Do not adjust your sets: An alternative view of the world

Set up 10 years ago by the Emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera has grown to become an influential antidote to the Western bias of the global media. Today it launches an English-language channel. Guy Adams reports
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The Independent Online

Lights, cameras, salaam. In the heart of old London, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, the inhabitants of a state-of-the-art television studio are preparing to make broadcasting history.

Today, the Arabic television network Al Jazeera launches one of the most ambitious television ventures of recent times: an English-language channel, to bring rolling news, from a Middle Eastern perspective, to a global audience of millions.

The new channel, Al Jazeera International, already boasts star quality. A host of big names, from Sir David Frost to former-BBC and ITV stalwarts Rageh Omaar and Darren Jordon have been poached from rival broadcasters.

Tony Blair is expected to provide the station's first major "scoop", having agreed to an exclusive interview on Friday's debut edition of Sir David's new weekly show, Frost Over the World.

In the US, meanwhile, AJI has signalled its intention to do battle with the mighty CNN, after poaching its sought-after Atlanta-based anchorman Riz Khan to front a daily news programme from Washington.

The channel certainly has money to back up its ambitious aims. Bankrolled by the Emir of Qatar to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, it launches with a total of 18 bureaux around the world, and no less than five hundred staff of its own.

Four studios - in London, Doha, Kuala Lumpur and Washington DC - will allow AJI to "follow the sun," broadcasting around the world via satellite television and the internet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"This will be the last great adventure in TV news," says the station's Europe correspondent, Alan Fisher. "It sounds like a terrible cliché, but the world is getting smaller, and there's a huge untapped market that isn't served by a rolling news station. I'd put that potential audience in tens, if not hundreds of millions."

It's a bold claim, but Al Jazeera has made a habit of living up to the hype that has surrounded it since the original Arabic station hit the airwaves just 10 years ago.

That channel was launched on the back of a US$10m grant from the Emir of Qatar in 1996, after the BBC scrapped its World Service Arabic language station, in response to censorship demands from the government of Saudi Arabia.

The Emir, a comparative liberal by the standards of Middle Eastern leaders, was anxious to make sure that a politically independent station could continue to broadcast in the region, and instructed its staff to "Report the news as they see it."

He named Al Jazeera after the Arabic term for "the peninsula" or "island" and saw it grow to international prominence, and in some cases notoriety, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Critics branded it "Bin Laden's favourite channel", after al- Qa'ida leaders began to use it as a vehicle for their occasional broadcasts - some involving captured Western hostages - to a worldwide audience.

In addition, it was accused in some quarters of feeding its 50 million regular viewers with a regular diet of anti-American propaganda. As a result, Al Jazeera has occasionally been targeted during the "war on terror". it was revealed last year that Tony Blair talked George Bush out of bombing the firm's Doha headquarters during a meeting between the two leaders in April 2004.

David Blunkett has also admitted that he urged Mr Blair to break international law and bomb Al Jazeera's Baghdad television transmitter during the Iraq conflict, claiming the station was "attempting to win a propaganda war on behalf of our enemy".

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the launch of an English-language channel will further rile those who have accused the station of being a mouthpiece for terrorists, and claimed (wrongly) that it has broadcast beheadings.

Those involved say, however, that AJI will continue to follow the news agenda of its parent station. They deny accusations of bias; instead, they say, the station offers a counterbalance to the "Western tyranny" of other international broadcasters. "We will take a global view, rather than looking at things from a purely Western perspective," Alan Fisher said.

"Our choice of stories is also different. We will be looking much more at how world events affect ordinary people. An example is how Al Jazeera covered the American assault on Falujah. Other networks were going through official US spokesmen, but our sister station was more interested in showing what the attacks were really doing to people on the ground."

One result of this is that Fisher will not be attending daily Downing Street press briefings. "That's typical of the Western way of doing TV news, where you take something seriously simply because a big statesman is saying things," he says.

"We aim to look at how real people are affected. I really don't want to attack the BBC or CNN, but they are aimed squarely at businessmen sitting in hotel rooms. We've got a different agenda, to reach the audience you'll find on the street."

The target audience of AJI is the millions of inhabitants - Muslim or otherwise - of regions such as south-east Asia, many of whom speak English as a second language. It's a potential audience of one billion, who have different priorities to traditional television news viewers.

Sir David Frost's show will, therefore, involve round-table discussions between studio guests sitting in the channel's "hubs" around the world.

"It's an independent production and we have full editorial control," says the editor, Charlie Courtauld. "That is very important, because it is undeniable that some people have strong views about Al Jazeera which are generally based on second-hand info, because they don't speak Arabic. It will allay their concerns if people understand that we are making an independent programme, and that will help us get voices that are normally unheard on TV news outlets. We are focusing on world leaders from Africa, South America, and south-east Asia. The usual fare has become very jaundiced."

The big question, of course, is whether it will work. Although events of recent years have seen Al Jazeera become one of the world's most influential television networks, it generates little in the way of advertising revenue, and is still heavily subsidised by the Emir of Qatar.

The station's launch has been far from smooth. Although it has bought up an array of broadcasting talent in a manner compared to Roman Abramovich's spending spree at Chelsea, preparation have been marred by "technical problems".

The station was originally scheduled to go on air a year ago. That was revised first to spring, then to September, and then, finally to some time this morning (although yesterday afternoon its phone system went on the blink, further hampering operations).

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, ugly rumours have circulated concerning clashes over the editorial direction between its liberal new staff in London, and executives in Qatar who wished to preserve the station's original brand of Arabic values.

In August, there was concern over the sacking of Paul Gibbs, the former editor of BBC1's Breakfast programme, from his post as director of programmes. And as recently as last week, The Independent on Sunday quoted employees at the network's Knightsbridge bureau describing "plummeting morale" and "real tension between Arabic programme- makers and the new International team."

For those already muttering about the "curse of Al Jazeera" Darren Jordon's recent troubles can hardly have helped. Last month, the former BBC newsreader's wife, Mandy, told newspapers that they were on the verge of separating because, as a Christian she doesn't want to live in Qatar.

Yesterday, a final spanner in the works. Reports claimed that British staff working on AJI's launch in Doha had been ordered to undergo "cultural awareness training" telling them how to behave in a Muslim country, after upsetting locals by going on "drinking binges".

Like so much about Al Jazeera, it exposed the gaping cultural divide between east and west. The big question, of course, is whether a new English language Arabic station will now widen, or narrow, that gulf.

FAMILIAR FACES

Rageh Omaar

The so-called "Scud Stud" became hot property during the Iraq War, reporting from the conflict zone for the BBC. Having returned from the desert, he signed a two-book memoir deal with Penguin for an undisclosed sum said to be "in the high six figures". Al Jazeera hired Omaar shortly afterwards. He told The Independent that he would present a nightly documentary series called Witness, focusing on issues commonly overlooked by the majority of news channels. Western news organisations, Omaar claimed, had presented a "fraudulent" picture of the war in Iraq.

Darren Jordon

Joined the BBC in 1998 as a correspondent for BBC Sport, but established himself as a regular presenter for BBC News 24, before moving to the Six O'Clock and Ten O'Clock news bulletins. His decision to join Al Jazeera International came as a shock to the BBC, who regard Jordon as an "extremely accomplished news presenter". Jordon explained that his role, based in Qatar, reflects his desire for "new challenges" and emphasised the importance of a news channel with comprehensive coverage of Middle Eastern events.

Mark Seddon

A left-wing firebrand who cut his teeth at the BBC, before editing Tribune and sitting on the Labour Party's ruling NEC.

Seddon had been a staunch and vocal critic of the war in Iraq, He joins AJI as the New York-based UN correspondent. The move required him to resign from the Labour NEC.

Rizwan Khan

Khan reported world news for CNN International for 13 years from 1993. Born in Yemen and raised in Britain, he will host an interactive interview show for AJI, broadcast live from Washington DC and featuring world leaders, newsmakers and celebrities.

Matthew Jenkin

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