Egypt is al-Jazeera's promised land
Donald Rumsfeld demonised it and George Bush allegedly said he wanted to bomb it.
No one was quite sure whether the then White House incumbent was joking or not, but its offices have been hit by American forces. Twice.
Now something rather strange has begun to happen to the Arabic language news broadcaster al-Jazeera and the English language channel it launched nearly five years ago; American viewers have begun to demand it. It is clear some kind of watershed has been reached when The Kansas City Star publishes a cut-out-and-keep guide to the “easiest way to get al-Jazeera English”.
The Qatar-based channel’s acclaimed coverage of the Egyptian crisis has been referred to as the broadcaster’s “CNN moment”, doing for al-Jazeera English what the first Gulf War did for CNN, pushing it to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Put simply, must-see TV.
Now the challenge is to translate the plaudits into the major cable or satellite distribution deal the channel has long sought without success in the United States.
The New York Times, which praised the channel’s “total-immersion coverage of news events the whole world is talking about”, bemoaned the fact that US cable viewers were able to watch MTV’s controversial adaptation of E4’s teen drama Skins but not al-Jazeera English. “It seems like a perverse application of free speech,” said the paper. “But sex is sexier than foreign affairs, and it certainly sells better.”
With China investing $7-billion in foreign-language media, we may also be witnessing the beginning of a shift, albeit slight, in the nature of global TV news and debate. Stephen Claypole, the former senior BBC news and TV news agency executive who is now chairman of the London and Abu Dhabi-based consultancy DMA Media, says: “al-Jazeera has the game by the throat, both in Arabic and English, and it has certainly lived up to its reputation as the most watched broadcaster in the Arab world in spite of intimidation and violence against its staff in Egypt.
“I have heard that [US secretary of state] Hillary Clinton watches it constantly and that Barack Obama has been viewing from the situation room. Although al-Jazeera English has been competent since its launch, it has been waiting for a huge story to call its own. Egypt is certainly that.”
Had to be good
al-Jazeera English is separate from the main al-Jazeera Arabic channel, which began broadcasting in 1996. Staffed largely by Western television journalists, the English-language service leveraged the advantages of its Arabic network and contacts in covering the emerging crisis. For a story of this scale in the Arab world, it absolutely had to be good.
Al Anstey, the former ITN executive who is the managing director of al-Jazeera English, describes it as an “extraordinary week” for the channel and a “truly historic” one for Egypt.
“We are being seen worldwide as a channel of reference on this story,” says Anstey. “There has been an exponential increase in the recognition of exactly what it is we do and the quality of our journalism and content. I always say the best way of addressing any misconceptions about al-Jazeera English is to switch on and watch.”
al-Jazeera English is available in about 220-million homes in more than 100 countries worldwide. But fewer than three million of those homes are in the US including—helpfully for the White House—Washington DC.
The failure to strike a major US distribution deal is partly a result of the political sensitivity that surrounded the perceived negative slant of al-Jazeera Arabic’s coverage of the Iraq War. It is also a reflection of the fact that cable operators do not think they can make money from a foreign news network on systems that are already full.
BBC World News is distributed to about six million homes in the US, against more than 10 times that for the entertainment channel BBC America (on which some BBC World News bulletins air).
“For a long time, al-Jazeera was seen as the Fox [News] for the bad guys. That’s a really unfortunate way of looking at it,” says Jon Williams, the BBC World News’s editor. “With the change in [US government] administration, there’s been a slight change in attitude, and if this means that it does now get carriage in the US, then we welcome that. al-Jazeera has done some great stuff. It wouldn’t be fair to single out its Egyptian coverage; it has been doing this for a while.”
US viewers have been watching the channel by other means: streamed live on YouTube, on set-top box digital video player Roku, and on its own website, which reported a traffic increase of 2 500%, with more than half of the upsurge coming from the US.
It also gained a valuable window on Link TV, which announced last week it would simulcast about 12 hours a day of al-Jazeera English on its satellite network available nationally on DirecTV and the Dish Network.
Blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis said it was a “sad vestige of the era of ‘freedom fries’” that the channel was not more widely available on cable and he has started a Twitter campaign, #wewantouraje, referencing the line from Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, but with a twist.
“As much of an internet triumphalist as I am, internet streaming is not going to have the same impact politically and educationally that putting AJE on the cable dial would have,” blogged Jarvis. “It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one, not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media, can bring the perspective, insight and on-the-scene reporting al-Jazeera English can.”
Anstey is cautiously optimistic: “I’m confident we will get distribution in the US, it’s just a question of when,” he says. “It’s a very important marketplace for us.”
Especially in terms of revenue? “It’s not about the finances of getting into America, it’s about getting the content out there. At this stage of our evolution, the priority for the English channel is about building reputation and reach.”
As the broadcaster is bankrolled by the billionaire Emir of Qatar, neither the English nor the Arabic al-Jazeera is under pressure to make a profit any time soon.
It has also faced accusations of aligning itself closely to Qatari foreign policy; US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks at the end of last year suggested Qatar was using the Arabic channel as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations with its neighbours. “Never once has Qatar interfered with our editorial,” says Anstey. “It is absolutely not a fair criticism and I can say that with total confidence. We are genuinely independent.”
The English channel’s short history has not been without its problems. The launch was delayed and allegations of discontent among the ranks surfaced three years ago, accompanied by a string of staff defections.
Anstey, the station’s former director of media development, who was appointed managing director in October, says: “As a start-up, where your competitors are very established and very good at what they do, there is going to be rapid evolution. We have gone into the next stage of development and things are much more settled. We are able to refine what we do and expand where we feel appropriate.”
As the al-Jazeera channel eyes up further international expansion, funded by its backer’s seemingly bottomless pockets, Western news organisations such as the BBC’s World Service are having to cut back sharply, with its shortwave Egyptian service among those facing the axe.
Richard Sambrook, the former director of BBC Global News and now global vice-chairperson of the PR firm Edelman, says it is part of a wider trend that could have far-reaching implications.
“Western journalism and newsgathering, including the international networks, is shrinking as news organisations close bureaux and make staff redundant to cut costs.
“At the same time, states in other parts of the world are investing in journalism including international coverage and networks. al-Jazeera, Iran’s Press TV and the Chinese have just invested $7-billion in expanding [state news agency] Xinhua and China Central Television. So we may be seeing a shift from Western dominated international news to Mid East and Asian dominance in the long run.”
Every global media story produces its winners. Egypt’s drawn-out agony is a tailor-made opportunity for al-Jazeera English, which it has seized with careful on-the-ground journalism.
If the US cable owners relent to the emerging public pressure, it will mark a coup for a news service that, until recently, was battling to prove it had credibility and salience with many Western audiences.—Guardian News & Media 2011