Dennis Sewell

Who speaks for the world?

We are letting Al Jazeera usurp the international role of the BBC

Who speaks for the world?
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In the field of public diplomacy, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar has become a mouse that roars. According to Hillary Clinton, the Emir of Qatar’s television network, Al Jazeera, is knocking spots off the broadcasters of three superpowers in a global struggle for influence being played out across the airwaves. ‘We are in an information war and we are losing,’ Clinton warned the Senate foreign relations committee in March. Making only the briefest mention of the enormous expansion of international broadcasting funded by the Russian and Chinese governments in recent years, the US secretary of state went on to declare that ‘Al Jazeera is winning.’

Through the Arab Spring, Washington’s think tanks and foreign affairs journals have been buzzing with analyses of the ‘Al Jazeera effect’ — how the broadcaster is not merely reporting the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East, but catalysing it. The youths taking to the streets across the region have been Al Jazeera’s children: the first generation to grow up with tempestuous arguments about Arab politics on satellite TV.

Thanks largely to the appeal of its English language channel, which had some of the best coverage from Cairo, Al Jazeera’s influence has been soaring. President Obama watches in the Oval Office; visitors to the State Department report Al Jazeera is on almost every screen, and David Cameron has let it be known that he likes the way it brings the Arab Street to Downing Street.

Al Jazeera’s rise has coincided with a decline at the BBC. Following a reduction in its Foreign Office grant, the corporation is cutting its World Service by 16 per cent, which will reportedly save £46 million a year. Al Jazeera is one of a number of foreign broadcasters lining up to fill the information gap that this leaves behind.

Commercially, Al Jazeera is on a roll. Having recently picked up the Turkish TV channel Cine 5 at auction, it is planning to launch a further Turkish-language news channel. Just as the BBC World Service is closing down its 21-man Serbian radio operation, the Qatari TV network is starting up Al Jazeera Balkans in Sarajevo, where a 150-strong team, headed by the veteran Croatian journalist Goran Milic, will broadcast in Serbo-Croat across all the former Yugoslavia. The Qatari government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art communications satellite, due to launch in 2013, which will offer Al Jazeera the chance to reach more viewers in Africa, the Middle East and deep into Central Asia. The Qatari company Qtel is the majority owner of an Indonesian satellite venture that now provides Al Jazeera’s signal across Southeast Asia.

Having secured strong distribution in Europe (the English channel is available in Britain on Sky, Freeview and Freesat), Al Jazeera’s biggest ambition is to break into the US market and reach a mass audience in the most powerful society on earth. It is available only in Washington DC, Ohio and Vermont. Trading on the lift in reputation afforded by its reporting of the Arab revolutions, it has taken out full-page advertisements in newspapers across the United States and is mobilising supporters on social networking sites to press the cable TV companies to offer their subscribers Al Jazeera English.

One of the first celebrities to respond to the campaign was the liberal feminist writer Naomi Wolf, who published an ‘I want my Al Jazeera’ puff at the Huffington Post. Wolf argued that until American audiences can view coverage of the kind familiar to Middle Eastern audiences — an image of a GI brandishing the head of an Afghan as a trophy, say, or interviews with detainees released from Guantanamo — ‘the US will not be able to overcome its reputation as the world’s half-blind bully’.

On the political right, by contrast, anti-pathy towards Al Jazeera remains every bit as vehement as when Donald Rumsfeld denounced its reporting of US military operations in Fallujah as ‘vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable’ and George W. Bush fantasised about bombing its Doha studios. Earlier this month, activists met at Washington’s National Press Club to launch a counter-lobby, aiming to block Al Jazeera’s access to the cable networks. Speakers referred to ‘terror television’ and ‘Jihad TV’. Cliff Kincaid of the pressure group Accuracy in Media said Al Jazeera was ‘like an arsonist first on the scene of a fire, telling everybody who is coming in later to give him credit for the film footage of the blazing inferno’. Americans have not forgotten Al Jazeera’s eagerness to serve as a conduit for Osama bin Laden’s propaganda videos after 9/11. Some fear that Al Jazeera broadcasts in the US might radicalise American Muslims and drive them towards terrorism, and many suspect that the network’s supposed transition from being ‘anti-American’ during the Iraq war to ‘pro-democracy’ now is phony.

There are good grounds for doubting Al Jazeera’s sincerity. The Emir of Qatar presides over an absolute monarchy where political parties and trade unions are banned and whose legal system is based on sharia. It would be very odd if his television network were genuinely committed to the values of liberal democracy. Besides, Al Jazeera speaks with a forked tongue. A number of observers have noted a marked discrepancy between its English and Arabic output.

Al Jazeera English is a polished, professional operation that has recruited many of its staff from the BBC or its Canadian or Australian equivalents. It has a broad international agenda and its coverage displays no obvious bias. Someone who spent an hour or two watching the channel would be likely to come away perplexed at the controversy surrounding it. Al Jazeera Arabic, its critics say, is quite different. Intemperate, anti-western outbursts reportedly pass without challenge or attempt at balance. There is a pervasive sense that the channel’s sympathies lie with Islamist extremists. On the Israel-Palestine issue, its bias is blatant. One of the most disquieting videos to be found on YouTube features an interview the channel broadcast in 2008 with the Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar after his release from the long prison term he served for murdering a four-year-old Israeli girl by dashing her brains out on a rock with his rifle butt. Al Jazeera’s somewhat creepy presenter fawns upon the child-killer, addresses him as ‘Brother Samir’, heaps cloying compliments upon him, and to top it all, presents the remorseless thug with an elaborate birthday cake. Had it gone out on the English channel, it would have provoked uproar.

Al Jazeera has been facing criticism from a new direction recently, following the resignation of its Beirut bureau chief, who accused his former employers of ‘abandoning objectivity and professionalism’. He was unhappy with what he saw as a double-standard being operated by Al Jazeera in its reporting of different conflicts across the region. He thought it had been paying considerable, perhaps excessive, attention to developments in Libya, Yemen and Syria while seriously underplaying events in Bahrain. If true, this pattern of reporting would precisely match the Qatar government’s own seeming double-standard — supporting calls for change everywhere but neighbouring Bahrain, where Qatari troops have been sent in to help damp down the revolt. Western diplomats in Doha have predicted for some time that Qatar would use Al Jazeera as a precision tool to achieve political objectives. In the medium term, its popularity and influence among ordinary Palestinians could give the Emir of Qatar a power of veto over any proposed peace agreement in the Middle East. For Qatar to have achieved that sort of political leverage is extraordinary.

Hillary Clinton is not the only international fi gure to have adopted metaphors of belligerence to discuss broadcasting. Two years ago, China’s president, Hu Jintao, spoke of ‘an increasingly fierce struggle in the domain of news and opinion’ as he promised an extra £6 billion investment in upgrading Chinese cultural power. China had a head start: China Radio International was already second only to the BBC World Service in terms of overseas bases. The Chinese have been relentlessly expanding their capacity across all media. Now, as the BBC World Service cuts back its Swahili broadcasts in Kenya, a Chinese FM station is positioned to mop up the listeners. As the BBC’s Hindi service winds down to only one hour of broadcasting a day, the Chinese are massively turning up the volume of their broadcasting to India. China has two English-language satellite TV channels and others broadcasting in Chinese, Spanish, French and Arabic.

The Voice of Russia (formerly Radio Moscow) now broadcasts in 38 languages around the world. On television, Russia Today (now rebranded as plain ‘RT’) was the brainchild of Vladimir Putin’s former media adviser, Mikhail Lesin. It launched in 2005 as an English-language channel but is now broadcasting in Arabic and Spanish as well. RT’s somewhat idiosyncratic editorial line reflects a range of obscure Russian resentments as well as promoting the country’s more mainstream political interests. Mr Putin is said to be irritated by the suggestion frequently floated in western media that his security service, the FSB, was really behind the 1999 Moscow apartment building explosions that helped recruit public support for the second Chechen war. RT repays the slight by remaining studiedly agnostic as to whether the attack on the Twin Towers was truly the work of the late Osama bin Laden and providing a platform for 9/11 ‘truthers’. Also jostling for attention at the margins of the increasingly crowded round-the-clock English language news marketplace is the Iranian propaganda channel, Press TV, soon to be joined by a new venture recently announced by the billionaire Alexander Mashkevich, billed as a ‘Jewish Al Jazeera’, to ensure that Israel’s side of the Middle East story is not entirely drowned out.

It is against this background that the government needs to consider the call made by the House of Commons foreign affairs committee before Easter for the 16 per cent savings imposed on the BBC World Service in January to be completely restored — perhaps by shifting a small proportion of the extra funds going to the Department for International Development over to the Foreign Office. When so many other states are investing so much in diplomacy through broadcasting, it would be foolish of Britain to throw away the strong hand cards we already hold.

It is not in our interests for large swaths of Africa, Asia and the Middle East to live in permanent ignorance of British values, institutions and culture; never to be given a taste of what living in a free society is like; never to receive impartial and honest news and to be harangued day in, day out by people who despise us and everything we stand for. And that is what leaving the field to Al Jazeera, the Chinese or the Russians would mean. If Hillary Clinton is right about that information war, we should give some serious thought to how to win it.