The Frontline Club, London
2 March 2005
This Frontline Forum has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Open Society Institute.
John Owen (Executive producer of newsexchange and chairman of the Frontline Forum):
No one in this room needs to be told what a phenomenon Al Jazeera has become. Look at the turnout for tonight's discussion, on a not very pleasant evening, and we've also had to turn scores of people away. There is continuing fascination with the power and influence of Al Jazeera. It has been in existence only 10 years, but think about what it has accomplished, how it has become a voice for previously voiceless people. It now reaches an estimated 50 million viewers, mainly in the Arab world. It has been so successful in its groundbreaking broadcasting that there are now 150 satellite rivals, but few have come even close to matching its audience. According to one respected American pollster, John Zogby, Al Jazeera is the first choice of 62 per cent of satellite viewers in Jordan, 66 per cent in Egypt and 44 per cent in Saudi Arabia. Having said that, it does have a very strong contender chasing it -- Al-Arabiya, which polled about 39 per cent across Arab countries in its first year -- and that, of course, is driven by a very strong rivalry between the Saudis and Qatar.
Al Jazeera will launch its English-language international edition later this year. We're fortunate to have some of the senior executives of Al Jazeera International here tonight, if we can coax them to say anything, because it has pretty much been kept under wraps. But Al Jazeera International is a major story, for example, in the Toronto Globe and Mail , so word is spreading. There have also been reports that Al Jazeera and its owner, the Emir of Qatar, are under pressure from the U.S. government to privatise. So far, Al Jazeera has denied there is any truth to these rumours, but who knows. Al Jazeera is such a successful brand that it ranked No. 5 in a recent online survey of the most respected brands in the world. The top four were Apple, Google, Ikea and Starbucks. No BBC or CNN, interestingly enough.
We are fortunate to have with us the author of a comprehensive new book, Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. Hugh Miles is the son of former British ambassador Oliver Miles, who was here at The Frontline Club last year as part of a group of former ambassadors who signed a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair taking exception to how the case for the war on Iraq was being made. Hugh's father also made it possible for him to be born in Saudi Arabia, to study Arabic in Libya and to immerse himself in the world of the Arabs. Hugh won The Times Young Journalist of the Year award in 2000, and then launched himself into his own immersion study of Arabic on television by holing himself up in the control room of Sky Television News -- windowless and claustrophobic, as he described it -- to monitor Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi Television, and their coverage of the war. He turned his insights into a long piece published in the London Review of Books, which then led to this book. He has had access to all the major players at Al Jazeera and has travelled widely throughout the Arab world and also among Arab-Americans to gauge the impact of the network.
We are also pleased to have with us Ambassador Elizabeth McKune, an Arabic speaker who spent three years in Qatar as U.S. ambassador. She has served in U.S. embassies in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Oman and Israel, and spent three months in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremmer. She is now here in London as director of the Media Outreach Center at the American embassy. We applaud your willingness to come here tonight and be a part of this discussion.
With us from Al Jazeera is Yosri Fouda, one of the network's leading investigative reporters and also a charter member of The Frontline Club. Here's what Hugh Miles says about Yosri: "Since starting at Al Jazeera, this Egyptian sleuth has almost single-handedly pioneered the Arab tradition of investigative journalism. His investigations have taken him to some of the most godforsaken parts of the planet, where he has met maniacal terrorists and been arrested several times, but so far at least, has managed to come back unscathed. An impeccable dresser, with eyes like a palace cat, he is the sort of man you are very glad decided to work for the forces of good rather than evil."
Yosri did a very risky thing when he went to Karachi and was taken blindfolded in the boot of a car to meet he knew not whom. But he had a pretty good idea they would be senior people in Al-Qaida, and when the blindfold was taken off, right in front of him were two masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. That is a long, great story. But tonight we want to talk about the issues facing Al Jazeera as it moves into another decade of broadcasting. To give us some background, we're very happy to have Hugh Miles with us.
Hugh Miles (Author, Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World):
Al Jazeera, as we know, is a very divisive issue, but I want to start with something I think we can all agree on, which is that Al Jazeera is the most powerful, non-state actor in the Arab world today. Whatever you think of it, it is extremely influential. A lot of surveys and analysis by the State Department and others have shown that public opinion in the Arab world is formed to a large extent (about 75 to 80 percent) by a small number of Arab channels, and Al Jazeera is the leader.
This is undoubtedly a great responsibility for a channel to have, when key fundamental issues are being decided upon, particularly in Iraq, and where Arab public opinion can make the difference between an eruption into violence and a more moderate approach. It's hard to know how many people watch Al Jazeera, but a 2003 Brookings Institute poll of six Arab countries found it to be the most popular channel in each of them. It has maybe 50 million viewers, which is comparable, I think, to the five major U.S. channels taken together on a good night.
Al Jazeera is a hit partly because Arab state television is so awful -- Egyptian state television news still looks like The Mubarak Family Show. But Al Jazeera is also a hit because illiteracy rates in Arab countries are so high. More than 50 per cent of Egyptians are illiterate, and over 70 per cent of Iraqi women can neither read nor write. So far, Al Jazeera's popularity has been a virtuous circle: It not only forms public opinion in the Middle East, but many Arabs regard it as the "go to" channel when they have news footage or reports. And when Palestinians or Iraqis are acting as de facto news gatherers, it's no wonder Al Jazeera continues to scoop its rivals.
But a reputation is a fragile thing, and if Al Jazeera is seen to be compromised in any way, public support could drain away as quickly as it once formed. One looming crisis for Al Jazeera is the impending trial of Taysir Alluni, one of the network's star reporters, who has been held on terrorism charges in Spain. If he's found guilty of the very serious charges against him - not just being a member of Al-Qaida, but also recruiting, financing and supervising other Al-Qaida members -- it will be a major blow for Al Jazeera. If he is found guilty, there will be a rejection of the verdict in the Arab world, where everybody believes the charges are at the instigation of the Americans.
This November, Al Jazeera is launching its English channel, Al Jazeera International. The Arabic channel is nine years old and, one might say, so far, so good. Al Jazeera has certainly made history but you can only make a first impression once. The next decade will, I think, be even harder for Al Jazeera than the last one. In the future, the network will face the same kind of problems that the cable networks in more developed Western countries have already had to face: more competition and more regulation.
Even besides that, the English-language channel has its work cut out for it. Unlike any other 24-hour news channel, Al Jazeera International will be a fully decentralised operation. Its output is going to be drawn equally from four different locations: New York, London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur. If all goes to plan, this will make Al Jazeera International the first truly global network, while still managing to keep a regional perspective. If it all goes wrong, it will be a chaotic mess, out of touch with everyone and at home nowhere. Different markets mean different missions in different places. Trying to be all things to all men based in four different time zones is likely to stretch organisational abilities, as well as resources, to the limit. There is a reason why BBC and CNN choose to have a single headquarters in one place.
In the UK at least, Al Jazeera International is likely to have a relatively easy time compared with the other bureaus around the world. Research has shown that many ethnic minorities in the UK are disenchanted with the news they receive on British TV networks. They feel alienated and are already seeking out alternative news sources via the Internet or on satellite TV; 8 per cent of young British Asians already regard the Internet as their primary source of news. British Asian homes are twice as likely to have cable TV or Sky digital, and are more likely to own other more up-to-date technology and have more Internet connections than non-Asian British homes. A remarkable 80 per cent of British Asians already have access to Al Jazeera via Sky. I hope that in the next few years, both Al Jazeera's Arabic channel and the new English-language service will live up to the professional guidelines the network sets itself in its code of ethics, which it laid out in 2004.
I also hope the American administration will stop making unsubstantiated allegations about Al Jazeera -- that it is in league with insurgents in Iraq, that it knows about attacks before they happen -- and engage with the network more positively in future. It is unacceptable that an Al Jazeera cameraman is still being held without charge in Guantanamo Bay nearly four years after being taken prisoner. It is wrong that there has been no investigation into, or even an apology for, the death of Tariq Ayoub, an Al Jazeera journalist who was killed during the invasion of Iraq. It seems incredible to me that the Pentagon has admitted targeting Al Jazeera's news bureau in Kabul, because, and I quote General Tommy Franks, "it had regularly been the situation of significant Al-Qaida activity." This is not right, and steps should be taken to make sure this never happens again.
I hope the US administration will make more use of Al Jazeera in the future as a platform to address the Arab world. It's a shame that so much time and money has already been wasted blackballing Al Jazeera and creating Alhurra, the US-backed propaganda channel, which recent polls have shown has received an astonishing 0-per-cent audience share in several Arab countries. We have already wasted a lot of time in the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East. Instead of savaging Al Jazeera for its allegedly biased reporting, if the coalition had engaged with the network positively from the start, it would have sent a clear message to the Arab world that it was serious about freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Instead, so far the US administration has sent a different message: freedom of expression is important for Americans but not for Arabs, just as civil rights for Arabs are not as important as they are for Americans. We may not like everything we see or hear on Al Jazeera, but that, I'm afraid, is tough. Free speech is not an unalloyed advance.
Yosri Fouda, do you want to talk about the changes you see within Al Jazeera, whether or not Al Jazeera is as tough in its reporting as it was when you started?
Yosri Fouda (London bureau chief, Al Jazeera):
I would like to underline that we are here tonight to talk not exactly about Al Jazeera but about a book about Al Jazeera, which is slightly different. When I got an advance copy of Hugh's book, I was intrigued by one sentence that he had to make in the introduction - it was more of a disclaimer than anything else -- that he was not paid by the Qataris or anyone from Al Jazeera. As I went through the book and as I'm trying now to follow the reaction to the book in the U.S., I understand fully why he had to make this statement. It is a thorough, well-researched, very informative book -- the most comprehensive book to date on the experience not only of Al Jazeera but also of the start point that you have to go back and address, what I call the dream of the BBC Arabic Service, and I'm glad that some of those who were involved in that are with us tonight. I had the opportunity to be one of the founding members of Al Jazeera, but Hugh told me stuff in his book that I didn't know. He worked very hard on it. You can imagine, with the bureaucracy and our type of culture -- trying to fix up appointments and meetings with people -- but he took the trouble and gave the readers something very comprehensive and very useful.
Our dream, as it was, at the BBC lasted only two years. It was a joint project between the BBC and Orbit, a Saudi-owned company based in Italy. It was perhaps the first time in history that two people went into a partnership, and one of them didn't want the goods to be distributed, and that in the end that was what it was all about. It was much more professional than Al Jazeera, and I say this knowing that my bosses in Al Jazeera might not be happy about it, but I'm saying it. When Al Jazeera came into being in the aftermath of the BBC Arabic [Television] Service, any kind of service would have been a hit in my opinion, and that is because of the Arab reality -- it has nothing to do with the journalists. Arab reality was and still is so bad that anyone who offers something a little bit more professional, a little bit freer, can be assured of success. Al Jazeera was an instant hit, not because we were that professional - we're still a long way from being professional -- but because of the Arab reality.
The reaction to Al Jazeera went through different phases. Number one was complete shock. Governments just couldn't believe it, and it was political from the start. They sent politicians to Doha telling the Emir to wise up. When that didn't work, we went into Phase 2, which took the form of smear campaigns in Saudi and Egyptian newspapers, the arrest of Al Jazeera journalists and closing down of our offices everywhere. Our motto is "The opinion and the other opinion," but Hugh says, and I like this line in his book, that Al Jazeera's motto should be: "The only Arabic TV channel with no offices in any other Arabic countries." This is in a sense true. I cannot think of an Arab country that didn't have a problem with Al Jazeera -- perhaps with the exception of Eritrea. Truly! Eritrea has been very co-operative with Al Jazeera, except that nothing much happens there!
When this didn't work we went into Phase 3, which was in my opinion a mini-revolution. People started to think, "We can't beat them, so let's join them, although we do not really believe in what they believe in." People from the outside look at the scene now, with 150 Arabic satellite channels, and they don't really know what this means. They might say there is great diversity and a change in the Arab reality, but there isn't. What is happening is down to the existence of Al Jazeera. Although I am happy that (all these channels) are around, I am yet to be convinced they are around because they truly believe in something. If Al Jazeera closed down today, I'm yet to be convinced that Al-Arabiya would not close down tomorrow.
I was really flattered that Hugh decided to quote me in his book saying something I deeply believe in: that freedom is like death - you can't visit death and come back from it, and so it is the same with freedom. Think of Al Jazeera and the Zogby poll -- but we don't flatter ourselves at Al Jazeera. In the beginning Arabs needed to scream for the sake of screaming, and that is what made Al Jazeera programmes such as The Opposite Direction, which is like Crossfire, such an instant hit. Gradually people said, "Okay, we've had the chance to scream, so what?" In my opinion it is very much related to the Arab reality, and to education in a part of the world where half the people are illiterate.
When I started my show on Al Jazeera, I very much wanted to keep the ambience when I interviewed somebody in English or French. I wanted to keep the voices even if the Arabs didn't understand; I wanted to use subtitles and tried to convince my boss. But I had to agree with him when he said nobody would understand because they can't read. And that, in my opinion, is the real thing.
When America talks about democratising the whole region, I don't think the right approach has been hit yet. In my opinion it starts with education and making people more aware of their surroundings. It starts with supporting civil societies. It starts with trying to change society from within, not from the top. Saddam might be gone, but somebody else will come along. Mubarak will be gone, and somebody else will come along. But the people are the people, so if we feel like introducing real change to this part of the world, then the change must come from within. That is what Al Jazeera does in my opinion for the people -- maybe most of the time we're not aware of it, but it happens. It's an educational process, and that is the ultimate goal of Al Jazeera.
Ambassador McKune is at a disadvantage because she left her notes in a cab. Maybe in your opening remarks you might respond to a couple of things Hugh Miles noted -- the absence of an investigation into the attack on Al Jazeera in Baghdad that resulted in the death of Tariq Ayoub, and the fact that journalists are still being held.
Elizabeth McKune (Director, Media Outreach Center, U.S.embassy in London):
I'm honoured to be here. Congratulations on your book, Hugh, and it's also really an honour to be with Yosri, a journalist whom I really respect. I also respect the profession of journalism, and I've seen on the walls of this very building the people who have died in the course of trying to get the story because of their dedication, so my hat's off to you.
I would like to talk a little about my background because everybody brings some attitudes - that's a euphemistic way of saying baggage -- to the way they view things. I am a US citizen, an active diplomat, and my job is to communicate US policy. So, yes, you are going to hear the party line.
I started work in the Middle East in Israel in the 1970s and I did not speak Arabic or Hebrew. I met Arabs who were of Israeli citizenship. I met Palestinian refugees in Jordan. I also met Palestinians from the East Bank. One of the things that surprised me as a young officer was that so many of them said they did not listen to Arab radio, they listened to Kol Israel in Arabic because that's where they could really get the truth, and this ties in with what Yosri was saying.
When I finally took Arabic in Virginia, that great Arab country, we were given texts to read in Arab newspapers. And I began to understand why the Arabs I had met had told me they listened to Kol Israel, because from a Western point of view, (the Arab press was) very much like local news: so and so leader went to the airport to meet so and so, and then issued a report, but you really didn't know what was in the statement, and then they went back after their meeting. And that was the news.
When I went to Cairo, I found there was an opposition newspaper, for example, Al Wafd, but there were red lines that were self-imposed; there was only so much you could say. In addition to which, unfortunately, some magazines and newspapers did have an anti-Semitic tone and so even in those days the U.S. government did discuss with the Egyptians anti-Semitism in the newspapers, which were largely state-controlled.
In Lebanon I found a more sophisticated press. Then the Internet happened, and by the 1990s, I started hearing more about the pan-Arab press and also about satellite stations. As Hugh says in his book, after the first Gulf war there was a yearning among Arabs to have their own way of viewing wars and conflicts.
America and its press is also a proud part of the baggage I carry. In the U.S., as you know, we have human-rights reports. In the past 30 years I've been going, along with many other diplomats, to various countries -- including Qatar -- where there is not a free press and we've been lobbying for people to have much more freedom of expression. This was way before Al Jazeera that we were fighting about this, and I can tell you the meetings weren't always very comfortable. So when Hugh talks about not fighting for the civil rights of Arabs, I take great issue with that -- not to mention the many times people went in, but also the soldiers among the coalition forces who are now dying in Iraq.
I was a bit surprised by the gratitude of the Iraqis I met for the fact that we actually came in, and this is not covered enough even in the American press. The fact that we are dying for their freedom - I know it sounds hokey, I know there's a great debate in Europe about what we're doing - but the fact is that if you go and talk to people there, a lot of people are happy that we're there despite what you see in the press. I don't mean to condemn anybody; it's just what my experience was.
I'd like to end on another note. I've heard a lot about double standards with respect to our policies in the Middle East but I think for the press it's a different story, if you buy the argument that we have a double standard. We are very self-regulatory in the States and even if it's not self-regulatory, people pay the price for bad reporting. Journalism is the only commercial enterprise that is protected by the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment in the U.S. is taken very seriously. You can find a long list of journalists who have been fired because of plagiarism or lying or taking bribes, and we have an ombudsman -- we have a corrective press. I'm trying to give you an idea of my point of view, that we should have a free press in countries that are striving to be democratic, but we should also have a responsible press.
Before we move on, Ambassador, Hugh Miles did pose three interesting questions: Why no investigation? Why not the release of this journalist? And isn't Alhurra a waste of time and effort given the available choices among other Arab media?
His statistics (on Alhurra) are different from those of Norman Pattiz, who is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. According to the statistics we have, we're doing pretty well - 30 to 40 per cent.
The statistics I'm quoting are Brookings Institute research by Shibley Telhami done in 2003 in six Arab countries, where he polled 3,300 Arabs and 0 per cent cited Alhurra as their first choice of news, and 3.4 per cent cited it as their second choice of news. Al Jazeera was cited as the first source of news by a majority of the respondents.
2003 you say, though. That's a lifetime in broadcasting!
Yes, and Norman Pattiz has different statistics.
And the absence of an investigation?
On the first issue, the death of Tariq Ayoub, the U.S. government did apologise for that.
Before we open it up to questions, we do want to get into the issue of the new channel. Hugh has written about it, Yosri has expressed some misgivings about it, but we have with us the head of news from Al Jazeera International, Steve Clarke, to explain why an English-speaking Muslim in Asia or in the U.S. is going to watch this channel and what its philosophy is.
Steve Clarke (Head of news, Al Jazeera international):
We didn't want to talk too much about what we were planning because we didn't want to risk premature speculation. But I will say that we're launching hopefully in November, if the building is ready. We're launching from four news centres -- in Doha, the headquarters, where there will be a hundred journalists, London with 30, Washington with 30, Kuala Lumpur with 30 journalists, and the rest will be made up from around two dozen bureaus around the world.
We intend to launch without any agenda whatsoever. We're not the English version of the Arabic channel, we are determined to be as objective, impartial, as high quality as it is possible to be, and we hope we can reflect the integrity of the Arabic channel. I really can't say anything more than that. I'm not here to steal Hugh's thunder. I'm just here as an observer and stood here at the back as far away as possible in the hope that no one would notice me!
I'm interested in this decentralised idea, that there are going to be four different bureaus in four different time zones, and the day is divided up into six-hour chunks and each bureau does six hours and then at midnight they pass the ball to the next bureau.
Let me stop you, Hugh. First of all, the HQ is in Doha, about 25 metres from the Arabic channel. We're not decentralised. We will be doing 12 hours from Doha, four hours from London, four hours from Washington, and four from Kuala Lumpur. We've yet to decide how to divide those time zones. We'll all be hard-wired together and jumping between the news centres whenever we need to, along with the bureaus.
I think you've got your work cut out and I wish you the very best of luck. You've certainly got a hard act to follow because Al Jazeera in Arabic was something quite revolutionary. And clearly we in the West are used to quality news and have been for over a decade, so good luck.
Will we see the Top Secret investigative reporter on Al Jazeera International as well as in Arabic?
So secret I've never heard of him or met him!
Will we see him on the English channel?
Well, yes. What are we going to do, censor him? If he's got something to say, he'll be on.
We're trying to find out if the people who are best known for appearing on Al Jazeera Arabic will also be seen on your channel.
On merit, yes.
When I spoke to the Al Jazeera bureaus around the world when I was writing the book, many of the Al Jazeera Arabic journalists told me independently that they had seen that in the U.S. all five big news networks had moved to the right end of the spectrum -- obviously Fox most famously, but all of them are conservative. Many of them told me they thought there was a vacancy at the liberal-left end of the spectrum, and they envisaged the new channel having people like Howard Dean, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, figures like that who have recently come forward in American society -- showing perhaps that many Americans are looking for an alternative to the mainstream news. Do you think that's a role Al Jazeera might find itself filling?
You can't launch a news channel as a left or right channel. You have to be objective, impartial and down the middle and I'm convinced that if that's what we are, then people will warm to us, in a way they might not warm to Fox et cetera.
Riz Khan, since you've been on CNN and elsewhere, how do you think this will play among English-speaking Muslims, say, in Asia? There are millions who would like to watch Al Jazeera but don't get the chance. What would be on this channel that would appeal to them?
Riz Khan (Former program host, CNN International):
I can't speak on behalf of Al Jazeera International -- I'm still independent, and couldn't steal the thunder from Steve Clarke, who was quite right with what he said. On the question of whether there is space for a third international channel to sit alongside CNN and the BBC, I think definitely, because a lot of the criticism I hear when I travel is that the international channels are very Western-centric, either out of Britain or America.
As to whether a channel could be centred out of Doha -- when Ted Turner launched out of Atlanta, people asked, what's there, apart from Coca-Cola and Delta? So I don't think the location is an issue, but I do think it's important that the Arab world can show that it can do an international channel, and certainly in English as well.
As for people watching it, the majority of the Muslim world isn't Arabic speaking; it's only a portion of it. There's also the mistaken view that Muslims only live in the Middle East, when of course you have Indonesia and all the other places, like Malaysia. So I think there's definitely scope for an audience that would want to see a channel that isn't solely Western-centric, that's based out of somewhere else and with, hopefully, an alternative voice.
Noha Mellor is an academic who has been studying the Arabic media. Her book, The Making of Arab News, is published by Rowman & Littlefield in the US We haven't seen it, but we gather you conclude a little differently about Al Jazeera. Can you tell us about your findings about Al Jazeera, and how it compares to other Arabic media such as Al Arabiya?
Noha Mellor (aucthor, The Making of Arab News):
My book is not about Al Jazeera, it's about Arab news media. You started by saying that Al Jazeera is "the voice of voiceless people." I don't know whether this statement is based on facts or wishful thinking because according to my studies -- and I'm also a journalist -- Al Jazeera and other Arab news media haven't actually changed anything in the Arab media. What we have seen is a change of form, but not of content. When I say they have revolutionised the form, it looks very professional, with live on-the-spot reporting, but the content is exactly the same.
You mentioned this "see and receive" journalism - "The king has seen so and so, the king has received so and so" - but it was all about foreign-policy issues, it was all about us and the U.S. or Israel or whatever. What we see now on Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera is exactly the same, it's all about foreign-policy issues.
The author and the Al Jazeera representative have been talking about the illiteracy rates, so how come Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the other Arab news media haven't picked up on the social problems in society that are of so much concern to a huge part of the population? Let's talk about prostitution, drug addiction, schooling, car accidents, medical services, and sexual harassment in the street and in the work place. There are plenty of issues that are totally ignored, and what we see on Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera is that the U.S. is doing this and that, and we hear about it from the elite, the intellectuals or people who have knowledge of these issues but we are ignoring the people. Therefore I don't regard Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya or any other channel as the voice of the people, when they are ignoring them. This is the difference between Al Jazeera and the American media, for example, because the American media have moved historically from being party press to focusing on people.
From about July to October, I watched Al Jazeera pretty intensely with a native Arabic speaker, and I do have to disagree with you, I find myself in the amazing position of defending Al Jazeera! I remember specifically watching programmes on the drug problem and I understand there is a programme on Al Arabiya about social problems. There was also a programme about wearing the veil. There could be more, I grant you, but my understanding is that the basic purpose of the organisation is news.
Since you've said nice things about Al Jazeera, I am going to say nice things about America!
It was a mistake!
I appreciate your comments about Al Jazeera. We're far from being professional and far from perfect -- that doesn't tell you a lot about us, it tells you a lot about the Arab reality. My second point is that a satellite channel is supposed to be addressing itself to almost the whole world, so Arabic speakers wherever they may be are part of your target audience. I was born in Egypt and I wanted very much to talk about small things in Egypt, but I can't because this guy who lives in Russia or Scandinavia might not be interested. So you have to judge as a journalist how many people would be interested in your idea because, after all, you want as many people as possible to tune in to your programme. I have dealt with the social issues you just mentioned. I have done a programme on prostitution, and not only in Egypt but in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Cyprus and here in London. So this is another challenge - you are not working for one state broadcaster, you are trying to address yourself to the whole world.
Noha Mellor says that Al Jazeera has not changed anything.
That's patently untrue. Al Jazeera has had plenty of effects, and one of the key effects is to make Arab leaders justify themselves. Many times people have said things on Al Jazeera, and there have been repercussions as a result. I can think of one show when a bodyguard of the Lebanese Phalangist leader Elie Hobeika alleged loads of things about Hobeika and as a result Hobeika had to go on another show and defend himself. So here we see an Arab leader having to justify his actions. It has changed the way Arab leaders behave, but not all of them. Yasser Arafat never managed to have a shave or wear a suit, and Libyans still drone on for hours. But Arab leaders have learned that they have to be savvy to justify their policies, so it has changed.
To tell the truth, I don't measure the success of Al Jazeera by what you see on the screen - I measure the success of Al Jazeera by what Al Jazeera has forced others to have on their screens. This ultimately in my opinion is what Al Jazeera has managed to do so far. Al Arabiya would never have been there, Abu Dhabi would never have been there, Dubai would never have been there, what we are seeing now on state-owned TV would never have been there. Yes, it's still immature, but I don't think it's fair to say Al Jazeera changed nothing.
At the same time, it's a valid criticism to say that Al Jazeera does import too much programming. Too many documentaries tackling social issues, health issues are bought from the BBC and dubbed and shown to an Arabic audience, which is not the best way to convey important health or social information to Arabs. In future Al Jazeera could do more to make the most of its own programming, and buy in less. Which also brings me to another point, about why Alhurra was such a mistake. What Alhurra should have done was to make programmes in the U.S. and then given them free to Al Jazeera and other news channels. Most Arab news channels import two-thirds of their programming and so here was an opportunity to make programmes in the West, to control them, and to turn out exactly what you wanted to say and then give them away.
Journalists working for Alhurra have paid a terrible price as well; we've also seen attacks on and deaths of Alhurra journalists. You say that Al Jazeera is more unbiased than any mainstream American network. That was a particularly broad statement - how do you back that up?
It was an extremely provocative statement, and deliberately so. I think it's important to acknowledge that there is no objective truth, and news is human and made by people who have prejudices. Every choice that's made -- and what you start the news with -- is a cultural decision, so bias is unavoidable. Plus, Al Jazeera is a commercial channel; it's trying to win viewers and attract advertisers. It has a commercial bias; it is peddling itself to Arab men over the age of 25, I think that is the target audience. So Al Jazeera certainly does have a bias, but I would argue that the American news channels are even more biased.
But you have nothing to support what you are saying, apart from Fox.
Ofcom, the British TV regulator, has ruled against Fox on many occasions, ruling that it can never be broadcast within the U.K. because it contravenes British broadcasting regulations, Al Jazeera, on the other hand, has had no problems. So, according to official figures, Fox is far more biased than Al Jazeera.
I love the book and the channel. I worked for all three of those channels. But my main question would be: It is widely known from off-the-record briefings from British, Polish, Bangladeshi officers about the targeting [of Al Jazeera] in Baghdad. How far up the chain of command was the decision taken to, in effect, assassinate Al Jazeera's Baghdad correspondent?
It should be pointed out, Ambassador, that Al Jazeera had given his GPS co-ordinates to the Pentagon. The Kabul office of Al Jazeera had also been destroyed.
In that case, there was pretty good evidence that there were elements of Al-Qaida there. With respect to Tariq Ayoub, it was his decision to go on the roof. Not everyone was killed in that incident and, again, I regret it terribly. But we are non-discriminatory in our pick of journalists. It's horrible to say, but we've killed our own people. The U.S. football star who died, it turns out might have been killed by friendly fire. An Al Arabiya correspondent died because of U.S. soldiers. It's a horrible thing, I'm greatly distressed at it and I obviously don't believe it was deliberate targeting, and I didn't think it had gone that high. It reminds me of that incident in the Lebanon when the U.S. battleship New Jersey was firing on the Shouf [Mountains]. The Lebanese thought we, the Americans, were all so clever because we didn't hit the houses directly, we just managed to cause a little bit of damage. Little did they know that the reason we didn't hit the houses was because there was something wrong with the ammunition. I hope you are following what I am saying - that was a stupid thing to do. What interest would we have in doing that? It was an accident.
Jamsheda Young (BBC world TV):
I'm sitting here with two BBC colleagues. We're going to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya this month as part of an exchange with Arab TV news networks. I find it interesting that we're talking about an English-language version of Al Jazeera because I have read reports recently that the BBC may also have plans, unconfirmed as yet, to set up its own Arabic news channel - whether or not closing down the original channel was a mistake, we don't need to go into that here. But what do you think the challenge for Al Jazeera would be if such a channel were to go ahead, and the BBC were to muscle in on the Al Jazeera hegemony in the Middle East?
It would be great news for Al Jazeera to have some serious competition. Al Arabiya is out there and is great technically -- I know the people and many of them are my friends. They presented some competition, but Al Arabiya will always lack the cutting edge for political reasons. But the BBC will have the cutting edge and it will put Al Jazeera on the defensive. That's why I wonder why Alhurra turned out not to be such a success, to put it mildly. The BBC World Service radio was launched in 1938, and all these years BBC radio used to be the most credible media outlet across the Arab world. Everybody knew it was coming from their occupiers and yet it still retained its credibility and independence from the government - or at least the illusion of it and that's very important. Alhurra managed to do neither of those things.
I disagree with Yosri. I think the BBC should think twice before launching an Arabic service; I think it's got an awful lot to lose. The BBC is an institution that has a lot of prestige in the Arab world, and if it is seen to be putting out propaganda, it would be a disaster, particularly on the issue of funding. The notion that I've heard floated is that the Foreign Office will pick up the tab, but that will torpedo it in the Arab world and it could turn out to be a wasteful venture.
Colin Bickler (Department of Journalism, City University):
I realise the ambassador is here and has to represent her country, but I don't think we should just leave the fact that you feel it isn't true this was deliberately targeted or purely accidental. It isn't just one incident, it's several. The worst part of this, however, whether it's an accident or not, is that every attempt that Reuters and other organisations have made in trying to clarify the position with the Pentagon and trying to get proper investigations done, has been turned down. Regardless of whether they are accidents or not, there has been no openness or readiness to discuss this properly, and this is quite frightening. It's not just Al Jazeera, it's not just Reuters - although recently another Reuters person was shot on the grounds that he moved, even though he had nothing in his hands. The rules of engagement are very unclear, and you can never get any satisfactory answers from the Pentagon on what the rules of engagement are or should be. So there is a real gap between the way the press operates and the way the US military operate.
The one death that I am aware of a bit more than the others is where the Reuters reporter was outside Abu Ghraib prison and he had gotten permission to photograph or film, and he had asked some US military and yet he was shot. There was an investigation into it, so it's not true to say there wasn't.
I'm saying that it wasn't open.
I'm not from the Pentagon but I know that David Schlesinger, Reuters' global manager, did challenge it and made some of the points that you have made about the rules of engagement and communication between the Pentagon and the press.
One of the problems that any country, not just the US, may have in war is to make sure that our story is told accurately, and I don't mean to pick on Al Jazeera. For example, in the instance of Falluja, there were a lot of eyewitness accounts that simply weren't true and the US government did discuss this with Al Jazeera people. We asked for corrections and we did not get it on the air.
When Sept. 11 happened, I was at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, and five people told me the State Department was blown up. I use that example to say that the rumour mill is not the way professional journalists should act, and that's one of our major issues with Al Jazeera. Despite the fact we have proof that the facts haven't been told, they rarely correct mistakes.
I take your points, especially about our coverage of Falluja. Thanks to the US troops, they did not allow us into Falluja. It was horrible to go inside, but when we got inside we reported what we saw there, and it was not surprising that they did not want many journalists inside, especially Al Jazeera. For the first time in history, an army negotiated with locals to exclude certain journalists as part of a package to lift a siege. This has never happened, and it maybe attributes more to journalism than it deserves.
Colin made a good point in that it's not about what happened, whether in the bombing of our office in Baghdad or Kabul. It's about how the Pentagon took this when we tried to enquire about what happened and asked for an investigation in the hope that we could learn lessons so that it would not happen again. I don't think they were assassination attempts; I think they were clumsy accidents in both cases. In Kabul, the Northern Alliance people were already in Kabul, they didn't need to do it. In Baghdad, the city had already fallen. So in my opinion it was a clumsy, stupid thing to do.
Our people sent a letter to the Pentagon with all the information pilots might need, reminding them of our experience in Kabul and asking them not to bomb us again accidentally. There was no acknowledgement of the letter. And when it happened on one day, 20 minutes later it was Abu Dhabi TV, and two hours later it was the Palestine Hotel. If I ask the Pentagon if they can look into this and tell me exactly what happened, at least I can learn as a journalist not to go on the roof at a certain time.
I read today that we had 10 journalists in Falluja.
Ten embedded, but none from Al Jazeera.
They were embedded.
We didn't want to be embedded!
I would respond then by saying, what would have happened if somebody had been killed? Would we have got the rap again about killing an Al Jazeera journalist? I don't know what to say. I like the way you're taking the big picture.
Ambassador, a group called the International News Safety Institute has made attempts to get an investigation and a response to various incidents. There have been persistent attempts by various collective groups to get a systematic explanation about these incidents.
Ambassador, I'm not surprised that when you looked into the death of Tariq Ayoub you couldn't find a report, because there wasn't one. When I was researching my book, I met with Nabil Khoury, who is the State Department spokesman who also looked into the death, and he didn't find a report either. So I went to the Committee to Protect Journalists based in New York and spoke with Joel Campagna, the head of their Middle East programme. He told me he had asked the Pentagon to release the report into the death of Tariq Ayoub, which the Pentagon was obliged to do under the Freedom of Information Act. They told him that in fact there had been no investigation. He was the only journalist killed in Iraq into whom there has been no investigation, so it's wrong.
Karen Davies (photographer, ex-Sunday Telegraph):
I'm quite interested in the scoops that Al Jazeera famously brought in, the Osama bin Laden tapes and the horrors in Iraq. Could you tell us a little about how this material got to Al Jazeera?
The material came to Al Jazeera through connections in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera has been careful to foster its links with Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. In January 2001, months before 9/11, an Al Jazeera journalist, Ahmed Zeidan, was at the wedding of one of bin Laden's sons to the daughter of one of his aides. Even after 9/11, the Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Alluni, the guy now facing terrorism charges in Spain, met with bin Laden face to face. So Al Jazeera has carefully fostered this relationship, and they have received videotapes through contacts. As the scrutiny has increased, they have been more covert in the way they handle these tapes. But it's worth pointing out that when they do receive tapes, not all of which have been broadcast, it throws the newsroom into a panic. They don't know whether to broadcast some or all of these tapes, and it spurs a debate - is it newsworthy and how much should be shown?
Ian Richardson (Former managing editor, BBC Arabia Television):
It is received wisdom that Al Jazeera would not exist if BBC Arabic TV had not closed down. Do you think that's so?
It's an intriguing question. Certainly Al Jazeera would not have been such a success so quickly. Good for the people in Qatar -- they took the opportunity and made the most of the situation. They found all of a sudden a group of people who had been trained by the BBC for two years, gathered from all over the world, some of them residing in Britain -- they moved here and suddenly became unemployed. The Qataris took advantage of that, and good for them. If we weren't around, would Al Jazeera have come about? I'm not absolutely sure. If somebody had a similar idea and worked on it, it might have taken a bit longer to find the right people, but it would still have been a success. Not because of the BBC or Al Jazeera, but because of the Arab reality. Anybody that brought on a programme where you could phone up live on air and voice your opinion, it was a revolution! Any programme like this would have been a hit -- don't tell me about what a programme should be editorially or ethically, just for this mere fact. Certainly in the early days of Al Jazeera, we were more like this. People loved us and governments hated us. But gradually, and I must give credit to Al Jazeera, we were all learning as we went along. These days you see more research-based programmes, more documentaries and more openness to the outside world.
Tim Llewellyn (Former BBC Middle East correspondent):
My first point is to the ambassador. She said that the Arabs used to listen to Kol Israel - but they only listened to the music. Kol Israel had the best library of Arabic music in the Middle East, traditional folkloric and modern. As soon as there was any news on, they would turn first of all to Monte Carlo, which was the main listening point for any Arab in the Levant. And if the news was really serious, they would turn to the BBC.
The second point I want to make is that Al Jazeera and the journalists that work for it, and the news agencies, are performing a vital function in the way we cover the Middle East. It's impossible for Western journalists to gain access to proper news. We couldn't do it without Arabs or Al Jazeera. It's also true in Palestine, where Al Jazeera has access to places where people are either unable or unwilling to go to and report from an Arab perspective. The BBC itself in my view -- and I had lunch with the head of news and tried to put this across to her -- is getting more Western-centric and has been for the past four years. It has become dilatory in its attitude to objectivity because it reports the Middle East through an Israeli prism and its journalists are imprisoned inside West Jerusalem. It has no viable Arab bureau anywhere that reports the Arab side. It has no serious reporting from the West Bank.
I'm glad to hear that my suggestion to the Emir three years ago to go English has finally been agreed to. The more we hear the Arab point of view, and the more it gets injected into the veins of British journalism -- especially BBC journalism, which has a certain amount of respect but it's losing it all the time in my view because of its pusillanimity to Israel, Israel's backers and the British government, which is of course in hock to President Bush. We welcome this from Al Jazeera and hope to God the experiment works. And I hope in future the BBC will be watching Al Jazeera and picking up some of its commentators.
Henrietta McMicking (BBC):
I was formerly a programme-maker for Al Jazeera. Is there a role for an Arab media regulator -- not just for Al Jazeera, but for the 150 other channels -- that would protect Arab journalists but also be somewhere where the ambassador's points and criticisms could be answered?
With the abundance of new satellite stations coming from the Arab world, there certainly is a desperate need for regulation. There is already a suitable body in existence, the International Federation of Journalists, but most Arab journalists regard it as a Western rather than a truly international body. I think only four out of a possible 19 countries have signed up to the IFJ at the moment, and certainly more should sign up to protect themselves, more than anything else from state intervention.
Yosan Doran (Post-grad student, SOAS):
Hugh Miles, you published some US studies stating that 75 to 80 percent of Arab public opinion is being shaped by satellite channels. Clearly there is a serious problem in assessing the media impact because there is absolutely no way that you can measure the impact the media has on people. You've been quoting different statistics on Alhurra and apparently there was a clash. Every profession takes it for granted that what they do is really important and that it affects people to a great extent. To what extent can we credit Al Jazeera for shaping public opinion, and is there such a thing as Arab public opinion?
You're absolutely right, it's extremely hard to measure, and statistics and demography are not commonplace in the Arab world. But certainly one of the indicators of the influence of Al Jazeera is the difference between the first and second intifadas. The first intifada happened when there was no satellite TV, and there was a limited pan-Arab response. Then in the second intifada, Al Jazeera was there every day showing operating-room theatre scenes and blood and gore. It's very hard to trace cause and effect.
I work at the Egyptian embassy, but I represent myself here, on the record. My first feeling as a viewer is that Al Jazeera is falling into what can be called the "charismatic leader syndrome." They talked to the population, they got popular, and they feed this popularity by talking the talk of the people.
I think your point is that people believe we are more credible than their own governments, that we try to get them to participate in their own daily lives more that governments give them a chance to do, and that's why Al Jazeera is so popular on the streets? That brings me back to the point that Al Jazeera is much more popular now in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq, so Western journalists have to go through Al Jazeera if they want to get any kind of meaningful access, perhaps because people respect and trust Al Jazeera. I interviewed terrorists, and they would invite me because they saw the programme. I wouldn't have had a chance to present the truth as I saw it on any other kind of channel in the Arab world.
Some observers say that some repressive Arab governments use Al Jazeera as a "defusing tool," to channel the disappointment of the population.
You mean that by encouraging the intifada, we are discouraging the Palestinians from making their own revolution on the ground? As a media outlet, you try to be as balanced and truthful as possible, to yourself and to the people, so then you are not responsible for the strategic ramifications. It is not your responsibility.
You have a point insofar as Al Jazeera is not a political system, so when people watch something on Al Jazeera and then change their mind on a certain issue, there is no mechanism for change to come about. But that's not Al Jazeera's fault, and that doesn't mean that Al Jazeera is not part of the democratic process. It is a piece of the jigsaw.
Richard Colebourn (Newsnight):
To what extent are there British and American government officials engaging in debates in Arabic on Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels? And a question to the ambassador: Do you see any kind of shift away from the Alhurras and the Radio Sawas toward these debates on these channels?
Yes, a very dramatic increase on the debate front. I've been on twice, and others as well. There's been a tremendous increase. I hope it has been beneficial. Sami Haddad doesn't do me any favours -- I get as hard hit as anyone does. But I think it is really important to be at the table. I'm glad the U.S. government is stepping up, and that's one reason I'm here.
Ambassador, the point you made about distortions and made-up stories on Al Jazeera is a very valid one. But one of the things that bugs me is the double standard when dealing with Al Jazeera, when it gets its facts wrong as opposed to the Western media. For instance, if you think back to the Iraq war, the only media that came out and apologised for the role it played in propagating the story that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, therefore legitimising the war, was The New York Times. Nobody else came out and said sorry for the role they played in that, but still swept it under the table. When Al Jazeera gets its facts wrong, it's a big deal.
The second point is that you said in America there are very strong institutions when it comes to dealing with ethics and the media, but I think that's only half of it and we have to question what facts really mean. Facts is reporting properly, and I think American media doesn't always report the whole story. I wonder if the visceral reaction that comes from the American government is rooted in the fact that Al Jazeera tries to report the whole story. For instance, when we talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, if you watch the American media, it's always suicide bombings, always Abbas and Sharon shaking hands. It's never settlements, it's never land being confiscated, it's never any of these other factors that the Arab media reports on because this is the experience of the Arabs of that conflict.
On your second point, I disagree very strongly with you on that because most of our discussions with Al Jazeera have been about reporting on the military and what we are actually doing there. There has been misreporting, and it would be irresponsible to let that go. As Yosri said himself, Al Arabiya does not have the cutting edge and so there is a difference there. Also, as you may remember, even Peter Arnett got fired (from CNN) at the beginning of the Gulf war because he went on Iraqi state TV and said the effort had failed. So that's another example of somebody who was quickly hired by a British newspaper to embed anyway.
I think the American media is biased. A survey by fair.org found that in 90 per cent of American cable news network items discussing the occupied territories, "occupied" or "occupation" was omitted, and indeed there was no variant on that term. Instead they were described as "contested" or "disputed" or often frequently just as "Israel." And that's not the only thing: The US press often talks about "targeted killings" instead of assassinations and "a period of calm" when plenty of Palestinians but no Israelis have been killed. The list goes on, so there is an inherent bias in terminology in the press in the U.S. and in the way it covers the news.
We've reached the end so can I thank our panel and you for coming.
Transcript edited by Kelly Haggart.
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