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

al-jazeera.jpg

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.

7 Responses to “Al Jazeera English is one: Getting better at imitating its rival BBC World!”

  1. Nupu Says:

    The BBC has its faults but it is doing a tough job with tight budgets and unappreciative public. Give them some credit for upholding journalistic values at a time when they are under threat everywhere. If you have a problem with BBC World, settle it personally and not only your blog.

  2. Jim Says:

    A recent trends analysis of German media, reveals that Al-Jazeera English is now one of the most quoted international media outlets in Germany — “far ahead of CNN and neck-and-neck with the Washington Post,” says Roland Schatz, CEO of the Media Tenor, adding that the Arab media is becoming increasingly influential, largely due to the advent of the Qatar-based television network Al-Jazeera, which started an English-language version, from 15 November 2006. When asked if Al-Jazeera English will eventually become a major force in the TV news industry, Schatz responded: ‘‘Knowing about their ambitions and their cash resources, and knowing that they took a lot of BBC journalists, I would say, yes’‘. ‘‘Do you think it will take a couple of years?’‘ the journalist asked ‘‘I would say less,’‘ Schatz said. Media Tenor is the leading media institute in the field of applied agenda-setting research. The company’s detailed analysis of news reports provides insight to major corporations and government agencies, such as the U.S. State Department.

    As Aljazeera English marks its 1st Anniversary on 15 November 2007, it is adored by many but abhorred by others. In terms of size and budget with CNN and Fox News, many call Aljazeera a ‘little matchbox’ but, when it comes to richness of representation, diversity of opinion and plurality of views AJE appears well prepared to take on the corporate news media on its merits. According to author and former executive of USIA, Alvin Snyder, it’s a shame AJE isn’t being given the chance to compete in the US marketplace. Writing more than two-years ago Snyder anticipated that AJ would be giving Fox, CNN and the others “a run for their money” in America, based on the popularity of its website in the US. This would have taken place if it was given a level playing field to perform and demonstrate its merits and demerits.

    An even-handed approach demands to judge a news channel on its demerits and merits. In Aljazeera’s case, many haste to pass a judgement prior to looking at it sufficiently enough and objectively enough.

    Even a cursory glance at AJE’s accomplishments in its first year suggests that with just twelve months since its launch Al Jazeera English has proved a unique news channel winning nomination in recognition of its professional quality and technical accomplishments. This shows AJE’s potential to set new standards in the coming years.

    Al Jazeera English has been awarded three awards at the BDA World Gold Awards. AJE was presented with three Bronze trophies at the 2007 PROMAX & BDA International Conference in New York 14 June 2007 in the categories of Art Direction & Design: Topical Campaign; Art Direction & Design: Image Campaign and Website-News.
    This follows Al Jazeera English receiving one Gold and two Silver trophies for their innovative and fresh Creative Direction at the Promax/BDA Global Promotions & Design Conference in Dubai in March 2007. In June 2007 Al Jazeera English channel came in second position at the Broadcast Digital Channel Awards receiving ‘Highly Commended’ in the category of ‘Best News Channel of the year’.Thus within a few months of being on-air only since November 2006, AJE is accruing worldwide recognition. Wadah Khanfar, Director General of the Al Jazeera Network says that all these nominations are “a testament to the strength of the Al Jazeera brand. We look forward to building on these early successes into the future.”

    Al Jazeera English was also nominated for awards at the One World Media awards in the categories of: 1. Broadcast Journalist of the Year: Nadene Ghour; Popular Features: 48 in Damascus, Amanda Palmer; MDGs Award: Malaria Week, The News Team.

    Al Jazeera English was nominated for a total of eight awards at Promax/BDA Global Promotions in the following categories:-Best Programme Promo: Witness (Al Jazeera English language channel’s daily documentary strand)-Best Promotional Campaign: Splits-Best Sales & Marketing Presentation: EPK (Electronic Press Kit)-Best Original Logo Design: AJE Design & People & Power Logo-
    Best Animation: AJE DES People & Power Animation- Best News & Factual Programme Title: People & Power, GOLD AWARD- Best Sports Programme Title Sequence: Sportsworld ? SILVER AWARD- Best Set Design: News, SILVER AWARD.

    Finally, the channel won nominations for the following 12th Asian Television Awards. For best documentary programme (People & Power: Exxon in the Dock) Best Single News/Report (Kylie Grey, Orange), News Report: Tony Birtley, Bangladurjoy Best current affairs presenter, Teymoor Nabili for 101 East – Environment Special; Best news programme Half Hour Bulletin-from Kula Lumpur

    It may be safe to conclude that critics may remain unable to come up with a comparable example of a news channel winning so much professional acclaim within first twelve months of its launch.

  3. Shahidul Alam Says:

    Important take Nalaka. While it is refreshing to see AJE and realise there is a region called ‘the rest of the world’, the mimicry of BBC and CNN does disappoint. Why does ‘credible’ journalism still need to come from the same familiar faces with a different logo? There are a whole lot of sincere, competent and knowledgeable journos in the majority world. AJE, by ignoring them is clearly giving the wrong message.

    Best,

    Shahidul

  4. Moving Images Says:

    Nupu – you have missed my point entirely. This blog post was not about BBC World. I was merely asking why AJE is so anxious to ape the discredited, corruption-tainted British broadcaster. That’s no my characterisation; it is something that has been covered exhaustively in the UK media and elsewhere with evidence, discussion and, finally, the BBC Trust itself taking action to safeguard one of the best known brands in the world, currently mismanaged.

    See also my response in an earlier discussion on the BBC, at: https://movingimages.wordpress.com/2007/08/29/al-jazeera-international-looking-hard-for-the-promised-difference/#comments

  5. Moving Images Says:

    Jim – Thanks for the detailed comment. It’s encouraging to read all this because, as I explained at the end of my blog post, I remain a critical cheer-leader of AJE/AJI and really want to see it succeed.

    In my mind, AJE’s credentials, authenticity or accomplishments are never in question. All my writing, in this blog and elsewhere, has tried to nudge AJE to grow in directions that its rivals don’t care about: ethical news sourcing, and genuine pluralism of content in all respects — in sourcing, interviews, analysis, packaging and anchoring.

    It’s not enough to have a few token Southern faces anchor or present news and current affairs programming, most of them visibly trying to sound so like BBC World. For AJE to be a true voice of the South making a real difference in reporting the South to the whole world, we need to see how many Southern professionals are involved in top level decision making. It’s fine to start off a global channel with BBC refugees or BBC discards, but AJE must quickly move beyond its first year’s excessive reliance on them to nurture its own breed of staff in front of and behind the cameras.

    AJE is on the right track where political positions and newsroom decision-making are concerned. If it stops desperately seeking acceptance in the traditional English speaking markets of the world (UK and USA in particular) and instead engage the whole world, it will progress faster and win more admirers.

    AJE can draw valuable lessons from the experience of the South’s own news agency, Inter Press Service, IPS – http://ipsnews.net/ It’s a wire service launched in the 1960s when nobody believed that the global market domination by Reuters, AFP and AP could be challenged for rapid news gathering and dissemination. Today it has evolved into an independent voice from the South and for development, delving into globalisation for the stories underneath. Read more at: http://www.ips.org/about/history/history.shtml

    – Nalaka Gunawardene

  6. Moving Images Says:

    Many other bloggers have used AJE’s first anniversary to take stock of the new channel’s performance. In Epiphanies blog, Tasnim wrote on 16 Nov 2007:

    “AJE is somewhat of a disappointment, not because it isn’t Arab enough, but because it can’t be said to be the first to actually do anything new. It is something new, but I don’t think the simple fact of it’s existence is likely to inspire anyone.

    “That said, however, one year isn’t that long a time in media terms. Hope for improvement remains. I wouldn’t, for example, go so far as to say AJE is the Other’s BBC. I’ll leave that for next year.

    “Although it would be neatly ironic to say that Al Jazeera, with it’s odd BBC origins, is doomed to imitate in diminished form, it by implication does unforgivable harm to the Arabic channel – which thankfully remains as un-BBCish as it is possible to get – and might be too quick an accusation for infant AJE.

    “Might be. Perhaps, again, I should keep with the sceptical position, in the hope of being pleasantly surprised.”

    Full post at:

    http://tasnimx.blogspot.com/2007/11/al-jazeeras-birthday.html

  7. Tsewang Rinchen Says:

    The coverage seems fine, in fact well above and beyond. But what about audience, does it reach the world’s masses? Is the network depending on the word of mouth for it to be accepted? Unless people have travelled to Europe or Middle East or are from media sector, ordinary Bhutanese are unaware of the network and I feel it holds true for other countries in the region. Maybe promotion should be in line with the attraction brought by network’s fine work.


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