Interesting Read: Al-Jazeera launch

Interesting Read: Al-Jazeera launch
by Michael Binyon

Ten years after it began broadcasting, al-Jazeera launched its first English-language news channel at noon today. Michael Binyon of The Times tuned in to watch the channel’s explosive start, which he says, could attract a loyal following around the world

It made its name with dramatic pictures of conflict and exclusive scoops: the war against the Taleban, Bin Laden’s tapes, the bombings and US-led attack on Baghdad, the war in Lebanon, the rising anger in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera quickly became the voice of the Arab street, a must-watch station for Arabs and for newsmen around the world – assuming they could follow the Arabic.

Today everyone can watch. After much hype, slick publicity and a long delay, al-Jazeera’s English-language world service was lauched from its headquarters in Qatar. It began with a bang, focusing, naturally, on what had made its name: hard-hitting news from the world’s trouble spots.

First came the inevitable preview, with flashy images of earlier scoops during the broadcaster’s 10 year existence. Then there was a news summary – usual format of two presenters, man and woman, sharp, smart and standing up in the studio – and a preview of the features, interviews and exclusives for the next hour.

Luckily, al-Jazeera had a ready-made moving story, literally. A tsunami had been generated by a Pacific earthquake, and was expected to hit Japan – in five minutes. Talk about breaking news! More on that later.

Then it was back to the main report. It was the misery in Gaza. Well, al-Jazeera is an Arab station, and Gaza is, as Tony Blair and many have said, the core grievance in the Middle East. And the report was as grim as the pictures: the reality of “life under sanctions, siege and shellings”. We saw pathetic scenes of children in hospitals, mothers weepers, smashed houses and the latest disaster – malnutrition caused by the international sanctions on Hamas.

There was little to quarrel with politically – though David Chater, the commentator did talk about “so-called terror organisations” which might raise an eyebrow in Jerusalem or Washington.

For balance we then went straight to Jerusalem, and Jackie Rowland – yet another ex-BBC frontline reporter wooed over to the new channel – to hear how Israeli public opinion reacted to shelling from Gaza. She was, like the mood there, blunt and uncompromising: Israeli military doctrine was to attack whenever people felt threatened.

Then back to Gaza for an exclusive interview with Khaled Meshaal, a Hamas political leader, who said he had offered Israel a ceasefire which it had scorned. Then on to another Middle Eastern tragedy, Darfur. There was no siding with Sudan on this one: the reporter, Andrew Simmons, was as hard-hitting as the pictures of the refugees and the squalor, which seems far more telling than those seen on Western channels. He also had a good scoop – an interview with the rebel leader of the refugees.

At last, a break with an update on the tsunami. I’d been wondering what had happened. The answer, according to the quick switch to the Kuala Lumpur studio, was nothing. No waves yet.

And now came one of the stars – Rageh Omaar, the “scud stud” of the Iraq war, lured at reportedly great expense from the BBC. He was in Tehran to look at the impact of Tony Blair’s recent speech. There didn’t seem to be any. No one cared. But he found an excited professor to excoriate the West’s impudence for demanding Iranian help while maintaining sanctions and pressure.

So far it had been a rather depressing diet. All were hard-hitting stories. All were the stuff that generates anger and turmoil in the world. And in a masterstroke, al-Jazeera also had its own man in Zimbabwe, where the BBC is banned, and broadcast a damning indictment of “policies that are destroying Zimbabwe”. It may find its correspondent doesn’t last there long.

I had no political quarrel with the coverage. Yes, it gave plenty of time to issues from and about the Middle East. That’s natural. It was pretty careful not to distort or to use loaded language. It was slick, fast-paced and thoroughly professional.

Earlier, in a puff for its own coverage in the first 10 years, it showed Donald Rumsfeld’s denunciation of the station as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable”. Well, he’s gone now. Al-Jazeera is still there. And I think, judging by its launch, it will find a loyal market in the wider world.