First impressions: Al Jazeera English

Yesterday, amidst all this effort trying to fix the blog, I watched the countdown clock to 12pm GMT on my television screen. When it reached 0, Al Jazeera English finally launched, about six months behind their last schedule, which was also several months behind the previous announced time. In that time it has changed its name, made some changes to the way it operates to be more Doha-focused, and missed out on the year's biggest story, the war on Lebanon.

I visited Al Jazeera English last February and spoke to staff on both the English and Arabic channels. Many had misgivings about the editorial line the channel would took -- in Arabic they were afraid it would embarrass them, in English they seemed to have no clear idea of what that line should be. It turns out, judging from the first day, that AJE does have an editorial line that is different than BBC World or CNN International, but its style remains quite similar to the others -- most notably because of the preponderance of British accents on the channel (and a few non-native English ones, which is a bit of a gamble to take as a broadcaster.)

Several things struck me about their political line:

  • They keep on referring to "so-called" Palestinian terror attacks (the rockets launched on Israel from Gaza), putting the stress on "so-called." If they are going to pursue this, which is fair enough, they need to develop the debate over legitimate resistance to occupation using terrorist tactics. The insertion of qualifiers like "so-called" and "alleged" will quickly get tiring without a more probing debate into what's legitimate resistance and what's terrorism against civilians (and where the two meet.)
  • My impression is that they are pretty fair on Israel -- they don't only show in a bad light, they interviewed Shimon Peres and did a little featurette on the Israeli national football team.
  • Their focus on Gaza is on the misery and poverty. I'm glad this is getting more attention, but it'd be great to talk about the ins and outs of Palestinian politics and the role Egypt, Israel and the US have in them. We have enough channels pretending that Palestinian politics are completely independent without external influence already.
  • Their reporting on Zimbabwe, including the first live broadcast in seven years, was impressive and obliquely tough on Mugabe. But why didn't he give the background story to farm nationalization that caused the current crisis? Are there red lines he's not crossing?
  • The reporting on Iran was very interesting. At one point they had Richard Haass from the Council on Foreign Relations debating Egyptian octogenarian strategist Muhammad Hassanein Heykal. Great to see Heykal talking in English, but he was unconvincing. In another segment they had a professor of political science in Tehran who was much more interesting and not pro-regime.
  • Did they really need to include a report on the Emir of Qatar's latest speech as the third or fourth leading news item? Small price to pay, but still...
  • They make obvious attempts to position themselves as outside the West, for instance referring to "making the headlines in the West is Tony Blair's recent statements on Iran..." and then following it with a segment on Iranians not paying attention to all this. Interesting strategy, but it won't always be convincing.
  • They tried to get several scoops in during the first day. The reporting from Somalia was interesting but too human interest and not political enough, but still good to see live images from there. The Zimbabwe report was not as exclusive as they say since the BBC regularly goes there covertly. The interview with the head of Interpol warning that most countries were doing nothing to check for stolen passports was great, a real scoop, but so far I haven't seen it picked up elsewhere. Sour grapes?
Overall, though, I feel this channel has the potential to be much, much better than the most boring and underfunded BBC World or very bland CNN International (which may still have the edge on access). They focus on other issues than the existing channels and, when tackling big topics such as Iran, approach things from a different angle. I see no deep hostility to Israel or the West (although they'll be accused of it), and generally it's pretty professional. Let's hope they keep going the same way -- the big test will be what their coverage will be like during the next regional crisis.

Update: Now watching the noon broadcast. They're promoting themselves again. It's getting annoying. Teh top story should not be themselves.

Related stories:

NYT - A New Al Jazeera With a Global Focus
WaPo - Al Jazeera's US Face
NY Sun - Al Jazeera in English (hatchet job)
NY Sun - Major Cable Providers Refuse To Carry English-Language Al-Jazeera
NYT - Not Coming Soon to a Channel Near You
Guardian - Weather in Arabia, crisis in Gaza, and no sign of Sir David's Through the Cavehole
BBC - Al-Jazeera English hits airwaves
Aqoul - Al-Jazeera International: Setting the News Agenda?
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.