As Al Jazeera English prepared for its launch 18 months ago, some media commentators said it would not succeed. The BBC, Sky and CNN, after all, had long since established their own international networks, offering news 24 hours a day.
At the start, Al Jazeera English was only broadcasting from noon to midnight in the UK. Could the Doha-based start-up really compete with established networks, or survive comparison to its older, Arabic sister channel? The Guardian's Middle East editor Brian Whitaker wasn't sure in a November 2006 review, calling Al Jazeera English ‘worthy, some might say to the point of boredom'.
In the US, with its notoriously right-wing media, the channel had bigger problems. Among those in the US opposed to Al Jazeera's English-language launch was the Accuracy in Media group, a conservative watchdog. It started an online campaign accusing Al Jazeera of ‘collaborating with terrorist groups'.
While this reaction may seem disproportionate, UK PR professionals were left with questions. ‘You can fall into the habit of stereotyping the network based on who owns it and where it is located,' says Mantra PR director Nick Bishop. ‘But we tried to take a more enlightened approach.' And Bishop has never had any concerns about the network, which now operates broadcast centres in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.
Chatsworth Communications' resident Middle East expert Matthew Austin frequently approaches Al Jazeera English on behalf of clients with interests in the region. ‘The move to English output was a huge leap for a station priding itself on being the first independent television broadcaster in the Arab world,' he admits. ‘But this is now a serious challenger to the two established global English-language news channels, BBC World and CNN International.'
Staniforth partner and LabourHome media officer Mark Hanson agrees. ‘In its target market, it's extremely influential,' he says. ‘Having the likes of David Frost on board gives it a higher profile and a weightier presence, boosting its establishment feel.'
Indeed, Al Jazeera English boasts an impressive roster of senior journalists, with Frost presenting a current affairs show called Frost Over the World. The addition of ex-BBC broadcaster and veteran Iraq war correspondent Rageh Omar also cemented Al Jazeera English's mainstream credentials.
Omar now presents a nightly weekday documentary series called Witness. So far, he has secured impressive exclusives, including the last interview with Muslim cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi before his death in last year's storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
As one might expect of a station with Middle Eastern roots, Al Jazeera English is particularly receptive to PR approaches concerning religion and its ramifications.
Bishop approached Al Jazeera English on behalf of Mantra client The Economist Group, which had compiled a special editorial report on the role of religion in public life. ‘The Economist wanted to reach an audience in a number of territories,' Bishop says. ‘We knew it was something in which Al Jazeera English would be interested.'
Bishop found Al Jazeera English accommodating: ‘The team was smart, responsive and easy to work with.'
After a year and a half on the air, Al Jazeera English seems to be succeeding in separating itself from its more controversial Arabic counterpart. At its launch, Al Jazeera English predicted it would reach about 40 million homes worldwide. At the end of 2007, that figure hit 100 million.
The channel can be watched on Sky Digital in the UK, with distribution through satellite partners worldwide, including Canal in France, Hong Kong Cable and Wanadoo in Spain. Its website is the most visited in the Arab world and in the top 200 worldwide, according to analysts Alexa.
It has even managed to win the endorsement of the Jerusalem Post as Israel boycotts Al Jazeera for its ‘misleading' Gaza coverage, which Israeli ministers claim supports terrorism. ‘There was misinformation initially,' says newsdesk editor Ben Rayner. ‘Now people see we're a reputable organisation.'
TWO MINUTES WITH THE EDITOR
Ben Rayner, newsdesk editor, Al Jazeera English
Do you feel Al-Jazeera continues to suffer from prejudice?
‘There was some misapprehension about what Al Jazeera English would be like when we launched. The US administration was very negative about it. The only time people saw Al Jazeera was when it showed a Bin Laden tape.
There have never been any beheadings on Al Jazeera, or Al Jazeera English. Bin Laden has been shown on Al Jazeera because when he makes a statement it is newsworthy. Because of the rise of the internet, these tapes tend to be put on websites now.'
What is your editorial strategy?
‘Al Jazeera English is for anyone and everyone around the world who is interested in a different perspective on the news. We are trying to avoid stories about people who are already in the news.'
With what types of stories should PR people approach you?
‘We have planning teams in our four news centres that are in contact with PR people. NGOs, charities and groups with reports about worldwide issues should contact us. Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Oxfam have been involved, and we may go to them for comment on stories.
As ever, we're involved with PROs for the British Army, and the Israeli Army.'
Newsdesk editor Ben Rayner
020 7201 2800
London bureau chief Sue Phillips
020 7201 2800
Business correspondent Lauren Taylor
020 7284 8154
Features editor Marie Devine
020 7201 2800
Entertainment editor Amanda Palmer
020 7201 2863