Magazine article The Spectator

Who Speaks for the World?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Speaks for the World?

Article excerpt

We are letting Al Jazeera usurp the international role of the BBC

In the field of public diplomacy, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar has become a mouse that roars. According to Hillary Clinton, the Emir of Qatar's television network, Al Jazeera, is knocking spots off the broadcasters of three superpowers in a global struggle for influence being played out across the airwaves. 'We are in an information war and we are losing, ' Clinton warned the Senate foreign relations committee in March. Making only the briefest mention of the enormous expansion of international broadcasting funded by the Russian and Chinese governments in recent years, the US secretary of state went on to declare that 'Al Jazeera is winning.'

Through the Arab Spring, Washington's think tanks and foreign affairs journals have been buzzing with analyses of the 'Al Jazeera effect' - how the broadcaster is not merely reporting the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East, but catalysing it. The youths taking to the streets across the region have been Al Jazeera's children: the first generation to grow up with tempestuous arguments about Arab politics on satellite TV.

Thanks largely to the appeal of its English language channel, which had some of the best coverage from Cairo, Al Jazeera's influence has been soaring. President Obama watches in the Oval Office; visitors to the State Department report Al Jazeera is on almost every screen, and David Cameron has let it be known that he likes the way it brings the Arab Street to Downing Street.

Al Jazeera's rise has coincided with a decline at the BBC. Following a reduction in its Foreign Office grant, the corporation is cutting its World Service by 16 per cent, which will reportedly save £46 million a year. Al Jazeera is one of a number of foreign broadcasters lining up to fill the information gap that this leaves behind.

Commercially, Al Jazeera is on a roll. Having recently picked up the Turkish TV channel Cine 5 at auction, it is planning to launch a further Turkish-language news channel. Just as the BBC World Service is closing down its 21-man Serbian radio operation, the Qatari TV network is starting up Al Jazeera Balkans in Sarajevo, where a 150-strong team, headed by the veteran Croatian journalist Goran Milic, will broadcast in Serbo-Croat across all the former Yugoslavia. The Qatari government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art communications satellite, due to launch in 2013, which will offer Al Jazeera the chance to reach more viewers in Africa, the Middle East and deep into Central Asia. The Qatari company Qtel is the majority owner of an Indonesian satellite venture that now provides Al Jazeera's signal across Southeast Asia.

Having secured strong distribution in Europe (the English channel is available in Britain on Sky, Freeview and Freesat), Al Jazeera's biggest ambition is to break into the US market and reach a mass audience in the most powerful society on earth. It is available only in Washington DC, Ohio and Vermont.

Trading on the lift in reputation afforded by its reporting of the Arab revolutions, it has taken out full-page advertisements in newspapers across the United States and is mobilising supporters on social networking sites to press the cable TV companies to offer their subscribers Al Jazeera English.

One of the first celebrities to respond to the campaign was the liberal feminist writer Naomi Wolf, who published an 'I want my Al Jazeera' puff at the Huffington Post. Wolf argued that until American audiences can view coverage of the kind familiar to Middle Eastern audiences - an image of a GI brandishing the head of an Afghan as a trophy, say, or interviews with detainees released from Guantanamo - 'the US will not be able to overcome its reputation as the world's halfblind bully'.

On the political right, by contrast, antipathy towards Al Jazeera remains every bit as vehement as when Donald Rumsfeld denounced its reporting of US military operations in Fallujah as 'vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable' and George W. …

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