Coming soon - it's the news from Qatar

You read it here first. Al Jazeera International will launch in November. And not November 2010 either. This November. Now it doesn't seem that long ago — November 2004 in fact — that AJI boss Nigel Parsons was announcing ambitious plans to launch in, erm, November 2005.

So for the lucky souls who signed on the dotted line way back then, when Parsons was scouring the newsrooms of Britain looking for talent, it's been the longest gardening leave in history. But although Doha probably gets more rain than Southeast England, the Al Jazzies haven't spent the entire time re-potting geraniums and wheeling Sir David Frost gently into the shade.

Al Jazeera has always wrestled with contradictions. It is an independent, modernising voice in a state which last had elections in 1970 (although they are promised next year). Its main studios are an hour or so's drive from the US military's largest overseas staging post. Operations against Afghanistan and Iraq, in which Al Jazeera employees have been injured and killed (and — they claim — targeted), have been directed and supported from the massive As Sayliyah camp outside Doha.

So starting an English-language service, bankrolled via the Emir of Qatar, to run alongside one of the most controversial names in news was always going to throw up problems. And not just with the builders, who seem to have been behind most of the disruption to the launch schedule. There's internal politics too.

Back in November 2004, Parsons was also busy telling reporters that AJI would be "totally independent" of Al Jazeera's Arabic service. It was a line repeated by US hire Dave Marash when he signed on the dotted line. But noses at the original Al Jazeera service were knocked out of joint by the money and resources being lavished on the new kids on the block, and in a corporate coup earlier this year the independence evaporated. Parsons now reports to the Arabic channel's managing director, Waddah Khanfar, who has been promoted to oversee both services.

Will this stifle AJI's editorial integrity? Not according to staffers, and probably not on reflection. Khanfar is much respected, Al Jazeera International will need some bite to make its mark, and the Arabic channel certainly knows how to deliver that. It does matter for Parsons' longevity, however, so when the station does go on air, expect the kind of farewell memo that declares that his work there is done and time with the family beckons. Good night and good tax-free luck.

The journalist-turned-sales-exec has at least had enough cash behind him to attract some very talented people to work for him. When Al Anstey and John Pullman arrived from ITV News, it sent a strong signal of quality and integrity to the industry, and their prodigious work rate has given the place a real buzz.

Will Al Jazeera make any impact here in the UK when it launches? Given what everyone knows about the relative share of news channels, I don't think any of us will be glued to it. But we're not the point. For English-language speakers in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Al Jazeera International has the potential to offer news from a name they trust, and from a perspective that doesn't have to line up with Westminster or the White House. Whether or not that worldview can be convincing or coherent across all the potential markets remains to be seen. The single rolling story remains both the curse and the core of 24-hour news channels.

AJI has been a long time coming, but when it does arrive I'll be adding it to the favourites list on the Sky box. It's home to some excellent journalists with attitude and integrity — and if you season that mix with the money to cover stories properly, you've got the right ingredients for good broadcast news.

REMEMBER the independent report into the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It suggested tasking someone in management with responsibility for the way the Middle East was reported — a "guiding hand".

That recommendation has been well and truly squashed.

In a little-noticed speech, the director general claimed the report illustrated "two essentially different philosophies of journalism and editorial control… the authors were clearly surprised that we had not gone further and adopted a comprehensive ‘line' or editorial policy on the conflict. Rather than allow individual correspondents and editors to report the facts and form their own judgements on developments, why not appoint what they called ‘a guiding hand' to ensure consistency?"

Now if you were a senior journalist who'd spent time and energy on a genuinely independent report, commissioned by the BBC governors, you might have felt a little like Philip Stephens, associate editor of the Financial Times. Incandescent.

Mark Thompson's speech, he said, had "wrongly represented"

the report's authors and their recommendation, adding: "The picture I took away from the exercise was of an editorial machine sacrificing quality to quantity and one in which everyone and no one claims to be in charge."

In its official rejection of the idea, BBC management invoked the Neil report. This says the individual editor is the publisher, and the BBC argued a senior figure might undermine this. That report, you will recall, had six members, four of whom were serving BBC executives. Hardly independent, but what the heck — it's ammunition. Alas, the report's final word is that "it is important that the senior editorial process of oversight is organised to ensure that with major allegations and contentious stories the BBC has a consistency of language and approach from all outlets". Like a "guiding hand" maybe? On a contentious story like the Middle East?

AND FINALLY, they ought to send ITN a cheque for Craig Oliver's ‘pimp my ride' treatment of News at Ten, sorry the BBC 10 O'Clock News. It all looked a bit strange with Huw Edwards at the wheel, blinking, checking his mirror and not getting out of first. But with Dermot Murnaghan in the driving seat, vroom-vroom, suddenly all the cylinders fire, and the whole thing makes glorious sense.

No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *