June 13, 2005; Page A12
A number of years back, I remember an advertisement for a newspaper running on British television. It showed a sequence of photographs in which a suited, professional city gent was walking down a street unaware of a skinhead sprinting towards him from behind. In each photo, the skinhead — his face contorted in what looks like anger — is getting nearer the older gentleman. The final couple of pictures show the skinhead tackling the man to the ground, and the viewer is left with the impression that the gent is being attacked by a hooligan.
The final photo shows a pile of bricks toppling to the ground from scaffolding just above where the man was walking. The “skinhead” had been rushing to save the man from the deadly, falling construction debris.
The final message of the ad was something to the effect that one has to have the complete picture to understand the story. It’s certainly easy to build a misguided opinion or a false impression if the whole story is not available.
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I began as a journalist with the world-renowned British Broadcasting Corporation. Getting a radio or television reporter’s job at the BBC was considered a remarkable achievement in the 1980s, when there was little else around of such stature. CNN was then a young network orbiting its way through the uncharted space of global satellite television news with no other challenger, until the BBC’s long overdue World Service Television News in November 1991. I was the newsreader (anchor) on the very first show on that channel and even then, I didn’t really grasp what was happening to the television news industry at a global level. I was enjoying it. It was great fun and a great team.
My eight years at “Auntie” as we called her, came to an end in May 1993 when I was lured away by CNN International — which recognizing the competition it now faced, was revamping and “internationalizing” with diverse recruits.
I spent eight years at CNN as well, working mostly out of the headquarters in Atlanta. It was a fantastic experience with a learning curve that pushed my development beyond all expectations, but the pace was incredibly tough and I left to set up my own company in May 2001 to take on more diverse projects such as documentaries, writing and public speaking.
For more than a decade, both the BBC and CNN ruled the sphere of international news — and I was one of the few lucky enough to work extensively for both of them during that time. Then, in the mid-’90s came a TV upstart from Qatar, a tiny country in the Gulf. Few channels have raised temperatures the way Al Jazeera has in both the West and the Middle East.
Only one problem . . . no one outside the Arab-speaking world understands it. So, how has it become one of the best recognized brands on earth? Well, it has hoards of unsolicited spokespeople for and against it. Yes, probably mostly against it but, again, I wonder how many of them have actually watched it and — more importantly — understood exactly what was being said. I, for one, don’t speak Arabic and I’m in no position to judge it with honest, firsthand objectivity . . . so I keep an open mind.
However, I travel a lot and make a point of informally canvassing the opinion of people on how they view the television industry. Put into perspective, Al Jazeera is highly watched and at least quietly respected for stirring things up — especially in countries where freedom of the press is at best a discretionary term.
Consistently, I listened to Middle Easterners complain about how they felt Western networks had sold out on the way they covered the news, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. They felt that Al Jazeera was filling the gap.
Personally, I just love the idea of starting up a channel from scratch like I did at BBC World. The managing director of Al Jazeera International, my friend, Nigel Parsons, was a senior producer working there at the time with me. We both realize that a significant opportunity like this one comes very rarely in one’s lifetime. Plus, Al Jazeera International provides the ideal vehicle to bridge gaps between communities in the East and West. It’ll be the first English-language news channel with an international perspective that is broadcasting from within the Middle East.
I’m fully aware of the negative image of the Al Jazeera brand in the U.S., especially at the government level, but I think part of that comes from a misunderstanding of the strong cultural position the Arabic-language channel has among the average people of the Middle East. It is extremely popular for being outspoken not only about the West but also about Arab governments
Until now, U.S. administration-led efforts to promote a positive image of Americans to people in the Middle East appear to have failed miserably. A media push out of Washington into the region doesn’t resonate well with those actually in the thick of things across the other side of the world. Al Jazeera International plans to be an open platform for global debate and dialogue. It will effectively become the best conduit the U.S. has to speak to the Arab world, and vice versa. Plus, the debate will be free and open.
I’m now coming across people in the American government who are recognizing the value of this two-way conduit approach, and are seeing that engagement with the new channel would be more positive than confrontation. On top of that, it has to be pointed out that the Al Jazeera International team of experienced, highly respected and committed journalists is diverse — with no specific agenda except to report the news courageously with facts and figures… to bring the pieces together to give a complete picture. The whole story.
Now there’s a revolutionary idea!
Mr. Khan has just joined Al Jazeera International. Previously, he was senior anchor with CNN International and host of its “Q&A with Riz Khan.”
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