long-anticipated English-language Al Jazeera International
(AJI) is due to launch in the second quarter of 2006. TBS’s
new senior editor Lawrence Pintak talked with
AJI’s managing director Nigel Parsons,
to find out about the hopes riding on the new channel as well
as the challenges facing it.
TBS: Let’s start with some basics. Why
are you creating this channel?
That is really question for the Qatari government. But, I suppose
I would say this is a very reformist government. It is pretty
visionary. They are spending an awful lot of money on health,
education and infrastructure, and since the formation of Al
Jazeera channel, they have been at the forefront of media freedom
and I think they have been as surprised as anyone by the runaway
success of Al Jazeera. But they decided to build on that success
and launch a global channel.
Can you sum up what the mission of the channel is?
Basically, we will be the first global news channel based in
the Middle East looking outwards, and we think we will be bringing
in a completely fresh, 360 degree perspective to the news and
thereby revolutionize viewer choice, reverse the flow of information;
perhaps present the news from a different perspective, and therefore
be a conduit to greater understanding between different peoples
and different cultures.
TBS: To what degree is AJI going to be a mirror
of Al Jazeera in Arabic?
It won’t be a mirror precisely, because otherwise there
wouldn’t be these four broadcast centers. We’d just
do it out of Doha if it was going to be a mirror. We will have
a much more global agenda and we are reaching out to global
audience, not just the Arabic speaking one. Having said that,
where we co-locate, we will share resources. We certainly expect
to have the best contacts and news coverage of the Middle East
for any global news channel and we will try to bring Arabic
perspectives or portray an Arabic perspective on major world
You mentioned co-locations. Talk to me about where
the main centers are and how a broadcast day is going to roll.
We will have broadcast centers in Kuala Lumpur, Doha is the
headquarters, obviously, London and DC. DC covers North and
South America. London is basically to cover Europe, and Doha
covers Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. And Kuala Lumpur
is Southeast Asia, Australia, Thailand. Doha will carry the
signal for approximately 12 hours a day and the other 12 hours
will be more or less divided up between the other three.
You mentioned co-locations, and obviously in some places
there will be AJ crews, reporters, etc. You have your own team,
but talk to me about that mix. How are you going to use your
own people? Will you be using AJ reporters on the air?
I don’t think we’ll be using many reporters from
other channels, simply because many of them don’t speak
enough English and the one or two exceptions to this rule particularly
if they are in a place were we are not, we’d look for
an English voice track. But, really, we are talking about an
absolute handful of reporters where their English is good enough.
In terms of other sharing of resources, if there is a bulk of
standard, fairly boring press interviews, why would we send
two crews when one crew would do? We can send one crew somewhere
else. Again, in our major stories, big breaking news, we will
try to split the resources so we get maximum use out of those
And who are your reporters?
Some of them have been announced. Others we will be
rolling out in due course. The process is still underway.
But, in terms of national mix?
National mix? At the moment, we have some Africans,
and Europeans and Middle Eastern people and South and Southeast
Asians, Americans, both North and South. North includes Canada
as well as America. So across the board, we expect just over
What is the total figure you are shooting for?
Total, probably some where about 350-400, but that
is including all the technical staff.
On-air reporters? Ballpark number.
Ballpark number of on-air reporters, probably 20, 25.
Talk about the programming mix. You have people like David Frost.
Are we looking at both talk shows and breaking news? How does
the day roll?
We are looking at mix of talk shows, news programming, news
analysis, documentaries and news programming. The news will
generally take up the first half hour of any given hour. But
we will be focusing a lot on news analysis and editorially on
events in the developing world. There are a lot of issues going
on which we feel are not being properly covered.
On that issue of perspective and analysis, how do you think
you are going to differ from CNN and BBC, Sky and the others,
some of which you’ve worked for?
Sky in particular is a UK domestic channel we don’t really
regard them as global channel in the way we will be. I think
the others who, no fault of their own, but they are coming out
of these powerful countries and they absolutely naturally reflect
the agendas of those countries. We are coming out of this tiny
speck of this country, which is globally centrally located,
and I think that gives us an advantage because not only do we
see things from a different perspective where we are sitting,
but we are not encumbered with domestic baggage and that gives
us a chance to have a cleaner all-round perspective.
One of the raps on Al Jazeera is ‘hands off, kid gloves’
when it comes to Qatar. How you see that?
I don’t see many stories in Qatar. I mean there are oil
and gas stories here. I have been here for over a year. I can’t
think of any stories here that I would categorize as kind of
global news stories. But we would expect to look at anything,
you know. There are regional stories, and we would look to cover
them the way we would cover anywhere else.
TBS: You are obviously going to be under microscope
because of the criticism of AJ, from academics analyzing you
to the various lobbies, etc. How are you prepared for that?
There is not an awful lot we can do about it. One way
we are preparing is talking to you today. If I really had a
choice, I’d like to launch very quietly, but you can’t
because of the brand we are. We will be under a spotlight. I
think the only thing we are asking is for people to judge us
for our own merit.
In terms of news coverage on a day to day basis, is there a
joint editorial strategy meeting with AJ? What level of cooperation?
How does that pan out?
We’d expect to share our planning meetings and planning
lists, but at the end, each channel will be making its own decisions
as to which news agenda they will follow each day, which is
most relevant to the audience they are trying to reach.
We talked about the reporters. Who is your management team?
Who do you report to?
I report to the chairman of the board. The rest of the management
team all have international experience, which is one of the
keys we are looking for. Again, nationality was not the issue
and then as we get down to deputy director level and head of
departments it spreads out pretty quickly across nationalities
and ethnic mix, if you like.
Is www.aljazeera.net, the English site, going to be under your
wing or is that going to be separate?
No, that will be under our wing and will work closely with the
Right now it doesn’t really reflect the television content.
Will it be doing that more?
I would say so, yes. We do believe Web sites and news channels
should work very closely together.
Let’s talk about the distribution. How are you getting
the signal out there?
We’re getting it out through mixture of satellites, which
will provide a global signal, although that’s probably
the easy bit. The harder bit is tying up all the carriage deals
with cable operators and direct-to-home satellite operators.
And how is it going?
It is going very well in most parts of the world. We’ve
been delighted with Europe. South Asia, Southeast Asia has really
been knocking at an open door—apart perhaps from Australia—and
the Middle East and Africa have been very receptive. South America,
we would expect to be a work in progress for some time, and
then of course there is North America, where there is some resistance
from some quarters, not just because of the Al Jazeera name.
Some cable operators are very upfront and say Americans just
aren’t interested in the international news or the outside
world, which is kind of sad when we’re trying to have
some sort of understanding between people.
Do you have any signatures on paper in North America?
We have verbal agreement and I wouldn’t really expect
to have the final contract—the ‘Ts’ crossed
and the ‘Is’ dotted at this stage. We’ve still
got some way to go, but we’ve got verbal commitments which
I am quite happy with.
I know you can’t say who, but with major players or some
small cable distributors?
A mixture, a mixture. Certainly with one that I’d regard
The Israel lobby certainly is not going to be sitting with open
arms waiting for you to arrive.
Oddly enough, I have been discussing this in Israel, and Israel
is one of the few countries in the Middle East that has never
even temporarily shut Al Jazeera operations down. You know Al
Jazeera was the first Arab broadcaster to allow Israelis on
air to put their side of the story. While sometimes the Israelis
feel that maybe Al Jazeera takes a too pro-Arab stance, at the
same time they do realize this would give them a chance to put
their side. We just had a senior news visit to Israel and we
were afforded every courtesy up to the highest level of government.
But, as you well know, the Israel lobby in the States and Israeli
policy in Israel are not necessarily the same thing.
No, No, I mean, that is true. There is a lobby in the States
that some times tends to be more conservative than Israel itself,
but that’s just something that we have to overcome.
We talked about the (Qatari) government’s desire to put
this channel on the air. Can you tell me a little bit about
the funding, what kind of budgets do you initially have and
what kind of commitments?
I can’t give you figures because it is confidential
information, but I can say we’re not awash with unlimited
petrodollars. We’ve got quite strict budget, which we
think is do-able, but we have to be creative to achieve what
we want to achieve within that budget. We are expected to create
revenue streams and we’re looking to hopefully break even
within three to five years, although when you talk about the
financials you have to talk about us as a network and not break
out the individual channels.
But, if you look at it as a network, clearly, Al Jazeera—despite
being ranked right up there as a global brand name etc., and
having largest audience in the world, according to some estimates—is
still hobbled by this, may it’s too strong word, but an
advertiser’s blacklist. The pressure on advertisers not
to advertise in AJ. How is that playing out when it comes to
Again, early days. We shouldn’t be quite as restricted
because we are working in a much wider market and I think advertising
cake is a fairly limited cake in the Middle East anyway, especially
in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Again, these channels are
not always the most popular channels for broadcasters and that’s
why the network comes into play because there’s sports
channel, one, two and three, and a children’s channel
and a documentary channel coming on stream. You mentioned Sky
earlier. I am not 100 percent sure, but my understanding is
Sky News still loses money, but the network makes money.
Are any of your programs out of house or is everything
No, quite a lot of it is out of house. We would, to a large
extent, be a commissioning center looking to independent producers
from their own regions producing material that fits in with
the overall agenda of the channel.
Anything you want to add?
I think it is a tremendously exciting project. We feel there
is room for another news channel. Some people are skeptical.
Our research shows there is a hunger for it. We’ve had
very good reception from those independent producers and distributors
in most of the world and I think we are going to surprise people.
I hope you’ll be watching.
I will certainly be watching.