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Al Jazeera: One organisation, two messages

The fact that there are two news stations based in Doha, English and Arabic, operating independently with different staff and different audiences, is an important fact that is often overlooked.
Last modified: 4 May 2011 18:33
Photo by Reuters

A few days ago, an article with the above headline appeared on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Penned by David Pollock, the piece has been a metaphorical pebble in my shoe ever since.

Initially, I had approached the article in expectation that it might help correct one of the major misconceptions about Al Jazeera: that it's just one single news station.

The fact that there are two news stations based in Doha, operating independently with different staff and different audiences, is a fairly important fact that's often overlooked.

But rather than shedding any light on the network, Pollock's article somehow managed to leave the impression that there's a conspiracy afoot in Doha, and that the division between English and Arabic stations is a cause for concern.

So here's an attempt to add some clarity, by pointing out some of the inconsistencies in Pollock's article.

Firstly, the headline itself is extremely puzzling. Although there is a good chance that the head was written by a sub-editor and not Pollock himself, the author supports the sentiment as early as his first paragraph, with the following sentence:

"The problem is that the content of Aljazeera's English site differs, at times radically, from that of the Arabic version."

Er ... yes, it does. 

What Pollock fails to explain is why this is a "problem".  Is he suggesting that our English and Arabic-speaking audiences should be made to watch and read exactly the same news?

Or worse, is he suggesting that someone, somewhere should be dictating a "message" for us to broadcast, and that the message must be the same to  both audiences?

Surely critics would be even harsher if that were the case, and accusations of a politicised news output would be even louder.

Nonetheless, as it turns out, Pollock still seems to damn the network both for perceived pro-Qatari bias while at the same time complaining about too much diversity of opinion.

It's a false dichotomy that ultimately sets the tone for the entire article that follows.

Thus, having voiced concern that the two stations are different, he's quite happy, in the very next paragraph, to slip back into a familiar series of generalisations that once again conflate the two. For instance:

"Aljazeera is striving to move beyond allegations of anti-Americanism garnered during the Iraq war."

The classic back-handed compliment. I am assuming that he is referring to the Arabic station here because English didn't come into being until well after the invasions of Iraq.

But the point is, and I think I can speak for everyone in the English newsroom when I say this, AJE didn't set out to be anti-American in the first place, and it's not trying to "move beyond" any such position now.

We are striving only to produce the best television news we can.

Then there's this:

Aljazeera's reformist reputation does not hold up to heavier scrutiny.

Reformist reputation? Do we have one? The assertion is based on quotes from Hillary Clinton that don't support Pollock's conclusion, and on other comments by President Obama, in which he praises the Emir of Qatar's reformist credentials, not Al Jazeera's.

But again Pollock is happy to muddy the waters, using as justification the recent Wikileaks cable that cites purported  comments from Qatar's prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, in which he seems to suggest government control over station output.

Maybe the comments were accurately reported, but Pollock offers no evidence of any actual attempt by the prime minister to dictate terms to AJE in an attempt to achieve a political goal.

Equally, I'm not aware of anything supporting Pollock's claim that  AJE has a "publicly acknowledged goal of agitating against the status quo".

Perhaps he's just interpreting our message of robust journalistic intent a little too freely.

'Missing in action in Bahrain'

Pollock then takes a swing at coverage of the Bahrain story:


"Incredibly, while Aljazeera English showed pictures of Saudi troops headed across the causeway connecting the two kingdoms, Aljazeera Arabic's headline read "Bahrain's Government Rejects Foreign Intervention"  - alluding to Iran! "

What Pollock fails to acknowledge is that the political message from Washington regarding Bahrain, and the line peddled by almost all mainstream US media, was almost identical to the coverage and interpretation that he attributes to AJ Arabic.

The State Department has been steadfastly behind Bahrain's rulers and their military allies and virulent in its condemnation of Iran for passing comment on its neighbours affairs. 

But then Pollock's narrative becomes even more puzzling. Having accused Al Jazeera of unfairly demonising Iran to cover up nefarious Qatari government intent in Bahrain, he then performs some remarkable mental callisthenics:

As unrest broke out in Syria, Aljazeera Arabic initially failed to report on a level worthy of its antiestablishment reputation, possibly in deference to Iran. (My italics)


So it seems that Qatar defers to Iran one minute, condemns it the next, all in service of nefarious political aims. Nowhere does Pollock explain this bizarre duality.
 
More logical inconsistency follows:

the U.S. audience should understand that the news and viewpoints published on the network's English website are often not seen on the Arabic site, a discrepancy often reflected in the television coverage. Unfortunately, Aljazeera's English/Arabic bifurcation helps to ensure that these constituencies will never see eye to eye.

Which constituencies is he talking about? The two newsrooms? Of course we don't see eye to eye. No two journalists in the word see eye to eye, whatever their language; why should these two TV stations? 

Should MSNBC cover the US economic data in exactly the same way as CNBC simply because they have the same parent? Of course not.

Is the Al Jazeera situation evidence of a worrying "bifurcation"? No.

Surely Pollock cannot be arguing that Al Jazeera would be a better network if the two stations broadcast co-ordinated, identical output?

And there's no clear explanation as to how the US audience is being damaged by the breadth of opinion in the Al Jazeera network.

Ultimately, then, it seems the aim of this apparently benign think piece is not to examine the structure of Al Jazeera or to shed any light on how it's relevant or interesting. It's just another attempt to re-inforce existing prejudices.

But there's some good news: despite the logical inconsistencies and the misleading subtext, Pollock ends up somehow arriving at exactly the  right conclusion:

Aljazeera should not be touted as a true reformer or promoter of democracy.

And that's just as it should be. We're a television news operation doing the best we can to report facts. That's all.