Bombed, Banned, and Ridiculed - But Al-Jazeera Goes English and Hits 100 Million Homes
Stepping out of his studio at Al Jazeera English and striding purposefully on to the street, Sir David Paradine Frost seems impervious to London's winter chill, as he briefly adjourns from filming and heads up Knightsbridge to the Library Bar of the Lanesborough hotel, where the staff nod to him in recognition and the barman promptly reaches for a bottle of the presenter's favourite Chablis.
"Good-sized glasses," he says approvingly, settling down at a corner table. "A nice bit of refreshment in the middle of the day." Sir David, 68, is enjoying life, one year after he raised eyebrows in political and journalistic quarters by signing up to the Emir of Qatar's ambitious plans to transform global news coverage.
The presence of this most high-profile of television interviewers on the fledgling network has been of incalculable value to a media organisation that still suffers pariah status in large parts of American society and a tense relationship with the Washington administration. The station's offices were attacked by US forces in Baghdad and Kabul; George Bush commented to Tony Blair that the network's headquarters in Doha should be bombed.
Yet the Friday show Frost Over the World has in its first 12 months secured interviews with the former secretaries of state James Baker and Madeleine Albright and the retired four-star general Wesley Clark, not to mention such international political figures as Tony Blair, Benazir Bhutto, Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and Gerry Adams.
"It has been a terrific experience, everything they said it would be in terms of total editorial freedom and coming up with the facilities around the world when we need them," says Sir David, scooping peanuts out of a dish. "I ran into [the former Chancellor of the Exchequer] Norman Lamont the other day and he said, 'I'm a news junkie but now I always watch Al Jazeera English first because you keep telling me things I didn't know.' I think that is a rather good slogan for a station, actually: telling people things they don't know."
Having launched franchises such as London Weekend Television in 1967 and TV-am in 1982 - "I love new stations and new challenges" - he has always been a broadcasting pioneer. But Al Jazeera English is far more than Sir David Frost's Friday foray into politics and culture. It is a station that follows the sun as it moves around the globe. Early-morning coverage emanates from Kuala Lumpur, and is transferred at 10am to Doha in the Gulf; the London bureau takes centre stage at 8pm before handing over to Washington at 11pm, Greenwich Mean Time. At all times, the station is attempting to provide an alternative to what it sees as the Western perspective of rivals CNN and BBC World, offering a "south to north" interpretation of the news. In its first 12 months, the network has far exceeded its expectations, reaching 100 million homes, though it is shunned by most cable networks in the US, where it relies heavily on its website stream. The station's stars include Rageh Omaar, best known as the BBC correspondent in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the former BBC World anchor Stephen Cole, and the former US marine turned TV presenter Josh Rushing.
Inside the London bureau, near Hyde Park Corner, strict security reflects the al-Qa'ida fatwah that was issued against the station over its coverage of a recent Osama bin Laden video. There is more than a little irony in this, given the accusations faced by the station - which is banned from Saudi Arabia - from critics who say that it publicises the actions of the terror network.
A group of senior Al Jazeera journalists have convened in an airy room adjoining an atrium filled with small trees in planters. By conference call to Doha, they are negotiating the day's running order. "We have pictures of bodies being dragged through the streets - there's enough for a package," says an English voice in Doha, commenting on unrest in Mogadishu.
Many of the 160 London-based staff have considerable experience gained at more established news networks. Ben Rayner, the head of news, is a former editor of the now-defunct ITV News Channel. He says that AJE has distinct news values from its rivals. "There is an obsession in the West with celebrity. You just have to see a story like Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith and the amount of coverage those stories have got in the West. Stories out of Washington and London are quite often uncritically accepted. Pronouncements are given great coverage just because they come from those places - whereas we are trying to shift the balance," he says. "It's looking at the world from south to north, challenging received perspectives as to what the news agenda is. There's no domestic agenda. BBC World still does a lot of British news and CNN is very much looking at the world through American eyes."
With Pakistan in political meltdown, Al Jazeera has three crews in the country. "We have a permanent Pakistan bureau staffed by local people, we have people who have lived there for years and who know exactly what the story is, whereas ITN are sending in people from Beijing who aren't based in Pakistan," Rayner says. He speculates that Sky News will that day be concentrating on the murder in Italy of the British student Meredith Kercher. "That's a story we wouldn't particularly cover on Al Jazeera. It doesn't have the same ripple in terms of news events."
The Middle East is rarely absent for long from the Al Jazeera output, but the network is not exclusively dedicated to covering the Islamic world. "We are not a channel for Muslim viewers - we are a channel for the whole world," Rayner says. "But clearly we are Al Jazeera, we are going to attract, by our name, more viewers who are interested in the Middle East."
A story on nomads in Niger is one he says other channels would not cover in such depth. Africa is an important region for Al Jazeera English, where it can take advantage of the Al Jazeera Arabic network of bureaux and the millions of English speakers across the continent.
Asked about the bloody content of some of Al Jazeera's coverage, Rayner says that his audience is different from that of the BBC Six O'Clock News. "We try to avoid sanitising war. There are still taste and decency issues as to what you show, but I would not expect young children to be watching Al Jazeera."
In the newsroom, Stephen Cole, who shares Sir David's predilection for red socks, is preparing to go on air. He was among the first to join the new venture, which he says was greeted with unjustified criticism. "They thought they knew what the channel was about, but because it was only shown in Arabic they didn't have a clue. I was with Sky in 1989 and that was criticised as Murdoch's Page Three television. It turned out to be an award-winning 24-hour news channel." He says the ambition of Al Jazeera is unlikely to be matched again. "It's such an expensive operation to launch a news channel. You only need a breaking story and all ads are chucked in the bin - it's like a licence to lose money."
For Cole, the Al Jazeera English proposition has opened doors in high places: he has just returned from Africa, where he interviewed the presidents of Rwanda and Malawi. "We talked about the need to get connected through the mobile phone, as opposed to the PC, which I see as the catalyst to empowering Africa." He has also been backed by the station in doing reports on organised crime in Bulgaria and corruption in Romania.
The London bureau is overseen by Sue Phillips, an English-born veteran of the Canadian public broadcaster CBC, whose office has a poster showing a bomb going off and the quote "Telling the truth is hard. Not telling it is even harder." She says that during its first 12 months, AJE has established itself as an alternative to the more established news broadcasters. "I see clear examples where we have gone with Darfur and everybody else is going with Gordon Brown has done this or George Bush has done that. We are not afraid," she says. Rivals are having to up their games: CNN last week opened a new hub in the United Arab Emirates as part of the biggest expansion in international news-gathering in its history.
The Al Jazeera English rolling news output is broken up with specialist programming, such as the documentary strand Witness, presented by Omaar, the entertainment programme The Fabulous Picture Show, and the travel-based 48. Flora Gregory, who joined AJE from Channel 4 and is the producer of Witness, scours the world for films that will appeal to the Al Jazeera audience. Her highlights have been Being Osama, a documentary about six Canadians who happen to share a first name with Bin Laden, and Another Road Home, the search by an Israeli-born woman, Danae Elon, for the male Palestinian house servant who looked after her as a child. "We are not lowering the quality boundaries," says Gregory. "We are reflecting a side of life that doesn't get a look in at other channels." Omaar, who comes up to say hello, has made several films himself, most notably a report from the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad shortly before it came under siege from Pakistani troops in the summer.
Sir David Frost will this week be "off to Chogham" - not a comfortable jaunt into the Home Counties but a long haul to Kampala for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). It will be an opportunity for him to add President Museveni of Uganda to the list of heads of state whom he has interviewed this year (and who include the leaders of Brazil, Somalia, Finland and New Zealand, countries sometimes overlooked by rivals). The last time he was in Uganda, in the Seventies, he interviewed Idi Amin, who offered to assist the Queen in achieving peace in Northern Ireland. At a previous CHOGM, he persuaded Robert Mugabe to go on camera. "That was 10 or 15 years ago, and he hadn't really completed his transition from respected leader to the world's bÃƒÂªte noire." As ever with Frost, though, his Al Jazeera show is not just politics. He secured the first television sit-down with Lewis Hamilton ahead of his first Grand Prix victory, and on Friday he interviewed Jean Michel Jarre.
He drains his glass just in time, for his producer, Charlie Courtauld, with his Tom Baker scarf, checked suit, boating pumps and walking stick, is almost at the hotel door to fetch his presenter back to the studio. Frost says his first year on Al Jazeera has been "exhilarating", which in spite of the channel's critics he always knew it would be. "It helped when people realised that the Emir of Qatar, the owner of Al Jazeera, is our most important ally in the Middle East, meaning Britain and America's ally. All our planes are there, all our airmen are there, all our soldiers are there. It's clearly not an al-Qa'ida hangout," he says. "But I did check that out at the beginning."
© 2007 The Independent