Nearly two years after its launch and having secured a presence in at least 100 countries, Al Jazeera English, the 24-hour international news channel from the Doha, Qatar-based Al Jazeera Network, is awaiting final clearances to broadcast in India. The channel is positioning itself as an alternative to the Western perspective in the coverage of international affairs by BBC and CNN.
In May, the network hired Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) journalist Tony Burman as the managing director of the English channel. Burman was the editor-in-chief of CBC News between 2002 and 2007 and had been with the public broadcaster for 35 years. Campaign met the award-winning journalist during a recent visit to New Delhi. Edited excerpts:
You came to Al Jazeera from CBC. Do you see many differences in the way the two firms function?
No, if anything, I see more similarities. CBC and BBC are public broadcasters that are paid for by the people of those countries. Al Jazeera is also paid for by the government of Qatar. My experience has been that there is absolutely no interference from the government. I’m in charge of Al Jazeera English and the freedom I have is as comprehensive as I had in Canada. The code of ethics that drives Al Jazeera is very similar to the one we had at CBC or the one that exists at BBC.
A lot of journalists who join Al Jazeera—and we have staffers from more than 30 countries—are driven by the same missionary zeal that attracts journalists to the BBC or the CBC.
A careful viewer of Al Jazeera would realize that we are very different from CNN or BBC because we are not really based in one country. We have four broadcast centres— Kuala Lumpur in Asia, Doha in West Asia, London in Europe, and Washington in America. The goal we have at Al Jazeera is to let the world report on itself.
Does Al Jazeera have a regional focus?
Al Jazeera provides a southern perspective to international affairs. BBC, much as I respect it, gives a British or European perspective, and CNN gives an American perspective. Al Jazeera is the only international news network that looks at the world from the perspective of the southern hemisphere.
Our commitment is also to cover far more of the world than you’d see on other international channels. Our coverage of Africa, Latin America, Asia, South Asia is quite extensive. Our quest is to satisfy the millions of viewers around the world who look at the world with a broad perspective, not in a narrow manner. We have 70 bureaus around the world—far more than any other network.
Tony Burman of Al Jazeera English. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Are you a profitable venture?
The intention of Al Jazeera is to be cost-neutral in time. That means we should be able to generate enough money to offset what all these bureaus cost. I think we’ll take several years to reach that point. As a network, we need to continue to improve our distribution.
All the big global networks, be it BBC World, CNN or Fox, achieved effective worldwide distribution after several years. CNN, for instance, which was created in 1980, didn’t quite make an impact until the Gulf War of 1991. So, it took 11 years for that to happen.
What is amazing about Al Jazeera English up to this point is that it is distributed in more than 120 million homes worldwide already.
It isn’t, sadly, distributed in India yet. But we are determined to obtain the licences as soon as possible and make that happen because of the importance of India and also because that would allow us to increase the coverage of India.
The Emir of Qatar created Al Jazeera and from what I understand, his vision is that Al Jazeera should become a cost-neutral organization. We are trying to create different sources of revenue.
Do you also have some revenue from subscription or are you a free-to-air channel worldwide?
We are distributed differently depending on the dynamics of each market. But in India we are likely to take the free-to-air route, at least initially.
You repeatedly compare yourself with CNN and BBC. But have you achieved a reputation for unbiased coverage yet of the kind that these networks enjoy? Isn’t there a perception that Al Jazeera has its own biases? Your coverage of the Iraq war was controversial.
I don’t think we at Al Jazeera English have a bias. I don’t think there has been any assertion with evidence and examples being cited that we have, in fact, a bias. Al Jazeera English has Western journalists as well as journalists from across the world.
If you look at our coverage with respect to BBC or CNN, a lot of people would argue that there is actually less bias. What I would challenge, with respect, is your assertion that there is no bias in some of these other channels. I think there is a bias. It’s a Western bias, it’s a northern bias. One may accept it and say an American bias on the coverage of the world is satisfactory but I think a lot of people do not find that satisfactory.
I think what Al Jazeera English is trying to do is to provide an alternative to that. A lot of stereotypes associated with Al Jazeera relate to the Iraq war, relate to the tension between the US administration and a lot of West Asia countries.
Al Jazeera Arabic was on air during the events of 11 September (2001), and during the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan, it was the only network to have correspondents in that country. It then reported objectively that contrary to American claims, civilians were getting affected, which, of course, have subsequently been proven to be correct. The response of the Bush-Rumsfeld administration then was to say this is all bias and you are a terror-supporting network. If one goes carefully, as I have, before I joined Al Jazeera, into some of the stereotypes attached to Al Jazeera Arabic, you’d find that most of it is politically partisan fabrications, to be quite frank.
There were reports last year that the Qatar government is under a lot of pressure from the US administration to sell the network and disassociate itself from it.
I should be careful speaking about what happened then since I joined just a few months ago. From my perspective, as the professional responsible for what we put out on this channel 24 hours, I get no pressure from the Qatari government whatsoever. And I think the commitment of the Qatari government towards the Al Jazeera organization, in general, remains very strong, and I don’t see that changing.
It is inevitable that the US administration will put pressure on both their friends and enemies for their own reasons, but that’s just part of life. The key issue is whether that pressure is working or not and certainly, to my knowledge, that pressure is not working.
Have you enjoyed healthy revenue growth so far?
I can’t comment about the larger organization; the English channel has been on air only for just about a year. But yes, our revenues grow as we widen our distribution and while we were at 100 million households at the beginning of the year, we are already at 120 million now.
There are plans for an Urdu channel and there were even reports that the organization wants to launch a global newspaper.
I think there is a determination on Al Jazeera’s part to create partnerships with regional broadcasters and creating channels such as Urdu here in India would satisfy a large part of the population. I think we are right now in the process of collectively looking at it and trying to decide if this is feasible.
Once you have the regulatory approvals to beam in India, would you also scale up coverage?
Yes, our desire is not only to be distributed widely in India but also to increase our coverage of India for Indian audiences and international audiences as much as possible and as quickly as possible. We are terribly aware of India’s importance not only in the region but also internationally. There is a hunger out there to understand South Asia better.
We are also looking to forge partnerships with local broadcasters in India and everywhere so that we can bring to our audiences the kind of coverage that local journalists alone can sometimes do.
So, the idea is that in every country there would be the Al Jazeera English channel and then there would be the Al Jazeera connected channel in the local language.