Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius

2006/11/15

English Al Jazeera Disappoints

Having my curiosity piqued by all of the ballyhoo, I spent much of this evening watching al Jazeera's English channel debut via the Eutelsat-Hotbird satellite. While expecting new insights, different perspectives and a view from the Gulf, I can honestly report that I am neither excited nor impressed: it was just another ho-hum international news station full of BBC World, ITN and Sky News broadcasters.

To be fair, al Jazeera is trying to build a reputation as being a moderate news station: remember, al Jazeera's reputation is such that, amongst Americans at least, it is thought to be Bin Laden's official soapbox, a perception that drove George Bush to consider bombing the news-station's Doha headquarters during the Iraq War. Obviously, English al Jazeera is meant to be a kind and familiar face to western viewers design to improve the general opinion of the Qatar network.

Yet, the end result of such middle of the road tactics is mush. In the few spare minutes between the ads, tonight's offering had a small piece on the elections Congo, civilian deaths in Iraq and Darfur, a pickled interview favouring an American, and a live report from Gaza which had the (bad) luck of having an Israeli bomb of going off in the background. My favourite for the evening was 48, a Lonely Planet TV styled video travelogue of an attractive blond Australian, Amanda Palmer based on the concept of spending 48 hours in off the beaten track cities like Damascus.














The new and sexy Al Jazeera

It is not that it was bad journalism or even bad travel TV, it was just not what I had hoped for. Clearly, Ms. Palmer is intelligent and insightful; maybe--probably-- someone I'd ask out for a date, if the possibility arose. But she speaks no Arabic and spent half an hour of my time wandering around Damascus like any other traveller/tourist might. Which is of course fine for Lonely Planet TV. As a contrast, at the same time BBC World was broadcasting a detailed analysis of the Nairobi Conference. Now you be the judge: which one would you watch?

But that is only a tell-tale of why al Jazeera doesn't work. If you travel to most Arabic countries, Al Jazeera is the standard television diet. In Tangiers, satellite dishes hang practically off of every building and the network blares in most tea houses, a scene repeated across the Arab world. If a pan-Arabic movement were ever to take hold, al Jazeera would be its glue.

What al Jazeera failed to realize about the power of broadcasting in English is that it transcends borders and cultures and that is what a good international broadcast should reflect. Yet, while choosing its staff, Al Jazeera has hired a small band of primarily British and British sounding journalists who have no special knowledge of the Middle East, no special understanding of Arabic culture or language or Islam, with the exceptional Arab who makes it onto the screen. The nightly newscast, for example, was hosted by ex-BBC broadcaster and great guy Stephen Cole, in London. In fact, the whole broadcast felt distinctly British, in a provincial kind of way, complete with western prejudices, Australian weather and a penchant for the quick soundbite. Instead of getting an alternative view of world news from Doha see from they eyes of the people in the Middle East, we get London in Qatar. Ugggh.

The alternative would be, of course, seeking out journalists from Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, India, Morocco or dozens of other countries from the Middle East and around the world who are told to report the news as they see it. Doing this might achieve the reputation of a genuine news alternative, as its Arabic-language sister has done. More importantly, it might have created a network to rival CNN, the BBC or FOX in the Third World and Europe. This, of course, won't happen as long as al Jazeera (English) remains a poor copy of BBC World.

Pity, that.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come off it, now. It's early days - if not hours!

O f what I've seen so far, I happen to think it's pretty stylish!

Thursday, 16 November, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeh...early days. I'm still sticking to it. They have some great looking programmes. And the News is better than that of BBC News 24 or SKY any day!

Just hope it remains a free news channel..and it doesn't suddenly change to having to subscribe.

Saturday, 18 November, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, being based in the US, in cable-land, I don't have free access to it but my curiousity was similarly piqued to the extent that I forked out 20 bucks for 3 months' access through JumpTV.com

Having watched it for a week now, a couple of things are apparent:
1. They're short on content so there are a bunch of repeats;
2. They focus for the most part on the southern hemisphere.

The first point will presumably be addressed as the channel grows (advertisers are also few and far between and that's going to have to change too).

The second point is more interesting and already it's quite apparent that this is their strong point. They have the in-region correspondents and they have the access that western news outlets don't seem to have.

Lastly, I would say that their documentary pieces (notwithstanding TUC's remarks on '48', which I haven't yet seen) are very good. Again, the strength of the programming is in its regional focus. That doesn't mean that the stories are necessarily more important than the news that we get in the US/Europe but it provides a different weight to the news and that, in the end, is what Al Jazeera is trying to do I guess: redress an imbalance.

Yes, they need to do a better job but, as others have noted it's early days and launching a channel on this scale isn't easy. But they know what their objective is, they know what their strengths are and they know what market they're going after. Let them get their feet under the desk and then we'll see how they compete.

Monday, 27 November, 2006  

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