Hello, good evening and welcome to Al-Jazeera, Prime Minister
Friday 03 November 2006
The long-awaited English-language version of Al-Jazeera, which takes to the airwaves on Wednesday 15 November after a year of technical delays, appears to have pulled off a stunning coup by securing Tony Blair as its star launch interviewee.
At lunchtime on Friday 17 November, the Prime Minister is scheduled to walk through the foyer of Al-Jazeera International's London bureau in Knightsbridge, next to the Lanesborough hotel.
The veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost will then interview the Prime Minister for the first edition of his new show on the network, Frost Over the World. The hour-long programme will air that evening at 7pm.
The landmark interview is expected to see the journalist ask Mr Blair about the deteriorating conflict in Iraq - which is increasingly seen to be his unwanted legacy - although Sir David has a famously "friendly" approach with subjects, one he believes secures franker, less defensive responses.
Controlling events through the production crews' earpieces will be the former BBC Question Time editor Charlie Courtauld. He refused to confirm the interviewee, saying only that Sir David and the production team hoped for a "significant" inaugural guest. A separate source said Mr Blair was "all but absolutely certain" to be in the studio.
Mr Courtauld was, however, willing to explain the thinking behind the new station, which breaks convention by not continually broadcasting from one city. "Al-Jazeera International is going to move with the sun, rotating around the earth through the day," he said. "It starts in Kuala Lumpur, then goes to Doha [in Qatar, where Arabic-language Al-Jazeera is based], before moving to London and later Washington. It will be the first truly global channel."
Sir David, in his show, "will be on the sofa interviewing top honchos by link from around the world". There will also be a "global conversation" feature, where correspondents in each of the four cities have a group discussion about the week's hot news from their region. The network craves the presence, and resultant added kudos, of Western leaders in its studios, and hopes Mr Blair will be the first of many world leaders to sink into Sir David's sofa.
The sort of guests he aims to secure through his legendary contacts book include Vladimir Putin, George Bush, Hugo Chavez, Hu Jintao and Yoweri Museveni. There will, apparently, be an emphasis on important political players who are currently under-reported. For example: leaders from Africa, South America and south-east Asia.
"He is one of the few people who can pick up a phone and achieve what would take a team of researchers three weeks," said Mr Courtauld. "Sir David has back channels everywhere."
The Blair interview would also be a landmark event for Al-Jazeera after years of hostility from senior British and American officials. Last year, a leaked memo appeared to show Mr Blair talking President George Bush out of bombing the channel's Doha headquarters, at a meeting in April 2004 between the two men in Washington. Mr Blair also resisted pressure from former home secretary David Blunkett to bomb the station.
In August, several Al-Jazeera International journalists told Pandora that they had a separate concern: this time about editorial independence from the government of Qatar, after the sacking of Paul Gibbs, the former editor of BBC Breakfast, from his post as the channel's director of programmes. But there is now palpable relief that the project is finally going ahead, particularly with a cast of journalists that includes Rageh Omar, Darren Jordon, Mark Seddon and Shiulie Ghosh.
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