with Ahmed Sheikh, Chief Editor, Al Jazeera
S. Abdallah Schleifer interviewed the new chief editor at
Al Jazeera early in mid- April only a few weeks after he had
taken up the position following a stint running Al Jazeera's
new English-language website.
You were a member of the original BBC Arabic TV group that founded
Al Jazeera. And then over the past few years you drifted away
from broadcasting and towards journalism. How does it feel to
be back and in such a responsible position?
Sheikh: Jazeera.net is also journalism; it's basically
the same. Actually I left Al Jazeera back in 2001 to launch
the Tiba channel in Dubai. I stayed with them for six months
and then returned to Doha to work for a year at the foreign
information agency monitoring and organizing news briefs for
the ruler and leadership of Qatar. But before I left Al Jazeera
in 2001 I had launched the Arabic website. The Chairman of the
board of Al Jazeera asked me to come back and launch the English
site. Then last September I was brought back to the station
to work on Al Shahid ("The Witness"), a documentary
program like the BBC's Panorama . . . I regret having to give
that show up.
One senses that Al Jazeera is at a turning point [in
its] attempt to develop a new approach to its news coverage.
Yes, that's true. And a major part of that turning point
has to do with planning, with serious forward planning. It's
an eight year old problem which we have to tackle. This organization
has grown very quickly, and gone from one regional news crisis
to another and from one success to another. It must pause now
and think about where it's going. We have to review what we've
done and where we want to go and to put that all into a plan
for our future. We must establish a planning culture. If we
do that we will be able to take a proactive position towards
news, whereas many stations in the region are still taking a
reactive position to news. We have always reacted very quickly
and very well but now be must go beyond that.
Could you be more specific? Otherwise our readers might think
we are moving about in the realm of platitudes.
Here is an example of what I am talking about. We have
been talking about covering the coming elections in India and
for us that no longer means sending a correspondent to stand
by a polling station. We need to take a look at India, at what's
happening in India, the thriving middle classes, the tensions
that have been emerging in this society, and we need to be there
taking a look well before the elections.
another change that is underway: We used to show horrible scenes
of the dead and the terribly wounded, of horrendous massacres.
Now that's out.
we are talking an in-house journalist comes in to get a decision
from Ahmed. It's the anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and
Al Jazeera has just received some horrendous library footage
of the massacres from the news-agencies. The journalist wants
to know whether or not he should use it. Ahmed says no, and
returns to his theme. It's an extraordinary coincidence.
Well I couldn't have asked for a better example of what you
are talking about.
Look, as journalists we have to watch these bloody scenes,
but we don't have the right to show them. We never look back.
The competition can look at our past achievements and try to
match them but we must look ahead. Our real competition is the
move to new offices in a few months we will be implementing
a new plan that calls for a future planning unit consisting
of three or four people responsible for entering scheduled news
or obvious events into a master calendar. Thus, we will be planning
for coverage well in advance of a scheduled event like an election
or a major development project of historic importance.
are planning to develop the work of our interview section. We
will try to integrate them, to give them a stronger sense of
news values. Our goal will be to create that sort of integration
between the assignment desk, newsgathering, the interview section
and the producers working on running order that is the hallmark
of a professional operation. We will prepare a style guide.
Something written, that everyone shares as a reference. And
we will be preparing a manual for each job. A producer's guide-what
a producer should be doing, a functional expanded job description.
We have to create some sort of integration between all the sections
in the news room so that everyone feels that there is one team
and they are part of that one team
You had it relatively easy in the beginning: the creative core
of Al Jazeera came from BBC Arabic TV and some had BBC radio
experience that predated the BBC Arabic TV attempt. And you
could go back to that well for the first couple years-tracking
down colleagues from the failed BBC Arabic TV and/or radio world
service-dipping in and coming up with staff trained in specific
and logical procedures. But that well dried up several years
To sustain that legacy we need a style guide, job manuals, increased
training. Indeed we are sending existing staff back into training.
Mahmud Abdul Hadi, who heads up the training center will be
increasing the amount of training for every employee. And we
will establish an Appraisal System .
pictures of badly wounded, very bloody children in a hospital
scene, presumably from Falluja come up on the screen in Ahmed's
office. He says "look at those bloody photographs"
and walks out, presumably to talk to the producer of the news
bulletin. So the process continues. Ahmed returns.
Before, some people in the news room had the opportunity to
get out into the field but others didn't. Everyone should have
a chance to prove themselves in the field, and only by giving
everyone a chance can we fight off demoralization. And the [equal
opportunity] that everyone will have for training will also
motivate the newsroom.
appraisal system, plus opportunities for training, plus the
encouragement and motivation that the opportunity for field
work will provide, and also allowing staff with new ideas to
have the opportunity . . . to develop them-all of this will
give people a chance to prove themselves, to prove they are
good. And those are the people who will stay with us.
will try and change the work flow system. Right now everybody
is crowded into this little news room. Directors, library people
. . . there isn't really thinking space for the journalists
and producers. Instead, in the new news room, we will introduce
Area Desks, let's say four people on the European News Desk,
and then after six months we start rotating some of them over
to the Asian News Desk. By doing that everyone in the News Room
will develop a global sense of the news, of what's going on
in the world and how to report it. You know I was planning to
go myself to North Korea for Al Shahid.
sending a new correspondent [to Russia]-an Egyptian who lived
in Russia for ten or fifteen years. But he will be based outside
Moscow, moving around. So we will not just be reacting to Moscow's
political culture but we will be taking the initiative to cover
the country. And so much more could be of interest to our viewers
than everyone assumes. For instance, did you know that the name
"Siberia" is derived from Sabareen-referring to the
local people enduring harsh conditions with patience who took
[to] Islam when the Abbasids reached what is known today as
No, I didn't know, but I find it fascinating. I'll tune
in for stuff like that any day. TBS.