Mumbai: Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera plans to broadcast its English-language news channel, Al Jazeera English, in India. Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, was in Mumbai recently to announce the launch. In an interview, he says India is potentially a key market for the network, and it may also consider operations in Hindi and other Indian languages in the future. Edited excerpts:
What are some of the key markets for Al Jazeera?
Al Jazeera Arabic has got an incredibly high profile and incredibly loyal viewership across the Middle East region for the simple reason that that is where people predominately speak Arabic. It has a very loyal audience in the United States and various areas around the world, including France. Al Jazeera English now has a quarter of a million household reach or thereabouts. That is a fantastic achievement. I think we started with 80 million households when we launched. We have very healthy distribution across the Middle East, Africa, through much of East Asia, across Europe. In (the) UK, we have a 100% of households in terms of reach on the three main providers.
America is a challenge ..some of it is because it is a full market, so everyone is vying for limited bandwidth. There is also a perception issue and as we build the brand—and we are at this stage where we are brand building, gaining trust and gaining reputation—then there is exponential potential for growth of viewership. But at the moment we have to tackle perception that came out of the legacy of the Gulf War with Al Jazeera Arabic, but we need to tackle that and prove to people that we are a highest quality international news channel. But we have a campaign at the moment at all levels pushing through the United States of America and getting recognized for what we are.
Where does India feature in your plans?
As far as India is concerned, it is a key market and we are very excited about it. We have been going through a sensible, robust process, which is part of the system here in India of getting the landing licence and we are nearing completion on that. We have got a great willingness from the operators to carry us, so we’re quite confident. The first step is to bring and build the trust, and therefore the reputation of Al Jazeera. Once that is done, we’ll evaluate what we want to push ahead. So, as far as the network is concerned, one step at a time.
After the launch of Al Jazeera English, would you also look to launch regional news channels in India?
The Al Jazeera network is looking to reach out to new viewers all the time. In terms of television screen distribution, India is very important. We are actively looking at launching into other languages globally and are examining such options for India as well. For example, if we were to do something in the Hindi market, it will give us a whole new viewership base. I cannot give an affirmative word on whether we are going ahead or not, whether we launch with a potential partner or who we see as our potential partners, it’s too soon to tell.
Global expansion plans?
We are exploring a whole lot of options in order to get more content. We are expanding our news gathering base and are adding news bureaus around the globe. We are looking (at) adding bureaus in Asia—Hong Kong and South Korea. And also in Paris, Berlin and Latin America. When it comes to consolidation and building, India and the United States are our two key focal points. We’ve got a campaign at different levels to move into the United States and are evaluating entry into India. We are very healthily distributed in Africa and are looking closely at East Asia, where we want to push out.
What sets you apart from other news channels?
I talk a lot about news gathering and the bureau reach. We, in the English channel, have a collective reach with (Al Jazeera) Arabic of 65-plus bureaux and three broadcast centrals in Kuala Lumpur, London and (Washington) DC. That is terribly important because what that enables us to do is what I call “sharp end reporting”. It’s our correspondents on the ground, eye-witnessing a story for themselves and telling our viewers first hand about that story. And I think especially, look at the industry right now—through understandable economic pressures, so many companies are having to contract their news gathering base, so that first-hand journalism I fear is ever decreasing in the world. Of course, there are commercial pressures because of fragmentation of the market that creates even further pressures.
We are building up a news gather base where we can truly tell stories first-hand from all over the globe and from India and I think that is one of the key elements that demarcates us, that puts us into a position whereby coming into India, we truly have something different to offer. If you look at our coverage worldwide, I could quote so many examples: during the Gaza war, for example, we had two correspondents in Gaza during that conflict. We were one of the very, very, few companies, along with our colleagues at AJA (Al Jazeera Arabic), who were actually able to cover it from the ground.
There is a machinery of spin that exists in this globe to stop news companies from telling the truth or try and steer us in a certain direction. The way to tackle that is to be on the ground, witnessing that story and reporting it first-hand to our viewers. Beyond that it’s important to practice journalism of depth and really provide context so people understand why a story is important and what it means. And one of the important aspects of what we do is to give voice to the people who are disenfranchised by so many broadcasters, and reaching out to parts of the developing world, which we can truly cover. A story on Boston isn’t necessarily more important than a story on Bangladesh. You have to put the world on a level-playing field and evaluate each story and its merits. And you’re going to change that flow of information from the West into East and North to South, and actually put stories and countries on the map in a news agenda, which quite frankly (are) not covered right now. The job of the journalist is to challenge and try and dig as close to the truth as you can. And that is why (at) Al Jazeera we have gotten thrown out of some countries such as Iraq and Jordan, because of what we do. And often times, it’s because we have done our job too well.
How is your approach different from CNN and BBC?
If I were to look at the legacy of BBC and CNN and some of the other international competitors, I think that they are doing a brilliant job. What we have to offer—that’s different from them—is a level playing field. Al Jazeera English is a channel that is truly international. We put stories and countries on the map which are frankly not covered much at the moment. A lot of our viewership comes from Asia, Latin America, Africa and we address that balance. That’s what we offer—which is different from and distinct to other international networks. Having said that, I think there’s space for all of us to exist. There’s a market for BBC and there’s a market for Al Jazeera.
In India, there’s a live debate on content regulation going on.
Al Jazeera was one of the first to give a free voice to the Middle East. What we do is the opposite of parachute journalism—ours is the journalism of depth. Content regulation debates are there across countries. The same debate (over content) is very active across the Middle East too. India has got a rich culture—it’s diverse and there are complex issues every day. There’ a huge political debate and you’re right, there’s a very live debate on content regulation. It’s a journalistic challenge. Our challenge is to understand all these different issues of India and to articulate them on our channel. There’s globalization happening. A new world order is emerging. And India’s part is critical.
A lot of your content is regarded as controversial. especially when it comes to Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s videos and Western hostages being beheaded.
These are what I would call well-articulated misconceptions. We ran some of the Osama bin Laden tapes, but so did everyone else. We applied the same standards of scrutiny to every one of those tapes as any other media company. We broadcast only those parts which are editorially justified. Al Jazeera has the same standards of journalistic integrity as some of the best media companies in the world.
There’s an impression out there that whatever bin Laden content comes, we put it in. It’s a perception problem. It’s a part of our brand building programme now to see that these misconceptions are dispelled.