x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Jazeera English's future hinges on results of US elections

So far, the Doha-based broadcaster has been unable to break into the lucrative US cable market.

So far, the Doha-based broadcaster, whose staff of more than 1,200 in 29 bureaus gives it a reach into households in 100 countries that rivals the BBC or CNN, has been unable to break into the lucrative US cable market. But Tony Burman, the broadcaster's managing director, believes the choice the American people make today will have a direct impact on the fortunes of the international news channel.

"The prospect of an Obama victory in the US will turn on its head the whole American relationship with the rest of the world," he said. "I think historians will circle November 2008 as a new point of departure for international affairs. That's incredibly exciting and for an international news organisation like Al Jazeera, it's very important. We believe that not only Americans but people worldwide will look to this new era with great interest and curiosity, and will make international organisations like Al Jazeera even more important."

In preparation for this new, post-Bush era, the broadcaster, which was launched two years ago, has been recruiting in far-flung markets. In particular, it has been advertising for an array of positions throughout the Middle East and Asia, a move that Mr Burman called "an expression of our commitment to diversity of our staff", noting that it already had 45 nationalities represented. While the exact locations of new bureaus was still under discussion, he said the organisation was expanding.

"Al Jazeera is committed to strengthening its news coverage at a time when a lot of news organisations are cutting back, particularly cutting back their international coverage," Mr Burman said. "I think in that sense, our goal is to really fill that vacuum. I think that in January 2009 with the inauguration of a new US president, world interest in international affairs will be at a peak. We are positioning ourselves in a way that we can respond to that."

Already, the broadcaster has had some success getting through to US viewers, in spite of its blocked attempts to get cable carriage, by using a dedicated channel on YouTube. The broadcaster says 60 per cent of the channel's hits come from within the US. Two weeks ago, they spiked into the millions after Al Jazeera reporter Casey Kauffman's report on an Oct 12 Sarah Palin rally in St Clairesville, Ohio. The report featured supporters of Ms Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, calling Mr Obama a "negro" and saying, "I'm afraid if he wins, the blacks will take over. He's not a Christian! This is a Christian nation! What is our country gonna end up like?"

It got the attention of Colbert I King, a columnist at the Washington Post, who wrote in a piece titled "A Rage No One Should Be Stoking" that "it is no accident that the English-language operation of Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language news network, tried to capture and broadcast to the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere a glimpse of America's more sinister side... Was this fodder served up by Al-Jazeera to feed anti-American sentiment overseas? To be sure. But the camera didn't lie. Did Al-Jazeera, however, record the whole truth?"

Mr Burman said he resented the notion that the report was an example of anti-Americanism, and responded in a letter to the Washington Post that Al Jazeera's international news channels, both English and Arabic, have devoted "more air time to covering this campaign than perhaps any other network" and that the overarching story that America seemed poised to elect its first black president "reflects exceptionally well on Americans and its democracy".

In his five months since taking the helm of the station, Mr Burman has grown accustomed to defending it against charges of anti-Americanism, often associated with the station because of its feisty Arabic-language sister station's choices to run Osama bin Laden videos. During the past summer, he travelled to Burlington, Vermont - one of two places in the US where the station was available on the airwaves - to defend the network against charges that it supported militants and was anti-American and anti-Israeli, the Burlington Free Press reported.

He has said he believes it is a combination of political and commercial factors that keeps the channel off the air in most of the US, a situation that will change when the administration changes. He points to the channel's ability to shape the debate about the US election from its YouTube presence alone as evidence that the American public is hungry for a news outlet that will cover territory that home-grown broadcasters, because of their own political and commercial pressures, are too cautious to touch.

"It was just good journalism," he said of Casey Kauffman's piece. khagey@thenational.ae