Dennis Sewell

Who speaks for the world?

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

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.

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