How will English Al Jazeera shape up?

The English-language version of the controversial Middle-Eastern channel Al Jazeera is now just two months from launch. Tom Williams asks what the arrival of Al Jazeera International could mean for PR practitioners

Nobody could accuse Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic news and current affairs channel, of doing things by halves.

Launched in Doha in 1996, the channel quickly built a huge following in the Middle East. Following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Al Jazeera's footage of Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaida leaders has brought it to international prominence. But its success in reaching the movement's leading figures led critics, especially in the US, to dub the channel 'bin Laden's mouthpiece'.

That said, at least part of Al Jazeera's appeal has been built on its alternative view. And in May that view will no longer be filtered through the programmes of other broadcasters.

Al Jazeera is launching an international 24-hour current affairs and news channel to take the established and western-owned international networks head on.

Satellite rivals
The new English-language channel, Al Jazeera International, hopes to challenge the 24-hour news services of BBC, BSkyB and CNN. AJI will broadcast via cable and satellite, though the channel also hopes to leverage the popularity of its English-language website with broadband streaming of its programmes.

AJI is certainly not thinking small. Broadcast locations will reflect daylight hours around the world, with four hours from Kuala Lumpur, 11 hours from Doha, five hours from London and a further four from Washington. And commercial director Lindsey Oliver has said she wants to reach 40 million households. Even though its parent channel is backed by the financial might of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, this would be some feat.

Lord Bell, whose firm Chime Communications last year lost out to Brown Lloyd James in the contest to represent AJI, believes the channel must finely balance its promotion. 'Its success really depends on whether it breaks free from the image of sensationalism,' he argues. 'The channel has a huge influence in the Middle East and very little influence over here. We only see a fraction of its coverage.'

AJI has gone about addressing this problem with the same audacious style as its parent. Those who have joined its news team are already starting to resemble a who's who of international journalism. Veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost heads a cast that also includes former BBC News Africa correspondent Rageh Omaar, ex-CNN
International anchor Riz Khan and CNN International's former World News Asia co-anchor Veronica Pedrosa. Stephen Cole, the former Sky News anchor, is to be news anchor for AJI's London broadcast centre.

While Frost is to front the new AJI service in London, Pedrosa will be its news anchor in Kuala Lumpur. Omaar, whose combination of good looks and reporting nous on the Iraq war earned him the tabloid moniker 'scud stud', is to present a programme on independent documentary filmmakers. Shahnaz Pakravan, a former presenter of BBC World and BBC News 24, was engaged at the end of January to front AJI's global women's programme Everywoman. This will look at subjects such as religion, sex, education and arts from a woman's perspective.

The appointment of such internationally renowned journalists is clearly designed to give AJI the gravitas it needs to pose a serious threat to CNN and BBC World. But it is also surely a nod in the direction of Al Jazeera's critics and an early indication of how content will have to be adapted for the all-important US market.

AJI refuses to discuss with PRWeek what its editorial content might look like or how PROs should approach the new international broadcaster. But in a Sunday Times article last month, Omaar hinted at its editorial preferences. 'We aim to avoid politicians, diplomats, soldiers and analysts and to speak to people who have actually been there as stories unfold,' he wrote.

Nigel Parsons, AJI's managing director, has spoken of the channel as 'putting on a different pair of spectacles' and providing a '360o view of events'. It is this alternative perspective – more people-focused stories and a deliberate departure from the main networks' interpretation – that gives an indication of how AJI might operate.

The theory is that in the US, where AJI has said a large number of people are dissatisfied with the news they get, the channel will be able to provide a different world view.

Hill & Knowlton Middle East CEO Dave Robinson, who is familiar with the content and journalism of Al Jazeera, does not expect AJI's approach to be markedly different from that of CNN and Fox News.

Robinson believes AJI will follow its parent's success of tapping in to a 'degree of resentment that any high-quality news coverage has to be seen through the prism of western and Christian media owners'.

He adds: 'But this is not a case of "oh my god, here come the guys with the balaclavas". This is a business with a commercial
objective and a quality imperative.'

Alternative angles
Whether this will be an effective message in a country such as the US, which feels naturally ill-disposed to Al Jazeera, remains to be seen. But it does suggest that there may be some opportunities for PROs who have been unable to get their clients on the BBC or CNN.

Indeed, former Burson-Marsteller CEO Alan Biggar, now CEO of Middle-Eastern comms firm International Insights, says: 'Forget about the politics of the region. This is a huge marketplace where viewers are as interested in consumer products as anything else.'

AJI – which will, among others, speak to the millions of Muslims who make up one third of the world's population – is a channel most PROs can ill afford to ignore.

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