Chewing the cud in the ultimate nimby

In the gardens of Versailles you can visit a charming monument to France’s conservative, construction-crazed 18th-century monarchy. It’s the Petit Hameau, an idealised

village built at the whim of Marie Antoinette as a way of “connecting” with the great unwashed. Nicely scrubbed cows chewed the cud on its phoney pastures. The cows managed to avoid the guillotine.

In the desert city of Doha there’s a rather less charming monument to Qatar’s conservative, construction crazed monarchy. The studios of Al Jazeera, a little media village built at the whim of the country’s ruler. In place of cows, presenters like Sir David Frost and Rageh Omaar are allowed to chew the fat. But will it save Qatar’s mini-depotism?

Frost, at least, has demonstrated exactly why the BBC gave him the chop. More people see an actor playing him in the West End than watch him on TV. Omaar has freelanced across other channels, without becoming a recognisable Al Jazeera brand.

But then presenters rarely do succeed on news channels, unless you look at, say, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, Lou Dobbs on CNN, and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. So, a year on, is Al Jazeera English anything more than a magnificent billion dollar folly? Not if you’re Al Jazeera boss Wadah Khanfar. He calls Al Jazeera English ‘the voice of the South”.

The channel’s tireless MD Nigel Parsons puts it differently. He says it is seen by opinion formers. It is certainly positioned as a channel for elites rather than the oppressed. It is strong on foreign news and politics, and many of its key personnel are steeped in the public service values of British television news.

The first anniversary talk is not about its mission or the stories it has broken, but of carriage – who is piping or beaming the channel into homes. It looks like AJE will finally get into India – expect an announcement tied to the birthday on 15 November, but it will face tough competition from a boisterous market crowded with home-grown news channels.

But in the world’s two biggest English-speaking markets, Britain and the USA, AJE has barely registered among viewers, and in the US it is still struggling to be seen at all.

A hundred million people now have the opportunity of watching it, but that’s far from the numbers actually tuning in. Putting any credible figure to viewers is all but impossible – in the Middle East itself, the lack of an accurate ratings system has long held back the development of an effective advertising market. But you have to be careful when it comes to asking people what they really want.

For anyone like me, who’s spent their life working in television journalism, it’s hard not to see any investment in the medium as reason for celebration, euphoria even. Admittedly, investment is normally a word preceded by the words ‘return’ and ‘on’. By his own reckoning, it took Ted Turner five years to make CNN profitable.

Qatar National Bank, the station’s current backer, must be taking a pretty long view. Will Al Jazeera English ever make money? My kids might find out.

But the euphoria that greeted that investment comes with a bonus that might interest Qatar’s ruler, and it’s a bonus that begins paying back right from day one – silence.

And the silence comes easy because Al Jazeera English looks and sounds slick and professional. It covers stories others ignore, and shines a light on corners of the world most television news outfits are content to leave unlit. Friends and former colleagues – talented and able individuals – have found work there. Why rock the boat?

But the silence is wrong, because Qatar is a micro-state where, by popular consent, there is no popular consent. Only a quarter of its 800,000 inhabitants have citizenship. Elections promised for this year have yet to materialise. No one’s likely to be standing on a platform of confiscating royal assets.

This is the US State Department’s latest assessment of press freedom in Qatar. It’s worth quoting at length:

‘Journalists continued to self-censor due to social and political pressures when reporting on government policies, the ruling family, and relations with neighbouring states. There were reports that security authorities threatened both individuals and organisations against publishing undesirable articles.

‘Although citizens expressed many of their views freely and in public, they avoided discussing sensitive political and religious issues. The much larger foreign population did not express itself as freely or as publicly.”

Al Jazeera and the government both claimed the channel to be independent and free of government influence, but it was government subsidised and avoided critical commentary of government policies. On domestic issues, Al Jazeera covered local news generally only if there was an international angle to it.

That is the silence. So what, you might say? Isn’t it enough that the station is a force for change? Isn’t being ‘the voice of the South’ sufficient? And there’s the rub.

Television traditionally has had to come to many accommodations to stay in business. CNN found that out in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. Is the silence about Qatar just one of those pragmatic arrangements that are outweighed by the benefits of simply broadcasting? I wish I thought the answer was yes.

But you can’t export values you’re unwilling to adopt in your own backyard. We don’t always live up to our own standards in British and American TV journalism, but the only thing stopping us is ourselves, not the fear of offending a regime whose caprices we can only second guess.

Al Jazeera English needs to cause trouble in the kingdom it calls home if it really wants to be thought of as something more than a very expensive attempt to buy silence.

Adrian Monck is head of journalism at City University.

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