Friday, 3 November 2006

Great Hopes for Al Jazeera International

This piece appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 3 November 2006. Of course, the name they eventually chose to use was "Al Jazeera English", but I think my prediction proved correct in every other way.

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Al Jazeera International, the long-awaited English-language satellite TV, will finally launch on 15 November. Given the resources and talent they have at their disposal, everyone is expecting great things -- and the humanitarian community should pay particular attention to this new outlet, because they are promising to take news television in new directions.

I've had the pleasure to meet with quite a number of AJI's producers and reporters over the past months as they have been preparing to take the new service live. AJI has hired some of the top names, and the new team has been chomping at the bit for a while now as technical problems delayed their official launch. It is billed as a sister station to the ten-year-old Arabic-language channel, but with a completely different staff, budget and programming, I imagine it will be more like a distant cousin.

Every time I've sat down with AJI, I have come away very excited about this new venture. They have resources that are really unimaginable to most of today's broadcasters, which is why they have managed to pull so many talented staff from the BBC, ITV, CNN, ABC and other broadcasters around the world. It's not just salaries these people are moving for; the new channel offers an opportunity to approach TV news in a totally new way. As one AJI news exec, a veteran newsman, told me just a few weeks ago: "This is the first time in my career I can say I have the money to do TV news right." It's a dream gig.

One goal of AJI's reporting that nearly everyone has mentioned to me is more reporting from the field in Africa. The main reason other international stations don't always cover Africa well is -- not because execs think viewers aren't interested, because they know very well that public attention is shaped by their decisions -- but simply money. It costs a lot to send people into Congo and Darfur, so unfortunately, CNN's excellent treatment of those two conflict zones last month is the exception rather than the rule. Money will be less of a barrier for Al Jazeera International, which can rely on the deep pockets of the Qatari Emir for at least the initial couple years.

Expectations are high, and there are sure to be some bumps along the way. But if AJI follows through with their plans to cover the under-reported parts of the world in a more sustained way, it will pose a major challenge to existing international broadcasters to match suit -- and thus change humanitarian and crisis reporting forever.

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