By S. Abdallah Schleifer
TBS: It seems to me
Al Jazeera is at a critical point. In contrast to the Afghan War, which you covered
--at least from the Taliban side-- largely by yourself and without any Arab competition,
this last Iraq War provided the Arab satellite TV audience with an extraordinarily
competitive fieldyou were no longer alone. There was global controversy
about the objectivity of Al Jazeera coverage, one of your correspondents was killed
in Baghdad, the channel emerged from the war with new management, and one your
most famous reporters has been arrested in Spain accused of secret affiliations
with Al Qaeda. Is this indeed a turning point?
think one way of looking at this is perhaps by looking at the Arab reality itself.
The popular level of awareness has changed since the launch of Al Jazeera. In
the beginning, Al Jazeera had a huge pond all to itself to fish in. It would have
been very difficult for it to go wrong, because everywhere it wentas a news
seeking organization, out in the fieldit could not but be a success, given
Al Jazeera's news philosophyto be free from government directives or influence,
to be balanced (fair minded), to be detached from the event. I think the viewers
realized that Al Jazeera was different.
TBS: What has been
the biggest change for Al Jazeera since it was first launched?
only difference now that I can see when comparing 1996 to 2003 is the audience.
Now Al Jazeera has opened our eyes to a few things, given us a chance to voice
our feelings; that I think is the biggest challenge that faces Al Jazeera at this
point of history. I do think that our people in Al Jazeera realize this, as well
as the competition, Abu Dhabi TV, Al Arabiya.
TBS: What is the basis
for competition amongst the big media players?
|"I don't assess Al
Jazeera just on the basis of what it puts up on its own screens, but on what it's
forced others to have on theirs."
are the fundamentals and they will always be there, the belief in the absolute
professionalism. Al Arabiya has probably surpassed Abu Dhabi TV in terms of giving
the news in a balanced, objective way. In comparison to Al Jazeera, I would place
Al Arabiya higher in terms of the presentation, the caliber of the people, and
so on. Yet there is something different, philosophically speaking, that makes
Al Arabiya revolve within the old philosophy. I'm referring to the way Al Arabiya
handles things that happen in the Arab world, particularly those that affect Saudi
TBS: Could the same
be said about Qatar, and Al Jazeera? Of course Qatar doesn't generate the funding
for Al Jazeera that even approximnates the funding for Al Arabiya/MBC, so perhaps
the cross you bear is made of aluminum while Al Arabiya's is made of gold?
again not to look or sound patronizing to Qataris or antagonistic to Saudis, Al
Jazeera has a certain naturewe believe absolutely in freedom of speech.
Audiences will realize that for themselves. But some of the flagship programs
of Al Jazeera still seem to be acting out a stance of condescending maturity,
speaking to the mind rather than the heart, maintaining the patronizing tone of
the older style of broadcasting and telling the audience only what it wants to
hear. So I'm a little bit concerned about Al Jazeera and I'm worried that they
are stuck. It's partly linked to the flexibility of Al Jazeera, in which the live
interview shows are on their own, not reporting back to a higher level of editorial
TBS: Well I think you
also have problems with your anchors and not just with live talk shows. Here is
an example I caught during the Iraq War. Suddenly there's a report that a squadron
of Iraqi tanks has broken out of the British siege of Basra. Who knows where they're
moving to? Who knows where they are going? All you can report is Coalition forces
have reported that a significant number of Iraqi army tanks have rolled out of
Basra. The Al Jazeera anchor adds to that, saying they are on their way to recapture
Umm Qasr. Sounded like wishful thinking and not detached journalism to me.
my God. Probably it was live. Only with things like this can you differentiate
a good news anchor from a bad one. But when it is a written script it has to be
TBS: Same on BBC. It
ran this report on how Saudi security is moving against al Qaeda. The Saudis had
allowed a BBC reporter in to cover this action. He makes the point half way through
his piece that the Saudis are taking this action on their own initiative and not
because of any pressure from America. But in leading in to the story the anchor
says something to the effect "Here we have a BBC exclusive report on a Saudi Arabian
crackdown on Al Qaeda, taken no doubt in response to pressure from America." As
if she hadn't even listened to the piece before writing her lead-in.
I would call naivety. Lack of professionalism. It happens a lot on live events,
which are very popular because they have their own aroma for the audience. But
if you don't know it enough, you would be tempted to fill the air with rubbish.
There is a limit; it's some sort of an unwritten contract between the anchor,
the journalist, and audience that when we go live there is a level of forgiveness.
Yet even that is not an absolute right to say what you want.
TBS: Let's get back
to your point about the dangers of Al Jazeera live talk shows not reporting to
a higher level of editorial management.
elementgiving all freedom to the program makershas its positive and
negative sides. It could be heaven for some or hell for others who might like
to abuse it, intentionally or unintentionally.
TBS: I asked you when
you attended one of my classes at the American University in Cairo the other day,
"Why is it that I'm so impressed by the Al Jazeera Washington bureau's operation
in contrast to stuff coming out of Qatar?"
don't think it has got to do with the place, I think it has got to do with who
makes the program. But some of them don't know what it means for journalists to
handle the structural requirements of a talk or interview show professionally.
They get flattered by the immediate success of their talk shows. What makes this
so critical is the lack of a real independent survey that could be a corrective.
I've come across a lot of people that say some talk shows on Al Jazeera have lost
credibility. You can also see this through the caliber of people who take part
in this show. In the beginning you had higher caliber people who would come on
air as guests but now many decline to go on some of the shows, particularly on
those shows which confuse shouting matches for debate.
Another thing is what
has happened to the Arab audience. Now that they have gotten used to picking up
the phone, they are going to be more interested in the content. Over time, the
glamour of Al Jazeera has decreased. I predicted this. It's something you can't
do anything about. But there are other things we can do, like inject new blood
into Al Jazeera, introduce new programs, do a review. They are now introducing
a host of new programs. I look at the existence of Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi as
good news for Al Jazeera. It can get people out of what is sometimes their arrogance,
complacency. It's changing. Like I said before, I don't assess Al Jazeera just
on the basis of what it puts up on its own screens, but on what it's forced others
to have on theirs. That is the ultimate success for Al Jazeera.
Lately Al Jazeera has
started to realize that news is partly entertainment. Even if you tell someone
to stand up and give a report, it's presentation. It is primarily entertainment.
And if, in the back of this, you can inform the audience, it's a plus.
TBS: What about your
own show, Sirri lil-Ghaya ("Top Secret")?
think there is a lot of room for many programs like mine to tackle issues that
need to be investigated or clarified. Unfortunately this part of the world has
been very secretive, a number of things have been dealt with behind the scenes
and in a not very transparent way. This area of the world is not used to investigative
journalism, it is very suspicious. But I think the Arab world needs many more
of these shows and the Arab audience would absolutely accept them.
TBS: I remember an
interview you did with our former managing editor, Sarah Sullivan , sitting in
a café in Paris, and she mentioned how she was overwhelmed by the endless stream
of Arabs in Paris who would stop by to welcome you and congratulate you for your
tell you the truth, I'm on the screen only four times a year and what makes me
feel good about my own people more than about my program is that it interests
them. I am giving people just what our authorities tell us is not what the people
want or need. So this is what makes me happy.
TBS: Ultimately it
could be suggested that if satellite television is to move another step forward
it must become economically viable. Al Jazeera follows the BBC modelpublic
sector money and autonomy. But you could argue in the end if it is going to take
another step forward, if it is to be viable whether on a BBC or a private-sector
model, there must be a free market. From a political point of view, a market creates
less dependence on vested interests if only because no one sponsor has a monopoly
position, unlike relying on government financing. But how can anyone hope that
you are going to have a substantial market, given the over-saturation of the market,
the amount of competition, which by now may be self-defeating ?
In general I don't believe in complete ideal independence. There is always some
kind of force that exerts itself from the other, depending on many factors. In
this part of the world, there are so many different factors that come into play.
Perhaps the Lebanese model is the most sophisticated one. On one hand, there is
Future but that means the obligations of Rafiq al Hariri [owner of Future TV,
prime minister of Lebanon, and close ally of Saudi Arabia-editor]. Or Al Manar
and its ties with Hizbolla. So when it comes to Al Jazeera, it has to be one of
the best models.
TBS: But on the other
hand, LBC, which started as a militia channel has transcended its militia origins
and has achieved great popularity.
But you can become popular by becoming really unprofessional or by being tasteless,
and everyone will watch you. I believe that LBC is a variety channel, so anyway
this is another issue.
TBS: So you believe
it is possible to be a publicly funded service like BBC or PBS without being simply
a state run operation like what we call the "national channels"?
need to be educated. And this function of a news channel becomes very important.
Al Jazeera has done this. For example, for the first time a Bedouin in the desert
in Jordan hears about political participation, human rights, and women's rights.
An American may see this as nothing new, but here they might push for more media
outlets, they might push for institutions to run more efficiently. Al Jazeera
has just started the ball rolling. Civil societies have become more encouraged
to speak their mind. If a guy gets arrested he might know that Al Jazeera might
cover it. It comes as no surprise to me that American policy gave Al Jazeera a
lot of attention. That Al Jazeera is considered in the run up to any event in
the West is amazing. People consider Al Jazeera because they know it will have
a role on the ground. Don't forget one frightening fact, that more than half the
Arabs can't read or write, which gives television more responsibility.
TBS: You originally
wanted to have your own talk show?
wanted to have a different format; I wanted to combine other things with TV. I
do believe that TV is a vast medium and if you don't use everything that it can
offer, then you lose a lot. I will always be a field man. I think I might just
change the format of my existing show but at the same time be on the cutting edge
side of investigative journalism. Now because of its success, I have more people
working on the show, more space, and more quality. This evening and next Thursday
I'm doing something on the 73 war. And frankly I expect some backlash from the
Egyptian press. TBS
S. Abdallah Schleifer
is TBS publisher and senior editor.