Natural Gas – Al Jazeera English’s First Day

Al Jazeera English launched this month. It is a long awaited channel that many in the international broadcasting community have looked forward to as a groundbreaking initiative. Afshin Rattansi is a former Al Jazeera Arabic producer who left the BBC to join Al Jazeera at the onset of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Edward: As well as producing for Al Jazeera’s flagship Arabic documentary strand, your novels are about working in the international media. When did you first hear about the channel?

Afshin Rattansi: Frontline Club members may have been among the first to hear that Al Jazeera was launching an English service or at least who would be the new channel’s key personnel.

John Owen, chairing a meeting at the Club Forum way back in March of last year, spotted the fledgling channel’s head of news and programming at the back of the hall, and challenged him to give us a preview of what to expect.

Edward: Clark said: “we intend to launch without any agenda whatsoever. We’re not the English version of the Arabic channel; we are determined to be as objective, impartial. I’m just here as an observer and stood here at the back as far away as possible in the hope that no one would notice me.” What’s Clark’s background?

Afshin Rattansi: Clark, who used to produce a chat-show hosted by The Sun’s Richard Littlejohn may have looked a little embarrassed but it has to be said that it is no mean feat to create a new 24/7 global channel.

Despite millions of pounds from the Qatari Government, there were excruciating delays as well as resignations. The head of the new channel, Nigel Parsons, a former sales director at APTN opted for no advertising campaign, relying on reams of international newsprint speculating on whether Jazeera English would be just the thing to shake up an otherwise samey broadcast news landscape.

Edward: So what did you think?

Afshin Rattansi: Let’s start with the good things. The graphics (bought in from the same company that supplied CNN International’s new makeover) looked sprightly.

In the first week, two of the flagship programmes did well. David Frost managed to get an uncharacteristic slip-of-the-tongue remark out of Tony Blair on Iraq (he seemed to admit that the Iraq adventure had been a disaster) although some commentators put this down to luck.

As for Riz Khan’s show, the former CNN anchor invited Nobel laureates like Harold Pinter on as well as introducing a fresh ‘developing world’ perspective on stories that we hear about every day.

Shahnaz Pakravan’s Everywoman strand made excellent contributions to the debates surrounding how women are treated in so many developing nations.

Edward: So all good?

Afshin Rattansi: Only one strand was a disaster although it can only get better. An appalling culture-type show in which a journalist named Amanda Palmer failed to interview the new James Bond on Leicester Square’s red carpet made one wonder what she has been up to the past couple of years.

The programme was a patchwork of PR electronic press kits. Given the myriad developing nation writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers the opportunity for an excellent culture strand is up for grabs. And, obviously, there is plenty of celebrity-access to Hollywood’s finest given Tinseltown’s penchant for the progressive.

Ed: Documentaries?

Afshin Rattansi: As for the other ‘back half hour’ documentaries – nothing really shone because nothing was particularly new or told in a way that threatened conventional wisdom on current events. A documentary on British troops training seemingly dim-witted Iraqis on the Shatt al-Arab waterway was dull at best. At worst it was shameful imperialist PR.

Edward: And the news?

Afshin Rattansi: But the news…oh dear, the news. Clark’s vision for the channel is that money shouldn’t be mentioned. The result is that whilst the first day saw excellent live shots from Darfur and Mogadishu, everything was dumbed down to the human interest story.

This was children’s news that didn’t tell us about cause, just effect. No anchor seemed to think of “following the money”. Instead presenters looked dumbfounded after yet another shocking report of human misery from a place not usually covered by existing broadcasters.

This pointillist approach is likely to leave the viewer dazed, confused and feeling disempowered by the mess the world is in. There seems to be some vague “blame George Bush/if we just understood other cultures everything would be alright” agenda without any meaningful evidence.

It is, of course, international business that binds the world together but the channel is steadfast in its desire not to connect situations in developing world countries with the power of multinationals headquartered in G8 nations. Following the money would give the channel coherence. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman who does a daily net podcast from New York shows the developing world is not some “other”: it is intimately connected with metropolitan lives.

Edward: Nothing on finance?

Afshin Rattansi: This inexplicable lack of news on anything resembling corruption or finance leads to odd gaps. There doesn’t seem to be a Tokyo correspondent.

On the channel’s launch day, the main news on every station was leading on predictions of a Japanese tsunami. Jazeera English led continuously on the Middle East: an Israeli woman had been killed by a Palestinian rocket. Since Jazeera English resolutely didn’t offer statistics from say,

The Red Crescent (4,286 Palestinian deaths and 30,804 injuries since October 2000 according to their information), the channel would have perhaps made Israel’s Ehud Olmert blush. There was no fair context to a story that Jazeera presented as an unprovoked attack on an Israeli civilian.

Edward: No money mentioned at all?

Afshin Rattansi: Because money is not mentioned on the news, Gaza again became a human interest story.

No interconnections were explained between events there and decisions in Europe (the EU has sanctions against the Palestinian Authority after the outcome of a democratic election). No connection was made with U.S. funding of Israel.

Edward: What about Iraq?

Afshin Rattansi: As for Iraq, Rageh Omaar interviewed an official who claimed that Iraq exported $25 billion worth of oil last year.

It was disappointing that instead of Omaar following up by asking what happened to all the money, his rejoinder was something like “but things aren’t going well in Iraq, are they.”

Edward: What about non Middle East news?

Afshin Rattansi: For viewers, there was no difference between Jazeera English, the BBC or CNN when it came to coverage of President Bush’ visit to Moscow.

Sky News whose parent company owns Fox News as well as the distribution channel for Jazeera English in the UK offered more perspective on leading international stories. Yet Sky doesn’t pretend to have a developing nation perspective. On Jazeera English’s launch day there was “no news” from India and only fluff from China.

Edward: Of course, there was a killing in Lebanon.

Afshin Rattansi: The ultimate test for Jazeera English was the assassination of Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon — he of the Falange party that carried out the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. Every other news station in the world was fingering Syria. Surely this was a time to show that Jazeera could excel when it comes to news fairness.

But no, the most enlightening interview was with The Independent’s Robert Fisk who had already been on the other international stations. The basic journalistic question, “Cui Bono” or “who benefits” was not uttered by the now gormless looking anchors in London, Doha and KL.

They were blaming Syria even as the Baker Commission into the future of Iraq was envisaging a rapprochement between Washington, Damascus and Tehran.

Edward: What about the pictures?

Afshin Rattansi: Vaughan Smith at a recent Frontline Club event in London said that camera-people and editors should get on-screen credits, especially in conflict zones.

Given that many expected exclusive “shot for Jazeera” footage from Iraq, it was surprising that most of the pictures seemed to be standard ‘anonymous’ APTN/Reuters material that was present on other networks. There were no credits on Jazeera.

Edward: Why do you think it was so boring?

Afshin Rattansi: Whilst commentators around the world expressed surprise at the channel’s perceived lack of imagination, there may be another reason for the channel’s blandness.

Were something like the recent 34-day war in Lebanon to happen again, Al Jazeera English may protect the Arabic channel.

Edward: How do you mean?

Afshin Rattansi: The key to understanding Jazeera is that it has been banned in more countries than any other network. Whilst the wives of Arab dictators may love it, Arab rulers do not.

Nor, as we all know, does the present U.S. Administration. Al Jazeera English, at the time of writing, has no U.S. Carrier and can only be seen on the internet in the Land of the Free.

Edward: So it could be a safety device?

Afshin Rattansi: But what better for Al Jazeera Arabic then to have an unthreatening sister channel? Perhaps there are those in the Qatari government who feel that the channel can act as a flak jacket for its notorious relation. The U.S. bombed Jazeera bureaux in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In Baghdad, U.S. ordnance killed the channel’s correspondent, Tareq Ayoub.

Al Jazeera English may not be spectacular but for all its resemblance to a faux CNN, it may help guarantee the safety of Jazeera’s star Arabic reporters and camera-people.

Edward: So this may not be the new perspective that was billed?

Afshin Rattansi: As for international broadcasting, December sees the launch of a channel from Paris which the French government hopes will offer English speakers a Gallic perspective on international affairs.

We shall have to wait and see whether the 24/7 news channel concept, invented by CNN more than a quarter of a century ago, has truly come of age.

Afshin Rattansi produced for the BBC’s Today programme and Al Jazeera Arabic and was launch editor of the Middle East’s first international English language television news channel. His bestselling quartet, “The Dream of the Decade” was published in 2006 and concerns broadcast journalism.

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