Al Jazeera English Tries to Extend Its Reach

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 19 01:29:55 UTC 2008

May 19, 2008
Al Jazeera English Tries to Extend Its Reach

PARIS The English-language offshoot of Al Jazeera, the Arabic television
news network, is pushing for a breakthrough that would make the channel
available to American TV viewers and help it move beyond a turbulent
start-up phase, according to its new managing director, Tony Burman. The
hiring of Mr. Burman, a former editor in chief of the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian public broadcaster, was announced
last week. Al Jazeera English's first year and a half has been marked by
intense scrutiny of its coverage and by the recent defection of several
high-profile Western journalists who had been recruited to lend
credibility to the channel.

Al Jazeera English, which is part of the Al Jazeera Network, based in
Qatar, also announced distribution agreements last week in markets as
far-flung as Portugal, Ukraine and Vietnam, increasing its potential
audience to 110 million homes. Conspicuously absent, however, was the
United States, where Al Jazeera is still largely unavailable on
television. Viewers can watch it on the Web through a deal with YouTube,
the online video service. In the United States, a market of 300 million
people and hundreds of pay-television services, the idea that certain
channels would effectively be banned is medieval, Mr. Burman said.

Al Jazeera English is not actually banned, but the reputation of its
Arabic sibling as the preferred outlet for videos from Osama bin Laden has
made the English-language version too hot to handle for some cable
operators. A lack of space on crowded cable systems has also made it
difficult for operators to offer Al Jazeera English. In an effort to make
Al Jazeera English more appealing to American operators and audiences, Mr.
Burman said he planned to increase coverage of American news, particularly
as the presidential election approaches.  Mr. Burman said Al Jazeera also
planned to invest in new bureaus; it already shares more than 60 bureaus
with its Arabic sister organization.  And the channel plans more
provocative current affairs programming and investigative journalism, he

Our goal is to go in the opposite direction to so many other news
organizations which are, sadly, cutting back on their coverage of the
world, said Mr. Burman, who left the CBC last year. In an effort to
control costs, he said, there will be more collaboration between the
Arabic and English services, with news crews sharing equipment, for
example. Mr. Burman insisted that the channels would still be able to keep
separate identities.

The reality is that Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English are two different
channels that cater to different audiences, he said. Some critics say,
however, that the tone of Al Jazeera English has been shifting away from
the neutral, international approach it initially took.  David Marash, an
American journalist who left the channel in March, said at the time he saw
signs of anti-Americanism creeping into the coverage as more of it was
directed from Doha, Qatar, rather than its other news hubs, in Washington,
London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Mr. Marash, a former correspondent on the ABC News program Nightline who
served as an anchor on Al Jazeera English, quit in March, one of a handful
of big names to have left recently. Some of the departures have resulted
in disputes. Jo Burgin, a former head of planning at the channel, has sued
Al Jazeera English in London, contending that she was a victim of
discrimination because she is white, Christian and a woman. Her husband,
Steve Clark, the former head of news at the channel, left in March. You've
got to keep it in perspective, Mr. Burman said. After a few years, its
inevitable that some people move on. I don't think three or four months
from now well look back and say there was a morale problem.

As managing director, Mr. Burman succeeded Nigel Parsons, a former BBC
executive; Mr. Parsons has been named managing director for business
acquisition and development. With so many prominent Western journalists
and broadcast executives in leading roles other big catches were David
Frost and Rageh Omaar, a former BBC correspondent Al Jazeera initially
modeled itself on news broadcasts like those from BBC World and CNN
International. Some cable channels in the United States were disappointed
that it wasn't hanging people or torturing people, said a former executive,
Paul Gibbs, who served as the first director of programs at Al Jazeera
English, but left before it began broadcasting.

One cable company, he said, complained about Al Jazeera English: If it
looks like the BBC, why should we add it? BBC World, the BBC's
round-the-clock news channel, is also largely unavailable in the United
States. Because Al Jazeera English reaches audiences in places that are
thinly covered by ratings agencies, it is difficult to estimate audience
sizes, but analysts say the service has struggled in many places to make
inroads against the likes of the BBC and CNN. Meanwhile, competition has
been growing from new channels like France 24 and BBC Arabic.

As Al Jazeera English pursues new audiences, Mr. Burman said there were
characteristics of the Arabic Al Jazeera that were worth emulating. It is
fearless, bold and provocative, he said. I don't think Al Jazeera English
should shy away from that, without departing from the norms of credible
journalism. Being unbiased doesn't mean that you shouldn't challenge
authority, from whatever side.


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