". The former Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi calls it "the voice of terrorist groups". Less jaundiced observers credit it with bringing honest political debate to the Middle East, a region accustomed to regarding television as a source of trivial entertainment and raw propaganda.

Nigel Parsons, the former Associated Press television executive who is managing director of al-Jazeera International, has sought to reassure his staff that comparing Arabic language al-Jazeera and the new AJI is pointless. "The brief is emphatically not to do an English translation of the Arabic channel. It will have international appeal and fill a lot of gaps in existing output."

Sir David Frost, who will present a weekly show on AJI, recently told The Washington Post that he had checked the station's credentials with American and British government officials who gave it a clean bill of health. Frost has been promised "total editorial control" of his programme.

Similar guarantees have attracted other high-profile recruits, including former ITN presenter Shiulie Ghosh and Darren Jordon, for eight years a BBC presenter on shows including the One O'Clock News. Other AJI journalists with reputations for excellence and fairness include the original BBC scud-stud Rageh Omaar, former CNN staffer Riz Khan and ex-Tribune editor Mark Seddon, who has signed on as UN and New York correspondent.

Insiders say the confidence of such professionals initially acted as a magnet for younger journalists. "A lot of the people who joined in 2005 saw AJI as a blue-chip channel for aspiring internationalists," says one staffer. "People with real public service backgrounds signed up because they saw it as the death knell for blue-blazered, square-jawed imperialists who want to lecture the developing world." Another insider says "It felt super-sexy, a chance to do issue-based stories that no commercial channel would touch, and to give the southern hemisphere a real voice in a media world that is unfairly dominated by the rich north."

But insiders admit optimism has declined sharply during the pre-launch hiatus and talk of furious misunderstandings between English- and Arabic-speaking executives.

The argument is reflected on the Friends of al-Jazeera website by entries such as this - from a contributor called Karim. "A battle has been raging for the soul of AJI. [It] has pitted the western executives in charge...with its founders and Arabic parent channel. It centres on the identity of AJI and its role in the al-Jazeera family. What is it, and what is its purpose? AJI executives have failed to satisfy their employers, let alone an increasingly sceptical public, that they have a vision that is consistent with the channel's trailblazing Arabic counterpart."

Life has never been easy for al-Jazeera. As fighting reached Kabul in 2001 its office was hit by two American "smart" bombs. A British former civil servant, David Keogh, has been charged with unlawfully disclosing a Downing Street memorandum which allegedly reveals that President Bush wanted to bomb its headquarters during the US bombardment of Fallujah. But the launch of AJI has raised hopes that it can become a serious rival to BBC World and CNN International.

With 60 fully staffed bureaux - most of them in the southern hemisphere - its ambition to balance the information flow from south to north and become the channel of reference for English speakers in Africa, the Middle East and South America, is not obviously unrealistic. Parsons has said: "CNN have been dragged to the right by Fox... They have lost some credibility on the international stage." Of the BBC he recently warned: "Levels of coverage of the developing world are 40 per cent of what they were when Michael Buerk did the Ethiopian famine."

One AJI producer says: "We may not win massive ratings but we will break important stories that no other network is looking at. We will get news from a grassroots perspective, wherever it is made." But everyone involved knows that will require co-operation between Arabic language and AJI teams. Only 20 of the network's offices are AJI dedicated.

Viewers will see a schedule split between 30 minutes of rolling news per hour and 30 minutes of debate or documentary. A senior source says: "For people who opposed the war in Iraq and question US hegemony, it will be a lot more interesting than anything the BBC or CNN can offer you. The programme slate is genuinely imaginative."

But British insiders admit that tension between London and the Middle East is at fever pitch as launch approaches. One explains: "Power has been drifting towards Doha. At the moment, the Arab executives are in control - but if it doesn't work the Europeans will get the blame."

The additional complication is finding a satisfactory definition of success.

In Arabic, al-Jazeera attracts between 35 million and 40 million viewers but very little advertising. Five million is the first-year target for AJI. Commercial returns are not a priority. The Emir owns the world's largest reserves of natural gas.


* On 10 September 2003, the eve of the second anniversary of 9/11, Al-Jazeera aired footage of Osama bin Laden in an unknown location, accompanied by an audio tape of him praising the 9/11 attackers and promising more attacks.

* In October 2004, Care International director Margaret Hassan was kidnapped in Iraq. Al-Jazeera received five tapes of the hostage. The earlier ones showed her begging Tony Blair to withdraw troops. Al-Jazeera refused to air the later ones.

* Al-Qa'ida deputy leader Ayman-al-Zawahri used the channel in August 2005. During the taped broadcast, he accused Tony Blair of bringing about "destruction", referring to the terrorist bombings in London the previous month.

* Norman Kember, a Christian activist taken hostage in Iraq in November 2005, had his kidnap played out over al-Jazeera. Kember used the video messages to plead with Tony Blair to withdraw troops from Iraq.


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