Al Jazeera English is one: Getting better at imitating its rival BBC World!


Al Jazeera English (AJE), the world’s newest global news and current affairs channel, completed one year on the air on 15 November 2007.

This in itself is a commendable accomplishment, and we extend heart-felt first birthday greetings to the channel that entered the highly competitive arena of global newscasting offering to ‘balance the information flow from South to North, providing accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass roots level, giving voice to different perspectives from under-reported regions around the world.

AJE wanted to revolutionise English language TV in the same way Al Jazeera turned Arabic TV world upside down, ending the monopoly of the airwaves by state broadcasters.

First, the good news. AJE has done well on some fronts, adding to the diversity in international news and current affairs television, and enriching the often endangered media pluralism in a world that is, ironically, having more broadcast channels than ever before in history. It has brought to us stories ignored by other news outlets, while offering us somewhat different takes on widely covered stories.

In a self-congratulatory note and video clip posted this week on YouTube, the channel says: “A year ago Al Jazeera English was launched, marking the start of a new era in international journalism. In the last 12 months we have brought a fresh perspective to world events and shed light on many of the world’s little reported stories.”

Here are some of the highlights compiled by AJE.

In another post on its own website, AJE offers a selection of exclusive video stories from its correspondents to show how it ‘continues to set the news agenda’.

We also salute AJE for withstanding the unofficial yet widespread ‘block out’ of its distribution by North American cable operators, depriving most viewers in the US and Canada the opportunity of watching it on their TV screens. In a nifty move, the channel started placing some of its more consequential content on YouTube, making it available to anyone, anywhere with a sufficiently high speed Internet connection.

Image courtesy Al Jazeera

And now, on to the not-so-good news…

If AJE in its first year somewhat stood apart from the other two global newscasters – BBC World and CNN International – that was occasional and superficial, and not quite consistent or substantial. In fact, the only thing that AJE has consistently done is to under-deliver on its own lofty promise of doing things differently.

As I wrote in a blog post in August 2007: “I’m looking long and hard for the difference that they (AJE) so emphatically promised. Instead, I find them a paler version of BBC World, at times trying oh-so-hard to be just like the BBC!”

Of course, AJE – or any other broadcaster, for that matter – is fully entitled to set a trend or follow a model already set by another channel, even that of a rival. But to so blatantly imitate the BBC while all the time claiming to be different is simply not credible.

And credibility is the most important virtue for a news and current affairs media operation. Earn and sustain it and the world will be on their side. Lose it, and they will be the laughing stock on the air.

I’m not suggesting that has happened yet. But as I cautioned in an op ed written days after AJE started broadcasting in November 2006, “unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJE runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two rivals are completely mired in.”

Here’s a simple test. If viewers were to watch AJE, BBC World and CNN International without logos and any other tell-tale branding, how many would be able to tell the channels apart?

To me, CNN is in a league of its own for a variety of positive and negative reasons. Their offering is technically and professionally superior, even if I have objections to some of their editorial choices and analysis.

However, it’s harder to discern differences between the often befuddled BBC World and its enthusiastic imitator, Al Jazeera English. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the latter has a significant number of former BBC reporters and presenters, many of who have been poached. While that again is a choice for AJE’s management, they must realise that we the viewers in the global South do not want a global channel rooted in our part of the world to dress up in the BBC’s increasingly discredited clothes.

And then there is the whole question of ethical sourcing of content — an important consideration which most global, regional and national TV channels continue to ignore. Many roaming news journalists’ key operating guideline seems to be: get the story ahead of rivals, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process.

That business as usual must end. As I have argued in this blog and elsewhere: “If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.”

Aug 2007 blog post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV news

Nov 2005 op ed on SciDev.Net: Communication rights and communication wrongs, by Nalaka Gunawardene

In August 2007, I critiqued some Sri Lanka related stories appearing on AJE’s People & Power strand, pointing out some ethically questionable practices in how their reporter got the story, possibly placing some of her sources and interviewees at personal risk. To her credit, the reporter Juliana Ruhfus engaged me in this blog, explaining her side. Read the full exchange here.

But there are other key areas where AJE needs to very carefully guard its image and credibility. In the past year, the world’s assorted development and humanitarian agencies have realised that it’s ‘cool’ to be seen on Al Jazeera than on BBC and CNN. Some of their propagandists (sorry, public information officers) had beaten a path to AJE offices in London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur, seeking to cut various deals to get coverage.

Yes, the development and humanitarian communities certainly have worthwhile messages and issues to communicate, many of which need urgent, wide dissemination. Tragically, what most agencies seek is self-promotion and ego-massaging, not issue based discussion. It is precisely this alarming trend of paying media outlets to carry agency propaganda that I have labelled ‘cheque-book development’.

Aug 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’ – paying public media to deliver development agency logos

It’s no secret that BBC World has shamelessly allowed its airwaves to be sold for cash by assorted ‘touts’ claiming to have privileged access to the once-respected broadcaster. In the past year, some of these touts have extended their tentacles to AJE. We don’t yet know if these are entirely pro bono acts of goodwill by AJE, or if money has exchanged hands somewhere along the line.

If the latter has happened, we ardently hope that someone within AJE would blow the whistle in their own collective self interest. Or perhaps AJE wants to be too much like BBC World in every respect — including the corruption part?

Meanwhile, the real challenge to Al Jazeera remains exactly what I said one year ago: to usher in real change, it needs to transform not just how television news is presented and analysed, but also how it is gathered.

Despite having a code of ethics for its conduct, the well-meaning, south-cheering channel has yet to rise to that part of the challenge. Let’s hope that in its second year, Al Jazeera English would spend less time imitating its rivals, and more time in living up to its own promise.

Personal note: Some readers have asked why I continue to hold AJE to higher standards in a world where media ethics are being observed in the breach all the time. It’s simply because I still see AJE as the best hope for the majority world to tell its own stories in its own myriad voices and accents. I desperately want AJE to succeed on all fronts, not just in audience ratings, signal coverage and market penetration. For that, it must fast find its identity and stop defining itself by its rivals.