By Elliot Adams
As much as I like to claim I hate blogging, it does provide an alternative outlet for my irritation to that of repeatedly bitching to my girlfriend about the same topics untill my fickle humming-birdesque mind flutters off to extract chagrin-necter from a new source. Of late she has been putting up with my gripes about presumptions old people, the borderline-corruption of the SNP and, most frequently, the painful cuts to the BBC World Service.
World Service is facing severe reduction of non-news programming, losing radio broadcasting in seven languages, stopping service fully in five further languages, closing hundreds of posts, cutting airtime down across the board and through all this reducing its audience by a conservatively predicted 30 million.
I have posted before praising the work the BBC World Service do globally – specifically the World Service Trust which provides media infrastructure as a form of international aid – so it isn’t surprising that I consider these cuts a loss. But my concern goes further than this, weakening the World Service at this time poses a threat to democracy and the international free press. For how and why, we should look to the small Gulf state of Qatar.
Qatar is the home of ever-controversial news broadcaster Al Jazeera, the strongest contender of a number of state-funded broadcasters ready to fight for a monopoly in territory World Service is being forced to withdraw from.
It’s not that I’m taking a dig at Al Jazeera here, there is much the fledgling broadcaster should be commended for.
They have been refreshingly progressive, as with their creative commons release of photographs and video footage(free to publish as long as you attribute it correctly) or their social media experiment The Stream, which, instead of reporting, merely use a selection of extracts from twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social networking sites – it has predictably been an abject failure, but the point is they tried to stir things up technologically.
Likewise they stir things up politically, they haven’t just been reporting recent
pro-democracy uprisings, they have been catalysing them and one can’t help but feel sympathy for their plight in facing the threats and attacks of government forces in Cairo. As they did before in Iraq, being bombed by both the US airforce and by factions loyal to Saddam. Yet in both situations they provided fast on-the-ground coverage where others could not.
But this is Al Jazeera English, a slick and professional media operation – shaped in its early days by BBC staff and now itself staffed by many former employees of the BBC and it’s counterparts from Australia, the USA, Canada and the rest of the English-speaking world. It has no significant bias and covers the needs of a large international news agenda. But Al Jazeera Arabic is a different story. Long anti-western rants commonly pass without evidence or counter argument, there is a suggestion that its sympathies lie wholly with Islamist extremism as an ideology and its bias becomes disturbingly clear on a number of issues, especially on Israel and the occupied territories.
for example, watch this Al Jazeera English coverage of Lebanese man Samir Kuntar’s release from the prison term he served for remorselessly murdering a four-year-old Israeli girl – caving her skull in on the ground with his rifle butt. The coverage uses journalistic distance to observe and record the positive welcome he receives on release.
Now compare this footage from Al Jazeera‘s normal service, where the sycophantic interviewer tells us beloved “brother Samir” “deserves more than this” at the party Al Jazeera throws for Kuntar – complete with fireworks and a personalised cake.
This fork-tongued coverage is the least of it though, more troubling is when Al Jazeera walks in hand with the will of Qatar’s absolute monarchy. For example Al Jazeera has enthusiastically embraced pro-democracy movements in Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Libya, but has strangely been downplaying events in Bahrain. This point is subjective and just my opinion, but it is one shared by Al Jazeera’s Beirut bureau chief who resigned on that same opinion. The Emir of Qatar, like Al Jazeera supports change in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria – but not in neighbouring Bahrain, where he has sent Qatari troops to quiet the revolt.
Al Jazeera allows Qatar to exert cultural influence on a scale previously unavailable to it through military or economical means, which perhaps explains the Emir’s astronomically great investment in a cutting-edge communications satellite to extend Al Jazeera’s reach deeper into Africa and Central-Asia.
The Emir of Qatar isn’t the only one to be trying to exert international power through the opinion-shaping power of international state-funded broadcasting. Iran has its Press TV, President Putin has The Voice of Russia(previously Radio Moscow) now broadcasting in 38 languages, and on television Putin’s media advisor Mikhail Lesin created Russia Today – broadcasting in English, Spanish and Arabic to echo Putin’s interests and prejudices. Whereas President Hu Jin-tao of the People’s Republic of China has already committed billions to the “fierce struggle in the domain of [international] news and opinion.” Lobbyists are getting in on he fight too, with billionaire Alex Mashkevich announcing what has been dubbed the ‘Jewish Al Jazeera’ to broadcast Pro-Israel opinion internationally.
I know that it may seem like an expensive extravagance to be providing news and other broadcasting around the world. But being selfish for a moment, I honestly don’t think that we can afford to leave large parts of the world with their international news dominated by propaganda outlets, denied impartial and honest news, to be aggressively lectured everyday by powers who’s aims and values are so directly opposed to that of the free society. I do not agree with this notion (that Clinton, Putin and Hu Jin-tao suggest) of a global war for influence in the airwaves, if BBC World Service(whether you believe they are truly impartial or not) is there to insure that there is more than one voice, more than one account, more than one truth – then it limits the options of those who would seek a monopoly for their voice, they must debate, they must engage with democracy and then their war is already over.