One of the many peculiar things about Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic-language news channel launched in 1996, is that it has brought news and information to people who, for the most part, are unable to act on it politically. It has been an oasis of free (or apparently free) expression in a desert of dictatorships. It can stir up anger, but not anger of the kind that can be sublimated by voting a local politician out of office, let alone by changing a government. In that sense, there has always been something artificial about it, as if it had taken up residence in a realm of pure theory.
Now comes Al-Jazeera English, aimed at "English-speakers worldwide," even if most Americans will be able to watch it only on the Internet. (All major American cable and satellite companies have thus far declined to carry it.) Funded, like the Arabic-language original, by the seemingly bottomless pockets of Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the new channel has offices in Washington and London as well as Doha, Qatar, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. So far the emphasis has been on long-form reporting from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia more than from Europe and America; the effect, for an American viewer, has been a bit like looking at a map of the world turned upside down.
Al-Jazeera English made its debut last Wednesday, and it took only a couple of days to discern that although one reason for its absence from American TV screens is political, another may be that the global range and scope of its reportage, were it to find an audience here, could prove an embarrassment to the relative parochialism of CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, et al.
Of course, much the same could be said of CNN International, the version of CNN seen outside America, which is far more globally oriented than the domestic brand, even if its relentless "we are the world" politics can quickly become tiresome. But CNN International is not available on the Internet. Nor, for that matter, is BBC World, a 24-hour news channel also available outside America. So Al-Jazeera English immediately has a leg up on both CNN International and BBC World because they're not available on the Internet and it is. Score one for the Emir, the Arabs, the Ummah, and the growing influence of the Muslim viewpoint in the West. And if you think television on your laptop is a no-go, think again. More and more, TV is migrating to the Web, from where it can be beamed to i-Pods and cell phones.
One of the first things you notice about Al-Jazeera English is the amount of money that's been spent on it. The studios and sets look glitteringly high-tech, and they are stocked with smartly dressed male and female ex-BBC staffers, both of English and Arab origin. This is also true of the original Al-Jazeera, many of whose journalists were educated and trained in the West and carry E.U., American, or Canadian passports. One critic, Mahmoun Fandy, has referred to them as "Westerners with Arab faces."
Introducing itself to a new audience, Al-Jazeera English is not afraid to appear boastful."Right now, Al-Jazeera is the new frontier," Sir David Frost, a legendary BBC interviewer now hosting Al-Jazeera's "Frost Over the World," stated. (His first guest was Tony Blair — a demonstration of clout.) "In my lifetime, there will not be another channel launched on this scale," Riz Khan, ex-BBC and CNN International anchor, who hosts his own talk show, added.
Corporate slogans abound: "Now, with Al-Jazeera, ordinary people get a voice." "News from every angle." (This over a montage of photographs of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who looks equally bad from all angles — a sly dig?) "If it's newsworthy, it gets on the air, whether it's Bush or bin Laden," a female British journalist spits out. "We've got to seek out the areas neglected by the Western-oriented media," Dave Marash, once part of ABC's "Nightline," offers.
Al-Jazeera English is capable of springing surprises. On "Inside Iraq," host Jasim Al-Azzawi, questioning Iraq's deputy prime minister, demanded to know why his government wasn't doing more to quash the militias that threaten to destroy any hope of democracy in the country. The fact that Mr. Azzawi appeared to advocate the use of military force, and at least entertain the notion that the American occupation might be noble in intent, belied the stereotypical image of the channel.
Although Harold Pinter was given a full half-hour on "Riz Khan" ("The U.S. is a very dangerous animal. Within 20 years they'll probably destroy the whole world," the playwright, who is suffering from cancer of the esophagus and was dressed in somber black, said.), perhaps the most disturbing thing I saw on Al-Jazeera English was a lengthy report on "Listening Post," a regular program of documentaries hosted by a former BBC man, Rageh Omaar.
The subject was Dewsbury, a town in the north of England that has made headlines because the leader of last year's terrorist attacks on London spent six months there, and because a 23-year-old Muslim school teacher, Aishah Azmi, has gone to court after being forbidden from wearing the niqab, the black garment that leaves only the eyes visible, in class. One-third of the town's population is Muslim (and one-tenth of England overall, according to Mr. Omaar), and hijabs look likely to outnumber short skirts before long. Mr. Omaar's main thrust, however, was to demonstrate that there is much less political or religious division in the town than is claimed by the British press.
To some extent he was successful. But there was also the alarming sight of angry young Muslim men around a large mosque telling the reporter to "f—- off" until they realized he was from Al Jazeera. (Mr. Omaar named the station, rolling the "r's" and offering a "salaam aleikum" to show his solidarity.) Suddenly a few were ready to talk. Is this what parts of England have become? Places where only a reporter from Al-Jazeera can explain what's going on in England to the English, because the Muslim inhabitants won't speak to anyone else? If so, western news organizations, not to mention governments, should be worried.
It would take a George Smiley to figure out what the Emir of Qatar's game is, but it's surely a double, triple, or even quadruple one. The presence on Al-Jazeera English of grandees such as Mr. Frost will ensure it avoids the excesses of the Arabic-language original, but it will take chances, it will try to make its rivals look timid, and it will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, there are grounds for referring to it simply as "BBC Middle East" — an Arabic channel staffed largely by westerners with western faces. In which case, the game is even more complicated than one might have thought.