It all went wrong for Giles Trendle, the acting managing editor of Al Jazeera English, when the audience was allowed to ask questions
How Al Jazeera panel in London went off-script for the network
The body language of Giles Trendle, the acting managing editor of Al Jazeera English, told a story radically different from the bullish account he was giving of the news network's journalism and global impact.
His shoulders were slumped, his eyes fixed at the floor and he had the air of a man waiting for the gallows. Trendle was part of a panel discussion in London on the Qatar-bankrolled network, which Doha has been ordered to close by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.
The reason for Trendle's body language was that the discussion had gone off-script. Al Jazeera was under assault from an audience of journalists and media watchers. The sharpest attacks were coming from former employees, who criticised its editorial policies and personnel management.
If that wasn't enough to make Trendle wish for the sanctuary of the newsroom, the sounds of a street demonstration against the network were also filtering through the windows of the second-floor room.
It was all supposed to be different. The event at the Frontline Club, a gathering place for journalists, was themed as an opportunity to defend free media. The panel chosen by the club had no overly hostile members, with Trendle sat alongside Wadah Khanfar, former director general of the Al Jazeera Media Network and David Hearst, who runs another news outlet ordered to be closed by the four countries boycotting Qatar.
This perception was reinforced by the fact that just days before the event the original chair of the panel discussion, the well-regarded security correspondent of the BBC, Frank Gardner, had pulled out, citing concerns from his employer over the neutrality of the debate.
From the opening addresses by each of the panelists, it appeared those concerns were vindicated. Hearst, the editor of online news organisation Middle East Eye, defended Al Jazeera (and himself against claims that he took Qatari money), while Dr Marc Jones from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University provided an academic view of the issue that included little criticism of Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the two Al Jazeera men — for this was an exclusively male panel, with Saudi video journalist Safar Al Ahmad the only woman on the platform as chair — were adamant in their claims that despite funding from Qatar there had never been attempts by the government to impose editorial influence.
It all went wrong for Trendle when the audience was allowed to ask questions. The opening salvos were delivered by Anita McNaught, a former special correspondent for Al Jazeera who resigned in 2014 after six years of being based in Istanbul and reporting on Turkey and beyond, and William Horsley, a former BBC journalist who now heads an organisation championing media freedom.
McNaught passionately asked why Qatar had allowed the most respected English-language international news channel in the world to be destroyed by letting a Muslim Brotherhood agenda creep into its Middle East coverage. She cited specific points that were met with a laugh from Khanfar, prompting a furious riposte from McNaught. “Don’t laugh Wadah!,” she scolded.
Then there was the intervention from Horsley, the international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media. He demanded to know why Al Jazeera was not honouring promises of compensation made to journalists who were arrested and imprisoned in Egypt, and whose careers have been ruined as a result.
Perhaps the most telling and awkward moment for Trendle came when a former AJE staffer who had worked in Doha talked about disgruntlement on the ground there, and spoke of an exodus of talent from the network: “There are a lot of leaving dos in Doha by staff that have been there for years,” they said.
The audience member then baldly posed the question: Are you going to use the current crisis as an excuse to close the English language network?
“I think [it] will survive,” was the best Trendle could muster.