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Shaking up the airwaves: six months after the long-awaited launch of Al Jazeera's English channel, Rhys Jones reviews its achievements.

AFTER A MUCH delayed launch, Al Jazeera's controversial English channel finally hit our screens last November, making it the Middle East's media story of the year.

Sold to the world as the world's first global English language news channel to be headquartered in the region, the channel promised to tell untold stories, promote debate and challenge established perceptions.

Al Jazeera English (AJE) said that as the world's first global English language news channel to be based in the Middle East, with its "array of internationally renowned journalists broadcasting from Doha and around the world" the channel would give an unbiased version of news from the region.

It has been dubbed the 'CNN of the Middle East', the 'most popular political party in the Arab world' and- most notoriously--'Terror TV'. Ten years after its broadcasts first made Arab and American leaders stand up and take notice, the question on everyone's lips is 'how has the new English incarnation performed?'.

One of the channel's first aims was to show it was different to western rivals such as CNN. And for the first month the new channel's programmes largely focused on screening grim images of Palestinian suffering, the usual harsh pictures from Iraq and coverage of the latest crisis in Lebanon--all in high-definition TV.

Launch day was largely uninspiring--apart from an interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in which he admitted the war in Iraq had been a "disaster"--with run-of-the-mill coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict leading the way and the anchors reporting on an Israeli woman killed by a Palestinian rocket. They followed with a reminder of the much higher toll of Palestinians killed by Israelis in the Gaza Strip. Next came a tsunami watch off the coast of Japan, the misery in refugee camps in Sudan, and then updates on Iraq, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia.

The channel obviously had plenty of 'exclusive' interviews stored up and was clearly determined to use them, while extended pieces on South American tribesmen and Chinese fast car fanatics failed to inspire. The topical magazine-style shows, which fill the second half of each hour, added perspective to global events but the station's bread and butter--breaking news--was lacking, leaving most viewers disappointed and reaching for the remote.

This is pretty much how things remained until 21 November when the Lebanese opposition leader Pierre Gemayel was assassinated in the streets of a northern Beirut suburb. AJE's coverage of this Lebanese crisis was the event which allowed the channel to really start to distinguish itself from its western rivals.

While BBC World and CNN went with run-of-the-mill coverage (especially of Gemayel's funeral), the analysis and depth of AJE's thorough and thoughtful coverage set the new Arab channel apart. While western channels focused largely on the rift between Gemayel's anti-Syrian faction and Hizbullah, AJE offered in-depth insight into the growing sectarianism in Lebanon, especially divisions within the Christian community--an issue which was largely missing from the mainstream news outlets.

AJE separated itself from the pack by conducting a comprehensive series of interviews with some of the crisis' major figures, including a Hizbullah spokesman--whom the BBC and CNN, notably failed to land. Furthermore, the channel refused to fall into the trap of assuming Syria was responsible for Gemayel's death by noting that plenty of other factions and individuals in the region could stand to benefit.

Since the Gemayel assassination, AJE's standards appear to have strengthened further and its correspondents in Gaza, Israel and Iraq have come up with several reports to put them up at the front of the competition. Add sterling coverage of the recent pro-Hizbullah rally in Beirut and extensive live coverage of the Pope's controversial visit to Turkey and you realise that AJE is doing what it set out to.

However, some of AJE's biggest potential audiences--including Arab-Americans--were not among the 80m homes that could receive the 24-hour broadcasts from the channel's headquarters in Doha. And none of the seven major US cable and satellite TV operators carried its inaugural broadcast.

Although the relatively few Americans using the GlobeCast satellite dish service (a subsidiary of France Telecom), which is required to view the channel in the States, can watch AJE, it can also be streamed through broadband internet from Al Jazeera's website. Time Warner, Cablevision, Comcast and Cox Communications--whose parent company also owns the American-Statesman--have decided against carrying the channel though a deal is rumoured to be in the pipeline with Dish Network. That, however, has yet to be confirmed.

The reason for Al Jazeera's difficulty in finding space in already crowded cable and satellite line-ups is simple, according to media analysts.

"Al Jazeera has been pilloried in the press for the past five years, and it's seen by an overwhelming majority of Americans as the 'terrorist wire service'. It's a radioactive brand," says Matthew Felling, media director of the Centre for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar who has bankrolled Al Jazeera since its inception 10 years ago this month, is, however, a friend of the Bush administration.

He donated $100m to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and in support of Washington's 'war on terror', he and Qatar play host to the largest single US air base in the Middle East. Yet the Bush administration has all but accused Al Jazeera's Arabic-language network of being an accomplice to terror.

Despite its image problems in certain countries, Nigel Parsons, the managing director of the new channel believes AJE can take on the likes of CNN, BBC, Sky News and Fox News. "Our goal is to revolutionise viewer choice and set out a different news agenda," said Parsons, a 30-year veteran of BBC Radio and Associated Press Television News.

The network boasts some 20 news bureaus, including broadcast centres in Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington that will share anchoring duties with Doha. AJE has also lured some of the biggest names in television journalism to its fledgling English language network. Sir David Frost, the silky-voiced ex-BBC interviewer, tops a line-up of over 200 journalists that AJE has lured away from every major broadcaster in the world, including ex-CNN anchor Riz Khan, renowned British news anchor Shiulie Ghosh and former ABC News correspondent Dave Marash--a renowned Jewish media figure.

Marash has said he feels comfortable working for a news organisation that has been condemned for the anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli tirades of some of its chat-show guests.

"I did my due diligence on Al Jazeera," he told the US press last month. "And as a Jew, I believe in the possibility of reconciliation between Israel and its adversaries. I believe that Al Jazeera is a force for peace."

Things seem to be moving along nicely for AJE after a turbulent start. But what do the channels' rivals think of it? In London, BBC Global news director, Richard Sambrook believes it may take away some of his network's viewers, but he is confident that the new channel's reach stands far below BBC World's 270m homes.

"They've made a very confident start, which isn't surprising since they have a large budget and had a long time to prepare," Sambrook said. But Al Jazeera's third world locus could backfire, according to Sambrook. "They clearly want to differentiate themselves from the BBC and CNN by representing developing countries," he said. "It will take some time to see whether they can do that and still keep broad appeal. That may limit their audience."

Despite Sambrook's scepticism, it seems the Middle East is set to witness an explosion in news outlets reporting directly from the region--both on television and online.

A French international news channel, France 24, started broadcasting on the internet in French, English and Arabic recently and is expected to become widely available on cable and satellite any day now after some initial teething problems. The BBC is also setting up a new Arabic television service expected to launch this year. CNN though, in typically brash fashion, says it is unfazed by the new competition. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English itself is expanding further with a recently-launched service in Malaysia.

"There are almost 100 news channels around the world and Al Jazeera English and France 24 are [now] added to the list," says spokesman Nigel Pritchard. "Most operators tend to benchmark themselves after CNN and after 26 years on air, we are happy with that."

Whatever CNN and the rest of AJE's competitors think and say, one thing is mightily clear--Al Jazeera's English channel has tapped into a post-9/11 hunger for alternative news sources. The region's people have needed a media that represents them for some time. Now they have it.

In time, perhaps the rest of the world will come to favour a global news agenda that is not shaped mainly in London, New York or Atlanta.
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Author:Jones, Rhys
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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