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|This ranges from Israelis who think it is the ultimate pan-Arab cabal to Arabs convinced itís been funded by the CIA and Mossad and the Carlyle Group, the US venture capital company. Even US networks have wondered if al-Jazeera -- which has had remarkable access throughout the war -- didnít have some special advantageous relationship with the US government.|
Roll over CNN
Everybody loves al-Jazeera. Even though weíve bombed them (in Baghdad and before that in Kabul), we love them.
There were three al-Jaz guys in the satellite channelís little office at the Centcom media centre in Doha -- a brooding Moroccan, a suave Sudanese, and a smouldering Leba-nese -- handing out Sprites one afternoon following the 3 oíclock briefing. Other reporters shyly hovered at the door.
It was like a college dorm room. This was the great bull session at Centcom and everybody was dying to get near the al-Jazeera guys. They were very laid-back, very sit-down-have-a-beer (or a Sprite). They were obviously not very riled by all the shocked-shocked stuff being said by the Pentagon (and the New York Stock Exchange, which, oddly, pulled their credentials) about what their network was showing -- the corpses, the sea of blood, the faces of the American prisoners of war. They were cool. They were enjoying it. They were bright, didactic philosophy students who, pleased with themselves, were confidently turning the free press argument on the free press itself.
Whatís more, al-Jazeera, being another of the weird creations of the weird State of Qatar, had the home court advantage. So while the US media were here in this US military establishment, with everybodyís first reaction being, "Why are they here?", it soon became obvious that in many ways al-Jazeera was the host. It was their media nation we were invading (al-Jazeera correspondents and technicians were gracious translators and pronunciation tutors for the non-Arabic speaking media).
Al-Jazeerians didnít really seem like Arabs even. They were polyglot, urbane, sexy, in a radical chic sort of way. Omar al-Issawi, the Lebanese correspondent, was the most sought-after figure at Centcom, with reporters filing dispatches about his wardrobe. But most of all, of course, the media were in love with al-Jazeera because it was the hit station of the war.
It is clear that al-Jazeera is going to be very big -- big to an extent and at a scale that is just dawning on the al-Jazeera folk themselves. The network is being transformed the way Gulf War I transformed CNN -- but then CNNís audience has never exceeded more than a few million, whereas al-Jazeera already speaks to a good 35 million people every day.
"What are those things?" asked the British officer with whom I was watching the al-Jazeera broadcast one evening. We were trying to decipher the pictures narrated in Arabic: a weeping man was tending some palm-size, brownish, shell-like objects. "Iím afraid thatís his sonís skull, sir," said the officerís aide.
Itís this unfiltered chronicle of mayhem, in the Israeli view, thatís been a key provocation during the most recent intifada and the reoccupation of the West Bank. Certainly, many have made the case that the launch of al-Jazeera in 1996 and the ensuing years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not coincidental. While government TV in Arab countries has been no less anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, that was, in the end, just government TV -- dull and predictable bureaucratic talking heads. Whereas al-Jazeera, being first and foremost a commercial franchise, was able to re-animate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its blood-soaked living room war.
Al-Jazeera correspondents seem a little sheepish about their networkís over-the-topness. In that way, theyíre not unlike American correspondents who are most of the time embarrassed by their own networks. "We have to speak to our audience," says Hassan Rachidi, the al-Jazeera reporter from Sudan, shrugging. Indeed, the way the network speaks to its audience is evidently pitch perfect. Al-Jazeera has become, practically, the Arab street.
"Itís a propaganda tool" is the thing you always hear. But, relatively speaking, itís the opposite of propaganda -- nobody is being force-fed. Rather, the audience gets what the audience wants. Itís a ratings thing. A media rather than an ideological thing. Money rather than blood. Or money from blood.
And itís a Qatar thing. While most of West Asia has been in a long, downward economic spiral, the oil emirates, with vast per capita wealth, have been busy preparing for when the oil runs out. Almost everybody in Qatar can quote you a date when oil and natural gas will have been exhausted a generation or two in the future. The Emir of Qatar deposed his own father at least in part because he wasnít developing new revenue sources fast enough and investing heavily enough in the infrastructure of economic modernity. Now the Emir and his hugely extended family (as much shareholders as anything else) not only control the oil wealth, but, among many other investments, a multinational media business as well.
People are always saying that there is something weird about al-Jazeera -- that it isnít what it seems, that its provenance, no less than its mission, is suspect. This ranges from Israelis who think it is the ultimate pan-Arab cabal to Arabs convinced itís been funded by the CIA and Mossad and the Carlyle Group, the US venture capital company. Even US networks have wondered if al-Jazeera -- which has had remarkable access throughout the war -- didnít have some special advantageous relationship with the US government.
Iím having a drink at the Doha Ritz with Jihad Ali Ballout, the marketing and PR head of al-Jazeera. The business plan, which Ballout proceeds to spell out, is precise: Dominate the region, and then, with English language broadcasts and other international partnerships, extend the brand throughout the world. So far, the channel, says Ballout, has been built on the Emirateís investment of $ 150m (the al-Jazeera books, of course, are not public). The plan was to be self-financing in five years. "Weíre almost there," says Ballout, but adds, "There is an economic embargo by regional powers that has convinced major advertisers to utilise less viable media."
Which is the heart of the matter: al-Jazeera, if it is to be a real media business, needs advertising. Thatís a problem in a region of the world where governments control businesses (why would you want to support someone elseís power base?). Ballout nevertheless points to his unique and inevitably attractive selling proposition: "Stakeholders in the regionís companies are beginning to realise theyíre missing out. You have to go where your customers are." (No matter how bloody the show.)
It is not difficult to conclude that a new Iraq, awash in redevelopment capital and programmes, and with a western free enterprise tilt, will greatly benefit both the cause of free speech and the fortunes of al-Jazeera.
While for many American journalists the al-Jazeerians seem heroic -- finally, the argument is being made, the horrors of war are not being hidden -- you donít have to look too closely to find that the channel also inhabits the far side of the ideological moon and is as responsible for the regionís departures from reality as anyone.
Late last autumn, for instance, you had David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan appearing on the al-Jazeera talk show Without Borders authoritatively explaining that Mossad knew of plans to destroy the World Trade Center and had warned Israelis to get out before the planes hit. The better al-Jazeera does, the angrier the Arabs become. The freer al-Jazeera is, the more blood it shows. The more anti-US and anti-Israel, the higher ratings it gets.
But is this insidious or is this television? Indeed, al-Jazeera is nothing so much as television the American way. Accordingly its most important function -- if it is to flourish -- will be to turn angry Arabs into eager consumers. Itís all foretold. Even its sexy, hip correspondents at Centcom will soon enough turn into televisiony plastic people.