New boss is determined to keep the faith at al-Jazeera
Tony Burman, the new boss of al-Jazeera English, turns 60 on Friday, but he may choose to keep the champagne on ice for a while. There is little to celebrate at the international offshoot of the controversial Arabic network, which is struggling to match the global influence and political clout of its parent more than a year after it launched.
After a 35-year career at Canadian state broadcaster CBC, Burman, appointed managing director last month, will have to restore morale at the network, whose ambitious aim of beaming an Arabic perspective on the world to American living rooms has been dented by a failure to secure airtime in the United States.
“I share the frustration of my colleagues that the channel is not being distributed everywhere we think it should be,” Burman says. “It’s a natural response given the missionary zeal of those of us at al-Jazeera as we try to build bridges through the power of information. It’s also very hard work, and people at al-Jazeera can get frustrated that their work is being kept off certain cable systems. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s one that we feel we’ll eventually win.”
From its Doha head office in the heart of the Qatari desert, to its state-of-the-art bureau in the centre of Washington DC, al-Jazeera English has a global presence to match that of CNN or the BBC. Measured by reach and personnel—1 200 staff and 600 reporters in 50 countries and 25 bureaux—it is far larger than rival news channels like Sky News or Sky’s hugely successful American sister station Fox.
But insiders claim its attempt to establish a presence in the West, where it is regarded with suspicion by some viewers, and open hostility by many governments, has exposed tensions at the top of an organisation that likes to think of itself as the voice of the “Arab Street”.
Al-Jazeera English finally launched in September 2006, over a year late, with a whimper rather than a bang. Despite recruiting some journalistic heavyweights, most notably David Frost, viewing figures in Europe are believed to be unspectacular; tellingly, perhaps, the broadcaster doesn’t supply audience numbers, although it claims that it is available in 110-million households worldwide.
More seriously, insiders say there is a crisis of confidence in the organisation, with staff at its international arm in Doha clashing with local producers and technicians, and an atmosphere of mutual suspicion poisoning relations between al-Jazeera English and its Arabic parent. Western journalists who were paid big money to set up the English language network in the belief that it would be independent complain that its Arabic counterpart is exerting greater editorial control over its output. Perhaps most worrying of all, they fear that no one is watching, despite the huge sums invested in the channel by the Emir of Qatar, the network’s billionaire benefactor.
“Al-Jazeera has gone from being a great idea to a wasted opportunity,” one staffer says. “This is a channel that has no financial restrictions and a good talent pool but we have little or no profile outside the Middle East, staff morale is at rock bottom and people are leaving in droves.”
Every news organisation has its whingers, but that is not a minority view, particularly among expats; the frustrations voiced by a few seem to reflect widespread disillusionment at the channel.
Burman flatly denies charges of editorial interference from the Arabic channel, insisting: “The moment that happened I’d be on the first plane out. I don’t think there is a remote chance that this will be attempted. It has never come up in any discussions I have ever had, and would be impossible to pull off. Anyone who knows my track record would realise that I’d have zero tolerance for that kind of stuff.
“However, I do think that we on the English channel can take better advantage of the insight and knowledge that our Arabic colleagues have about the Middle East. And that’s what we’re trying to do. I think that first-rate coverage of the Middle East is something our viewers would expect on an al-Jazeera channel, and that kind of open-minded, collaborative thinking is exciting for those of us who work here.’
There are rumours that Wadah Khanfar, the powerful director-general of the al-Jazeera network, wants the English incarnation to pursue a more openly Arabic agenda, and feels that the international operation is not as aggressive or hard-hitting as its Arabic counterpart.
“The controversial and provocative journalism of al-Jazeera is something I embrace,” Burman insists. “Our coverage of the Chinese earthquake, Myanmar [Burma] tsunami and Zimbabwe have been extraordinary.” That may be true, but for reporters, there is nothing more demoralising than risking life and limb to file reports that few people watch. Insiders concede there is huge frustration that more money hasn’t been made available for marketing and promotion.
Burman stresses that it will take years to do in the developed world what his colleagues in the Middle East have already achieved and says that critics—and staff—should be patient.
Those who point to the global clout of CNN forget that it remained a laughing stock long after it was established in 1980, he says, when critics dubbed it Chicken Noodle News. “CNN started in 1980 but it didn’t make a breakthrough until the early 1990s and the first Gulf War. It was derided for years.” Even now, Burman points out, CNN’s audience rarely exceeds a few hundred thousand, a tiny fraction of the US population.
In the meantime, al-Jazeera English has established a leading position in many African countries as an alternative voice, and while it stops short of positioning itself as champion of the poor and oppressed, it argues that it sees world events from the perspective of the Southern Hemisphere. That viewpoint, married with journalism that its competitors concede is hard to fault, should give it an audience far beyond the relatively small number of Westerners who are simply curious to get a different take on world events.
Burman points out that only 20% of the world’s billion or so Muslims are Arabs, which suggests there is a huge potential audience beyond the Middle East. The International Herald Tribune, once read mainly by American expats, has found a wider readership by targeting foreign professionals who speak English as a second language.
Al-Jazeera English has a huge presence in the US, with 120 journalists in its Washington bureau, but how does he explain the reluctance of cable companies to carry the channel? Are they unwilling to make space on crowded platforms for a news channel few will watch, or do broadcasters fear a political backlash?
“I think it’s a bit of both,” Burman says. “It is seen by some people as being a network that is sympathetic to interests that are hostile to the US. But I think it will change as the administration changes. The al-Jazeera brand is hugely respected in most parts of the world. There is a problem in the US. That is a the challenge and it is being confronted head on.”
In Burlington, New England, where a tiny city-owned broadcaster with a few thousand subscribers carries al-Jazeera, complaints from locals prompted the company to announce that it will be taken off air, but a local Republican representative is supporting its continued presence, Burman claims, and that decision could be reversed.
Larger battles are being fought and won elsewhere, he adds: “We are hopeful there will be a breakthrough in the American carriage situation soon.”
That may not happen until the post-Bush era, but Burman argues that it would enable al-Jazeera English to take advantage of a hunger for foreign news, which has been gradually downgraded by the big networks, partly because it is so expensive to produce. “At a time when many news organisation are downsizing there will be an increase in our coverage of the world, more investigative journalism and new bureaux,” he promises.
Many newsrooms already turn to al-Jazeera English for coverage of events in the Muslim world, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last year, because its contacts give it an insight—and some scoops—that Western rivals may lack. It could be that a promotional push will take place once it has established a foothold in America, but for that to happen Burman must wait for the US electorate to delivers “regime change” in the market it most covets. - guardian.co.uk