Ever since its creation in 1996, courtesy of a magnanimous donation by the Emir of Qatar, the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera has refused to conform to expectations. Built around a core of British-trained journalists stranded by the failure of a BBC/Saudi joint-venture, the channel electrified the Middle East’s moribund, government-controlled media landscape with its stubborn commitment to editorial independence. Before long it had been banned by several Arab governments who could not abide its willingness to undermine official narratives by broadcasting public protests and airing dissenting views to an audience of millions.
Inevitably the channel ran into ever more powerful enemies. After the September 11 attacks, President Bush called it “The mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden” and Donald Rumsfeld fumed at its insistence on publicising the human costs of US-bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unquestionably the channel made errors along the way, but it is hard to look at more than fifteen minutes of prime time programming on Fox News, where gross lapses in taste and judgement are almost de rigeur, without suspecting that Al Jazeera has been somewhat rushed to judgement. The publicity campaign for Control Room, a 2004 documentary which compared Fox’s coverage of the invasion of Iraq with Al Jazeera’s caught this double standard nicely: “Different channels. Different truths.”
In the next few months the original channel’s younger sibling, Al Jazeera English, is hoping to break into the North American media markets in much the same way that CNN did following the 1991 Gulf War. (Prior to that conflict CNN was widely mocked for its futuristic gamble on finding a commercially viable audience for round-the-clock cable news.) War has also been the catalyst for Al Jazeera. When Israel invaded Gaza a few weeks ago it was the only international broadcaster that offered coverage from within the war zone. Although heavily criticised in some quarters for its graphic footage of civilian casualties, the network’s credibility soared, particularly because of the pointed contrast between its shocking reports and the sanitised, often sureally detached dispatches shown elsewhere. The Associated Press estimates that in a two-week period at the height of the Gaza war, viewers around the world watched more than 17 million minutes of English footage via the stations web-stream, a six-fold increase in the station’s regular online traffic.
If Al Jazeera English is successful in its latest bid to expand into these markets − it already broadcasts in a few American cities, and a recent attempt in Canada by the original Arabic channel only foundered after regulators told local distributors they would be held liable for controversial coverage − it will undoubtedly unsettle the rather complacent manner in which the big North American broadcasters have become accustomed to covering their daily beat. At the very least, its genuinely cosmopolitan outlook will put to shame the parochialism that informs so many American news programmes. Speaking to a Canadian interviewer earlier this week, Tony Burman, the managing director of Al Jazeera English (and former executive of Canada’s national broadcaster CBC) made the following observation: “If the people of any country rely solely on private companies to provide essential information, the lifeblood of democracy, then you’re really risking it. I think countries like the US have done that to their peril. Americans, God love them, are one of the most uninformed people on the planet. A lot of it has to do with the failure of their media to keep them informed.”
Mr Burman’s point is well-made. In our times news broadcasters have become the clergy of a secular world. Every day millions of people in every corner of the globe switch on radios and televisions not only to find out what is happening elsewhere, but also to reinforce their deepest convictions about a whole range of matters. On questions of politics, war, money, science and technology, even on social issues like the proper treatment of criminals and drug addicts, the broadcast media shape popular opinion far more profoundly than any political leader or public institution could ever hope to.
Commercial networks, most notably in United States, are only occasionally able to desist from using this power to influence the course of contemporary politics, by determining the tone, seriousness and often the language in which public debate is conducted. In recent years, political stratification in the major US media markets has become so extreme that voting patterns can almost be deduced from accurate estimates of the audience for particular shows. Satellite broadcasting, especially when it involves coverage of political hot spots like the Middle East, has globalized the polarisation of audiences so significantly that few modern governments can afford to pursue any foreign policy initiative unless they have first developed a coherent media strategy.
Despite persistent accusations of sensationalism and bias, Al Jazeera English has established its relevance through a commitment to independence − today its broadcasts reach more than 100 countries, it is also one of the most watched news channels in Israel (during the Gaza war it didn’t focus exclusively on Palestinian casualties, it also broadcast footage of Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israelis). In its first two years the channel has also managed to show a diverse range of current affairs programmes, and to cover media-saturated events like the American election with unusually fresh eyes.
Early in the documentary Control Room Samir Khader, a senior producer at the Arabic Al Jazeera muses that “[t]he message of Al Jazeera first of all is educational, to educate the Arab masses on something called democracy, respect [for] other opinion[s, and] free debate, really free debate, no taboos … everything should be doubted intelligently, an openness, and to try by using all these things to shake up these rigid [Arab] societies, to awaken them, tell them ‘Wake up! Wake up! there is a world around you, something is happening in the world − you are still sleeping. Wake up!’ This is the message of Al Jazeera.”
If that sense of mission remains intact at Al Jazeera English then it may not be too far-fetched to hope the channel might awaken parts of the US from the slumber of the culture wars. There could hardly be a better time for an upstart channel to upset the old order. The age of Obama invites different truths.