Seeing the news from a different perspective.
By Kate Bulkley
20 April 2006
As the launch of the English-language Al Jazeera International (AJI) channel draws closer, the battle for the hearts and minds of potential viewers and the TV news business in general are hotting up.
"We want to be a default channel for lots of people in the UK. They may start with Sky or the BBC but we want to be a place where they can flip over to see another perspective," Nigel Parsons, the channel's British managing director, told journalists at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch last week.
AJI will "work closely" with its namesake, but the channel is clearly targeting a different audience.
AJI aspires to be a global source of news from a Middle Eastern perspective. It will have access to 70 to 100 million homes worldwide at launch, predicts Parsons, two to three million of which will be in the US. In the UK it will be free to air on Sky satellite. It will also be offered as a free, streamed broadband channel on the internet, with a dedicated website.
High profile AJI already has a high profile when it comes to press coverage. Every other day, it seems, it announces it has hired another key on-screen star; Sir David Frost, ex-BBC "Scud stud" Rageh Omaar and former CNN host Riz Khan have all joined.
At the same time the channel's four news bureaus in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington have so far recruited more than 500 people representing 30 nationalities. Extensive testing of the channel's HD filming and production systems next month is the only thing holding back the launch date announcement, says Parsons. "It's the most complicated news project ever.
The bureaus are linked by fibre connections and it is the first completely HD news and current affairs channel." If the HD tests go to plan and the expected pre-World Cup launch does take place this summer, then analogies between the football tournament and the international news arena will abound - and who's to say that TV news will not become more competitive.
Tough start Close ties with Arabic-language channel Al Jazeera has made life difficult for the international channel in the US where it is looking to sign carriage deals with both cable and satellite operators.
Al Jazeera was given the tagline the "terror channel" by the US administration after its coverage of the invasion of Iraq. US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld has been a particularly outspoken critic.
But, despite a tough start, Parsons said US officials have been "a lot friendlier than they were 18 months ago". Parsons, who has had a long and varied career in news, much of it with WTN and Associated Press, viewed the chance to lead the new channel as "manna from heaven" when it was offered to him in 2004.
At the time he was disillusioned with western news organisations. Last week he accused western TV news networks of a "dereliction of duty" in their coverage of the Iraq invasion, relying overly on journalists embedded with invading troops.
"That's what went wrong. War was portrayed as using precision instruments that didn't hurt anyone, but it did hurt people."
Parsons admits that audiences in the Middle East have a "much higher tolerance" for violent and graphic TV pictures but he adds: "Al Jazeera has never shown a beheading on air and nor would we on AJI. We are governed by an Ofcom licence and so we have to stay within the taste and decency guidelines that Ofcom requires." "We will tell the story and if a clip is newsworthy we will air it," he adds.
"We do not agree with the idea of a sanitised war. But there may be images that come with a warning from our presenters." Crowded market Like Al Jazeera, which celebrates its 10th birthday this November, AJI is funded by the Emir of Qatar.
But Parsons says that advertisers have already agreed to sponsor certain programmes and he hopes that more will be attracted as the channel grows.
Parsons says the new channel will look "very different" from other 24-hour news channels. Some 65% of the programming will be live and there will be an emphasis on sourcing programming from the Middle East and Africa. The 24-hour news business may be crowded with the likes of CNN, BBC World and various Arabic-language channels, including the BBC Arabic TV service planned for a 2007 launch.
"I think (the BBC) has missed the boat. The BBC had an Arabic channel and it closed it and now it is coming back into what is a crowded market.
Many people will see this as a Foreign Office tool," says Parsons. But Parsons believes AJI will stand out. "We are the first channel coming out of the developing world and looking outwards. That's not a crowded market," he said.