Has Al Jazeera come of age in the ‘Arab Spring’?

Will the protest movements in the Arab world be a turning point for Al Jazeera English (AJE)? Could the ‘Arab Spring’ be AJE’s equivalent of CNN’s ‘Scud moment’ – when Ted Turner’s 24-hour news channel from Atlanta achieved recognition breakthrough in the 1991 Gulf War?

Senior AJE presenter Stephen Cole (below) – a BBC defector – told a Coventry Conversations audience last week that he felt the $750 million (£460 million) pumped into AJE by its Arab owners was at long last paying dividends in reputation and influence.

He went on to claim that AJE’s coverage of recent events was “better than the BBC”, thanks to its network of correspondents and crews on the ground throughout the Arab world. Where the BBC parachuted people in, AJE (the English-language offshoot of Al Jazeera) had them there already.

At a human cost, though: one of its cameramen, Ali Hassan Al Jaber, had recently been murdered in Libya.

Writes John Mair…

Cole was well across the responsibility associated with ‘Al Jaz’s influence: the ‘revolutionaries’ talked to Al Jazeera because they knew they could get their voices heard; the rulers to see what was going down. “If people are joined in a dialogue, they are not as frightened,” in Cole’s words.

AJE is on the side of truth and freedom at whatever the cost, he said.

That was not always the perception. In its early days, Al Jazeera (Arabic) was labelled “Al Qaeda TV” by Donal

d Rumsf

eld, then US Defence Secretary. Relations with the US government have since thawed considerably, Cole said, following ‘a bilateral’ with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That has “cleared the air”.

AJE set out five years ago from its Knightsbridge studios with big budgets and big ambitions. Big names like Sir D

avid Frost signed up. Money was no object thanks to the deep pockets of the ruler of Qatar. For example, as Cole pointed out, covering the two referendums in Sudan last year cost AJE $1 million.

Cole was coyer on what he cost the station. But so taken is he with the AJE way that he may soon be heading to its home base in Doha to present from there. Indeed, AJE is currently offering 20 jobs there.

The historic events in North Africa have bloodied Al Jazeera English. But the broadcasting world is now it

s oyster, with US cable channels queuing up to carry the service. Africa is next.

John Mair started and produces the weekly Coventry Conversations at Coventry University, which are available as a podcast. Many thanks to BBC College of Journalism.

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