Dominic Crossley-Holland on Broadcasting

You just have to look at Al Jazeera's resources to discover its potential

Monday 13 November 2006 01:00

My name is Dominic. I'm a newsaholic. I first started experimenting with soft stuff such as Nationwide as a child then graduated to the odd TV news bulletin in my teens. By my early twenties, I was a heavy user but the real abuse began later when I became a full blown 24-hour news junkie.

Now I've put producing and editing News at Ten behind me and the four years I ran a 24-hour news channel feel like part of another life. Although I've long been in rehab, I have to admit the news bug is still in my blood and I like nothing more than the endless coverage of big stories provided by an ever-increasing number of networks.

So, imagine my thrill this week because not one but two new news channels are launching. On Wednesday, Al Jazeera's English-language channel finally takes to the airwaves, followed the next day by France 24 which Jacques Chirac has promised will be a "CNN à la française".

Al Jazeera has rarely been out of the headlines since it launched 10 years ago, having caused endless ructions in the Arab world and generally frightening many in the West. Accused of being a conduit for Osama Bin Laden's messages, of incitement and overly graphic coverage, it has at one time or another been banned from operating in 18 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Iraq.

President Bush reportedly had to be talked out of bombing its Doha HQ by Tony Blair, and last month David Blunkett revealed that Bush had wanted to bomb the station's Baghdad transmitter as he regarded it as an enemy "propaganda mechanism". Whew! You couldn't buy that sort of publicity- no wonder that in a relatively short time Al Jazeera has become one of the world's most recognisable and influential brands.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the birth of Al Jazeera International has been no less controversial. For a start, there's been an extraordinarily long delay - well over a year - blamed on technical problems in realising ambitious plans to broadcast in high definition from four different hubs each day. On the face of it, this seems a little surprising since CNN International has long switched output between time zones. But having helped launched a news channel myself on rather wobbly digital technology, I have to admit to being rather sympathetic.

Whatever the cause of the delay, the upshot has been that hundreds of experienced journalists and technicians have been left on the sidelines for months on end, enough to strain anybody's morale, let alone the highly motivated TV news types who live to be on air. Given the sort of salaries it is paying, it's perhaps fortuitous that the emir who bankrolls Al Jazeera has pockets as deep as his country's oil and gas reserves.

Then there have been reports of tensions between the longstanding Arab executives on the parent channel and the predominantly English team brought in to oversee its international offspring. The hugely experienced director of news and programming, Steve Clarke, insists there's been "absolutely no interference whatsoever", but evidently feelings do continue to run deep. Only last month, star reporter Yosri Fouda said he felt it would be better to expand Al Jazeera's existing Arabic service - something needed far more badly than yet another channel serving the West.

Al Jazeera International promises it will have broad, international appeal, but with a unique viewpoint. The director general of channels, Wadah Khanfar, says: "We have an edge over the other networks: we're already based in the Middle East. And we have a different perspective." The stated aim is to "reverse the information flow" to English speakers who currently have little choice but to watch Western broadcasters.

Given that the audience for Sky or BBC24 in the UK often only averages low tens of thousand or hundreds of thousands at best, it's unlikely to find a large number of viewers in this country, although those that do watch are likely to include a disproportionate number of opinion-formers. The real potential for the channel is surely the majority of the world's 1.2m Muslims who don't speak Arabic.

The network is also clearly talking up the importance of its role as a forum for the West to speak to the Muslim world, a role recognised by the fact that Sir David Frost hopes to interview Tony Blair for his very first programme on Al Jazeera International this Friday.

Available in 40 million homes from launch, Al Jazeera International clearly aims to take viewers from CNN and BBC World, and, much like its competitors, it will offer a mixture of news and current affairs. In addition to Frost's weekly Frost over the World, Rageh Omar, the BBC's former "Scud stud", will host a daily documentary strand called Witness, and there'll be an interview show called One on One with former CNN anchor Riz Khan. If that all sounds rather familiar, the rolling news segments will also be anchored by reassuring faces such as Darren Jordon and Felicity Barr.

Steve Clarke tells me that one of the real differences will be that Al Jazeera International will "cover more of the developing world than your average 24-hour news channel" and it will aim to get more "clarity and depth" to the coverage.

When I asked him to furnish me with examples, he cited human stories such as showing people what it's really like to live in a Palestinian camp in Lebanon or for a farmer trying to buy a tractor in Zimbabwe. You just have to look at the resources to see Al Jazeera has the potential to deliver on this. Overall, Clarke says he has 700 staff at his disposal, more than 300 of them journalists; in Africa alone, Al Jazeera International has 12 bureaux, five of them dedicated.

As to the vexed debate about impartiality, Sir David Frost is believed to have received a guarantee of editorial control over his programme, with other high-profile signings apparently having similar deals. As he puts the finishing touches to next week's launch, Clarke is absolutely clear that the new channel will first and foremost have to prove its absolute accuracy, integrity and impartiality. "We'll have to make all this clear early on, a lot of people will be watching. Although it probably won't be good enough for some," he says.

Along with many others in the news business, I have for many years watched the professionalism and bravery of Al Jazeera's journalists. Although I haven't always agreed with the channel's decisions, it has covered a serious agenda with a fresh voice and perspective. An impressive team has been assembled with the resources to really make a difference. We'll soon finally see whether it's been worth the wait.

Personally, as a news junkie, I can't wait to get my fix.

There's no such thing as a goldplated, guaranteed hit

Networks hate to pull programmes but a flop is a flop is a (big) flop, and boy has it been a big week for flops.

In recent years, ITV has shown the most ruthless streak in dropping shows before they inflict too much collateral damage. Commercial schedules allow absolutely no leeway for programmes that don't cut the mustard so the usual practice is for the schedulers to wheel out a worthy "banker" to plug the gap such as an old Midsomer Murders or the umpteenth run of a James Bond film. But now it's Channel 4's turn with its much-hyped drama Goldplated (above) being shunted to the graveyard slot of 11.15pm. And the top brass at Channel 4's Horseferry Road HQ are also considering moving the Friday night gameshow Unanimous, which flopped in a similar vein, to the less pressurised 8pm slot.

But the real action's been across the Atlantic where our very own Eamonn Holmes has become the latest British presenter to come a cropper, with Fox axeing his The Rich List gameshow from primetime after just a single episode.

If any further proof were needed of Eamonn's diminished stature on American TV then look no further than the publicity shots to promote The Rich List. They appear to have been airbrushed to make him look younger and thinner, not that it helped much.

A real case of being big over here but perhaps not quite as big over there.

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