November 4, 2011 8:17 pm

Qatar calling

Its rousing coverage of the Arab spring has turned Al Jazeera into a global media phenomenon. So why has its longstanding director-general now resigned?

Journalism can, at times, be a militant player in ­history’s making, through allying itself with a ­resurgent cause. The American colonial press before the revolution that achieved independence was, down to almost the last hand-cranked press, for the cause. Pravda, smuggled into Russia in the early years of the last century, roused and instructed the Bolshevik cadres in the overthrow of Tsarism. Even the tea-and-scones BBC had its time in the trenches – in the second world war, when it broadcast coded messages to the French and other resistance movements. In 2011, it has been the turn of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera. It covered the Arab spring more closely than any other channel and, by doing so, also helped create, support and inspire it.

The man principally credited with steering the Arabic-language station to its current prominence, and to its 15th anniversary, is the Palestinian journalist Wadah Khanfar. In September, however, he resigned as the station’s director-general – Al Jazeera was now a global force and thus, he said, his work was done.

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John Lloyd

Under his watch, Al Jazeera’s production and slick presentation values have become as high as any; sometimes, it seems, higher. An estimated 40 million people watch the Arabic-language version; its younger sibling Al Jazeera English, launched five years ago, is available in more than 220 million homes worldwide. Turn on the station and you will see generally youngish and comely men and women shifting between fast-moving news stories with practised ease.

There are two big differences between Al Jazeera and competitors such as the BBC and CNN. First, it does not shy away from violence. The cellphone videos of the death of Gaddafi, which Al Jazeera got very soon after the event, were run again and again – a claimed exclusive, though others later caught up and also showed the footage repeatedly: the BBC was criticised by some of its viewers for doing so. Al Jazeera relishes scenes that will rouse and infuriate – when, in July last year, the Florida pastor Terry Jones declared he would burn the Koran publicly on the anniversary of 9/11, Al Jazeera planned to air the event live. Other networks, including – to many of its fans’ surprise – Fox, had decided it would be too provocative; Jones later dropped his threat.

The second difference is in the relentlessness of its editorial slant, essentially anti-western lite, expressed through choice of interviewer, the attitude of the questioners and the selection of stories and images. The Slovenian radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek is a favoured guest: last month, on Talk to Al Jazeera, he told the station’s US producer/­presenter Tom Ackerman that the marriage between democracy and capitalism was over. Earlier in the year, at the high tide of the Egyptian revolt, he declared that “[Arabs] understand ­democracy better than we do in the west.”

A clip from interview with Donald Rumsfeld

A clip from the Washington bureau chief’s recent combative interview with Donald Rumsfeld

Also last month, the channel’s Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara did a much-replayed interview with the former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, during which Rumsfeld, angered by Foukara’s hammering at strategic mistakes in the invasion of Iraq, asked: “Do you want to yell or do you want to have an interview? You have a choice. You’re being true to form.” Cut off by Foukara demanding an answer, Rumsfeld, struggling to be heard, cried: “This is worthless … you’re haranguing.”

Just weeks after he stepped down from Al Jazeera, Khanfar delivered the annual James Cameron Memorial Lecture, at City University in London. The audience, largely composed of journalism students, heard Khanfar – a tall, burly man with a short, dark beard and thinning hair, with the ability of an accomplished politician to charm a hall – deliver what became a rousing endorsement of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab spring.

The station’s part in this year’s rebellions in the Arab states has made a huge statement about the nature of engaged reporting. More globally significant than Fox News’s championing of the Tea Party, its reporting has provided a potent example of television’s political power. It has thrown down a challenge to those global networks – such as the BBC and CNN – that claim to report neutrally, and has provided a template for those networks, such as Russia Today, whose mandate is as much polemical as journalistic.

Guided by Khanfar, Al Jazeera has played for high stakes, and with these come a series of problems: for the channel; for its owner, the government of Qatar; for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar; and for TV journalism in general. With his resignation, however, it seems Khanfar will not be the one to resolve these. The dilemmas, contradictions and responsibilities of Al Jazeera’s journalism are no longer his problem. His speech, instead, was a full-throated endorsement, rapturously received by the students, of the screen militant.

“This year,” Khanfar began, “the people regained their liberty. [The Arabs] are getting rid of the stereotypes of passivity … This year, I wept many times … The age of the people is coming.” Journalism, he said, must bear witness to the people’s suffering and demands, and not be corrupted by power: “I saw how media people from the west did not want to alienate the centres of power … but you must not be hijacked by these centres.” Stressing the message that was implicit throughout his talk and speaking directly to the journalism students, he stated: “Al Jazeera is with the people. Journalism has great value. You must love it. You must believe in the cause.”

. . .

Wadah Khanfar

Wadah Khanfar

One way to make an account of Al Jazeera’s strengths, weaknesses and ambitions is through the prism of the various speculations about Khanfar’s resignation. He has, after all, quit at a seeming high point – and been replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family.

One reason put forward is that Khanfar was a victim of WikiLeaks. In August, the site published a cable, dated October 2005, from the US embassy in Doha, recording that, in a meeting with Khanfar, an official relayed US Defense Intelligence Agency complaints that a report was emotively gory and that “in accordance with an earlier promise … [Khanfar] had taken a look at the piece and had two images removed (two injured children in hospital beds and a woman with serious facial injury).” After another complaint on “inflammatory” reporting, “Khanfar appeared to repress a sigh but said he would have the piece removed. ‘Not immediately, because that would be talked about, but over two or three days.’”

Khanfar says he talked to American and other diplomats, and at times acted on complaints. Relations with the US had tended to the poisonous during the Bush presidency (although, aware of the channel’s growing influence, officials such as Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld gave occasional interviews). US diplomats in the region, accustomed to delicate deals and compromises with its autocrats, were often shocked by the channel.

In January, the former ambassador to Morocco, Marc Ginsberg, wrote in The Huffington Post that, “Al Jazeera sees itself less and less as exclusively a news gathering organization and more and more like a ‘Wizard of Oz’ type instrument for social upheaval in the region … stoking anger and hostility has become Al Jazeera’s mantra.”

Now, however, relations are almost warm. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton commended Al Jazeera to US senators in March, arguing that, “You feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials … and arguments between talking heads.” Viewing figures are rising in the US, and Al Jazeera is glad of a leading Democrat’s endorsement. Besides, while a small country, Qatar hosts US military facilities and the emir is a valued guest at the White House. There is now a consensus among observers that Khanfar’s compromise with the Doha embassy had nothing to do with his departure.

More credence is given to the theory that the emir disapproved of the position that Khanfar had taken and thus forced him out. The star public exhibit for this view is that Khanfar was replaced as head of the network by Sheikh Ahmad bin Jassim al-Thani, a member of the ruling family. His appointment appears to signal that the channels are now on a tighter rein.

Certainly, the oft-made claim by Al Jazeera and Khanfar of absolute independence is dubious. In his friendly and detailed biography Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, Hugh Miles asserts that after the present emir succeeded his father in a palace coup in 1995, he founded the channel as part of his plan to bring the country into the modern world – indeed, since it is now, to a significant extent, the virtual foreign policy of Qatar, into the post-modern world. He wanted the country to “be known and noticed” – not easy, in a tiny country with only 225,000 native Qataris and 1.5 million foreign workers, from Anglophone news directors on luxurious packages in air-conditioned offices to Pakistanis labouring on construction sites in 50C.

In pursuit of becoming known, the emir gave Al Jazeera a very long leash indeed. Where other absolute rulers created information ministries that resemble Orwell’s 1984 Ministry of Truth, al-Thani abolished his two years after Al Jazeera was set up. The second of his three wives, Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, is a sociology graduate, an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire and an energetic reformer, the driving force behind the creation of Al Jazeera’s children’s channel. Al-Thani may be an absolute monarch with no public plans for a parliament, but his reformism is more than skin deep and Al Jazeera is part of that. Yet its freedom is a licensed, not an enshrined, right.

. . .

A clip of the protests in Bahrain

Al Jazeera’s Beirut bureau chief resigned over the channel’s coverage of the revolts in Bahrain

Tiny Qatar still has national interests, red lines that Al Jazeera cannot cross. It had been close to Syria – a fact that probably lay behind the significant pause in Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Syrian revolts. Michael Young, opinion page editor of Lebanon’s The Daily Star, said that “When Syria blew, there wasn’t an immediate response from Al Jazeera. There was evidently a debate before they decided to move.” After some days, however, the channel resumed its habitual stance of being with the people (that is, with the anti-Assad rebels).

The hesitation over Bahrain, where Qatar supported intervention by Saudi and other Gulf state forces, was more obvious: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian Sunni cleric who lives in Qatar, and whose show Sharia and Life is broadcast by Al Jazeera, announced that “there is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one” (ie by the majority Shias). Al Jazeera coverage of the revolts there was sparse. This imposed strains, which became most visible when the channel’s Beirut bureau chief, the Tunisian-born Ghassan Ben Jeddo, resigned. He had contacts in Hezbollah, and charged his employer with conducting a “smear campaign” against Syria and ignoring the revolt in Bahrain. Both Khanfar, in his talk at City University, and Salah Negm, the head of the Al Jazeera English news operation, denied there had been any block on reporting Bahrain. “I don’t know how they get this conclusion …” said Negm in a June interview with Abu Dhabi’s English-language paper, The National. “Give me figures. These are impressions.”

Qatar’s friendly relations with the US and the hosting of the US facilities do not obviously inhibit its sympathy for the terrorist organisation Hamas. It is a posture that caused Democratic former presidential candidate John Kerry to remark after a visit in 2009 that “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” Coverage of Israel’s attack on the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip in 2008/9 occupied the Al Jazeera news channel for much of the period, and was both graphic and supportive of the Gazans. Qatari foreign policy zigzags this way and that – perhaps inevitable for a tiny state sat between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For an autocrat, even a zigzagging one such as the emir, Khanfar’s frank delight in the toppling of autocrats might have come to seem unnerving. Michael Young says that “Al Jazeera has introduced a strongly ideological element into its news coverage: it champions the figure of the journaliste engagé. They feel that they are making history.”

But even with its success, and in part because of it, the tensions between Al Jazeera’s Arabic service and its English-language channel can be high, with the ensuing mediation wearing for a boss who liked to be out in the field. It is commonly believed that among the unofficial red lines is coverage of gay rights issues, a distasteful topic to the religiously orthodox Qatari ruling family and many of the Arabic editorial staff.

Coverage of Libya

Coverage of Libya

Most of the western staff have spent their professional life in channels committed, more or less, to neutral balanced news within a liberal environment. Most of Al Jazeera’s first Arabic recruits also arrived ready-trained in that same tradition – journalists made redundant when the first BBC Arabic channel collapsed in 1996 after a row about censorship.

In a recent interview, Stephen Cole, a former BBC, Sky and CNN reporter who was a founder member of staff of Al Jazeera English in 2006, said: “We cannot live in a world, where a story like Egypt [breaks] which has consequences for the whole world, without the audience knowing anything about it.” That is a significant difference from being “with the people”.

Khanfar himself, before a western audience, is far more muted on what “with the people” means. When I put to him that such positioning was awkward for journalism, since “the people” are everywhere diverse and contradictory in their demands, he defined his approach as no more than Al Jazeera’s policy of appointing correspondents and editors who know the countries or areas they cover well, speak the language fluently and are often natives of it.

. . .

Success for a media organisation is a relentless affair. Had he stayed, Khanfar would have had to deal with the tension between the Arabic and English services by closer integration of the bureaus – a process already begun. He would have had to grow three large regional hubs, each planned to have substantial staffs, in Turkey, Bosnia and Kenya, broadcasting in the local languages.

Still more of a challenge would have been the most obvious fruit of success: the aping of its style of coverage by other channels. Michael Young observes that Al Arabiya, the Saudi-backed channel that is Al Jazeera’s closest competitor, had to shed its reservations about the Arab revolts and follow Al Jazeera’s close-coverage lead: “It couldn’t not be there: you have to show something. You had to show the end of Mubarak!”

Philip Seib, a University of Southern California professor and author of a new book on “the Al Jazeera effect”, argued recently in Foreign Affairs that the news channel “must now face the fact that Arabs’ dependence on it is decreasing. As more of the region gains access to the Internet, a proliferation of information providers is eroding Al Jazeera’s dominance.” Seib reports that more than 530 channels, of which two-thirds are in private hands, now broadcast on the region’s three main satellites. At the same time, internet use has rocketed to more than 60 per cent in two of the six Gulf states, and risen rapidly (from low bases) in the poorer states over the past decade. “Once you consider these monumental challenges,” writes Seib, “it becomes easier to believe that Khanfar may simply have decided to let someone else take on the burdens.”

An image of Osama bin Laden

The first images of Osama bin Laden, two years after 9/11

Like the emir, Al Jazeera has achieved prominence because it has been such a talented zigzagger. Anti-American? But it accommodates US complaints. Anti-Israel (or even anti-Semitic)? But it was the pioneer in inviting Israeli officials and politicians to be interviewed. Subversive of authority? But were not the majority rebelling against oppression? Neglectful of Qatari stories? But what newsworthy happens in a country whose native population is composed of a contented, easeful middle class?

And Hillary Clinton is right: it produces interesting journalism that is little interrupted by frequent commercials. John Owen, for five years a senior producer for Al Jazeera, says that “there’s so much extraordinary documentary, long-form and programme material hitting air that even those inside Al Jazeera English can’t keep up with it and don’t have time to see all the output. The spread of coverage is so wide round the globe that there are whole bureaus – like in Latin America – that have to fight to get on the air.”

Its hard-to-measure audience is probably still growing, with over 40 million claimed in the Arab world alone. Tony Burman, former managing director of Al Jazeera English, wrote in a Toronto Star article in February that the station is available (which is not to say watched) in 220 million households worldwide, with a huge surge in US viewership because of its Arab spring coverage.

Funded by a wealthy government and run by well-paid journalists, it makes an unconvincing voice of the voiceless, but it does give at least as much time to the world’s poorer regions, and reports them as fully as, or more than, the BBC. It has gone further than any other global channel in integrating the social media – especially Twitter – into its coverage, so that those in the Arab world who use it provide large swathes of its coverage. It is the first recipient of videos shot in the region on mobile phones: indeed, according to Malik al-Abdeh, an opponent of the Assad regime who runs the US-financed Barada TV, broadcasting to Syria from London, people shoot videos expressly with Al Jazeera in mind. “Al Jazeera has challenged the official news in a way no other medium has been able to do,” he says. “Its slogan – ‘One opinion – Then another’ has been very important in opening up the Arab world.”

From this viewpoint, Khanfar’s resignation may be due neither to the tensions of the job nor the challenges of the future, but to the satisfied pride that he has supervised one of the largest media achievements of the past decade. The controversy raised by its coverage of the Arab spring has only increased Al Jazeera’s ability to serve Emir al-Thani’s demand to “be known and noticed” – which is all media’s reason for existence. The most famed comment on Al Jazeera was passed by Egypt’s then president Hosni Mubarak, when he visited the station’s diminutive offices in 2000 – “All this noise coming from this matchbox!” This year, the matchbox struck back.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times. To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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