Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Al Jazeera English

Months late, a last-minute change of name (Al Jazeera English?!), but Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, best know for its Al Qaeda footage, launches its English-language channel today.

The channel has changed its name at the last minute from Al Jazeera International to Al Jazeera English. It doesn't exactly roll off of the tongue. Actually it is a terrible name, knack handed. Made the Emir came up with the one.

The channel will initially broadcast for 12 hours a day and becomes a 24-hour news operation from January 1. It had been meant to launch in the spring, but was hit but internal disagreements and problems about exactly what it was going to be.

A story yesterday said that British staff working for the new English-language channel drank so much alcohol that they were ordered to undergo special "cultural awareness" training on how to behave in a Muslim country.

Clearly the Sultans of Arabic news didn't realise that drinking alcohol is considered journalistic training in the UK.

Not to worry, the presenters and producers hired on lucrative tax-free salaries to launch Al-Jazeera International were lectured by Islamic groups on "appropriate behaviour" after a series of marathon drinking sessions in Qatar, where the new service is based.

The channel's owner, the Emir of Qatar, is understood to have personally ordered the move.

Broadcasting from studios in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC (bomb proof, I hope) it is on course to reach 80m homes in Europe, Africa and South-East Asia. How many will be watching is another matter.

It hit a bit of a hiccup in the US. It has no major cable or satellite distribution. It is available on something called GlobeCast, which is French or something.

In the Middle East, it has won a reputation of taking a distinctly Islamic view of the world, which is fair enough, and we can expect more of the same from the English-language version, which might mean more problems for London and Washington.

According to one presenter Felicity Barr -- yes that's really her name, Tarquin, James and Henry -- are all on board, says "It is definitely an international channel, but it's certainly going to have a Middle Eastern feel about it. The instant reaction for, say, a Western organisation, is to get analysis from the United States or from the UK. We will be getting our reaction, first and foremost, from the Middle East."

While Al Jazeera stormed the Arabic world with not much problem largely by running footage released by Al Qaeda, including videos of Osama Bin Laden and 7/7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer. The Arabic channel controversially refers to Palestinian suicide bombers as "shaheeds" (martyrs) and has been accused by the Bush administration of being an Islamist propaganda tool.

Predictions are it is going to find the-English language version a bit harder. The easy thing about the Arabic world is that is not big on freedom of speech and the big players like the Saudis don't like criticism. This is what did for the BBC's Arabic service years ago, which Al Jazeera rose out of the ashes of.

Interestingly, the new English language channel has already faced accusations of "selling its soul" to the West.

A list of critics including former employees, Right and Leftwing bloggers and Muslim commentators, have all predicted a disastrous future for the fledgling channel as it attempts to crossover into the mainstream.


At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Gordon,
I'm from the BBC World Service in London and tonight on World Have Your Say, a live discussion programme, we'll be talking about the launch of Al Jazeera's English channel.

If you are going to watch the first day of Al Jazeera and would like to contribute to the programme give me ring on +44 207 557 0635.

Some of the questions we'll be asking:

Will you continue watching it?
Do you trust it?

We go on air between 6pm and 7pm GMT.

Thank you

Paul Coletti
+44207 557 0635

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous the online pixie said...

Could the online pixie also make an appearance?

I trust Al Jazeera English as much as I trust the BBC...;-)


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