This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 20, 2006
Al-Jazeera Is Coming to Canadian Airwaves
Al-Jazeera's controversial - and long delayed - English language news channel finally hits the air on Nov. 15, but with such little fanfare that its debut is shaping up to be more of a cringe than a launch.
A globe-spanning, 24-hour would-be competitor to CNN, Fox News and the BBC, al-Jazeera International has spent tens of millions constructing state-of-the-art HD broadcast centres in Washington, London, Kuala Lumpur and Doha, Qatar - home base of its parent Arabic-language channel. Financed by the natural gas fortune of the country's emir, the fledgling network has hired more than 500 journalists from 30 nations, including stars like Sir David Frost, Riz Khan, former CNN International anchor, and Dave Marash, ex of ABC's Nightline. A number of Canadian broadcasters have also signed on, including Kimberly Halkett, formerly a Global TV anchor, ex-CBC sportscaster Brendan Connor, and Richard Gizbert, a long-time ABC News correspondent.
But with less than a week to go until AJI hits the air, there are few details available about its programming, or even how viewers around the globe are supposed to tune in. The network, which aims to be available in up to 40 million households worldwide at launch, is being exceptionally tight-lipped about who will be carrying its signals, especially in North America. "We don't have any specifics to discuss at this point," says Marc Smrikarov, a New York-based network spokesman. "We're kind of holding off on making those announcements."
AJI has had considerable trouble selling itself to cable and satellite providers who fear a backlash from pressure groups and customers over its parent company's perceived terrorist sympathies. Al-Jazeera has become a favourite target of American conservatives who allege the network operates as a propaganda arm for al-Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups. Two of its employees are in jail - one in Spain, the other at Guantánamo Bay - for "collaborating" with terrorist groups, although the company maintains their innocence. U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq "accidentally" bombed the network's bureaus. And in 2004, George W. Bush reportedly tried to sell Tony Blair on a bizarre plan to attack al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar - a U.S.-friendly nation. The Arab-language channel also faced vociferous opposition from the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith when it sought a domestic broadcast licence two years ago. The CRTC eventually gave its approval, but under such onerous conditions that carriers were scared away.
AJI's brain trust, who declined to be interviewed for this article, have mused about streaming the new channel on the Internet to avoid such battles. And at this point, it doesn't appear that the English network has a Canadian cable or satellite provider lined up. Peter Bissonnette, president of Shaw Communications Inc., says his company has had no contact whatsoever with the network and will wait to see if there is any demand for the service. Rogers, which held preliminary discussions last spring, says it has no plans to air the channel. Quebec's Vidéotron, which also held talks, is in the same boat. And most tellingly, the CRTC, which must license the channel for broadcast - cable, digital or satellite - in Canada, has yet to receive an application.
Treading lightly in North America's hostile markets may just be sound business strategy. The network's real target audience lives in non-Arab Muslim nations like Indonesia and Pakistan, where al-Jazeera's brand is already well-known and respected. But there are other dangers associated with the new project. Fans of the famously independent-minded Arab service will be looking for reassurance that the company has not "gone soft" on Western powers. And Internet sites are already abuzz with charges that AJI's mostly British executives have brought along a decidedly more pro-U.S. and pro-Israel bent.
The official explanation for the delays that have plagued AJI - the launch has been postponed a half-dozen times so far - has been technical problems. But there have also been rumblings of power struggles as its owners try to ensure the new channel doesn't stray too far from the al-Jazeera formula. Director of programming Paul Gibbs, a former BBC editor, was dismissed in August, and the new enterprise has since been brought under the direct control of the Arab channel. Whatever the underlying reasons, the melding of cultures has not gone smoothly. AJI employees who were flown to Qatar for political orientation classes designed to help them overcome their Western biases received a stern warning about their off-hours behaviour this past spring. "Do not get drunk in public, do not wander around late into the night disturbing the neighbours and do not wander around half-naked," read the email. "And I am appalled to have to state the blindingly obvious: topless sunbathing by the pool is not acceptable behaviour."
See also TELEVISION.
Maclean's November 20, 2006