Briefing Notes: Al Jazeera English
Ben explained that AJE is just one channel out of 20+ Al Jazeera channels which include AJ Arabic, AJ Balkans etc. It is also trying to get a foothold in the US, having just bought a US tv station. Although the news channels are best known around the world, AJ is the biggest sports broadcaster in the Middle East and Africa. It broadcast the Olympics and Champions League football to these regions. The HQ is in Doha, Qatar and the channel is owned by the Emir of Qatar but it is editorially independent – it is regarded as a form of Qatari soft power. Later this year, the London operation will move from Knightsbridge to the Qatari-owned Shard. AJ is the only global news channel which is based outside the developed world. It was launched 16 years ago with an Arabic news channel. The English language channel followed 6 years ago.
The news channel is unusual since it is not a 24 hour rolling news channel. It runs news and a range of documentary series such as Witness, People and Power, Africa Investigates, Counting the Cost, Earthrise. Ben is in charge of news in London, whilst each of the individual programmes has its own editor – see contacts at the end. All these documentary strands are commissioned out of London but from producers all around the world. News represents around 55-60% of AJE’s output.
AJE aims to have a different agenda from the BBC and CNN so it does not regard itself as a direct competitor. It is trying to opt for a non western news agenda. In news terms, AJE regards countries like the Philippines and Venezuela as equally important as France or Italy. Australia, for example, gets too much coverage by western media according to Ben. They are keen to cover Latin America. Ben says that AJ have been accused of being anti American and anti Israeli. They are not – but they do like to question the received wisdom on an issue, challenge authority and stand up for people whose voices are not heard (AJ calls itself ‘the voice of the voiceless’).
The goal of their news coverage is to focus on the human – the impact of news stories on people. This approach tends to give their news coverage a different feel and pace, compared with other news organisations. Audiences don’t switch on to AJ for a breaking news story; they switch on for a different perspective on the news. They do cover the main news stories of the day but try, where possible, to find their own angle. For example, with the recent coverage of the Pistorius trial, they used the trial as an opportunity to look closer at violence in South Africa and the state of the SA police force. With the resignation of the Pope, they reported on reaction to it in Brazil, Africa and the Philippines.
Ben says that the newsroom team are constantly debating which stories should feature in news bulletins. He says that this is a very different approach from ITN (where he used to work) and the BBC where the main stories of the day are laid down from on high and where there is very little debate about the news agenda. The AJE newsroom has a more democratic feel – anyone can suggest stories whatever their job status.
There is a misconception that AJ focuses mainly on the Middle East and Islam – it does not. However, Middle East stories are given more prominence than elsewhere. Despite being owned by the Emir of Qatar, AJ does not do PR for Qatar and reports on negative stories from the Arab world – for example its coverage of migrant labour in Qatar and human rights abuses in Bahrain.
Structure of the news operation – there are 3 centres: Doha, Washington DC and London. Each centre commissions reports for a particular region. Doha covers the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Washington DC covers North and South America. London covers Europe. Ideas can be pitched to the appropriate regional hub or via Ben and Maria (Planning editor in London). They work along geographical lines so, unlike other broadcasters, they do not have specialist correspondents covering issues. All the specialists are country based.
When should stories be pitched? Ideally, a month in advance. If you’re publishing a new report, for example, if AJE are interested they will want to get a reporter in the field to do a piece and to focus on the human story. They always want to shoot their own pictures and case studies rather than rely on NGO footage (unless there is really no choice in which case they are happy to run with NGO material). They will need time to set this up.
Another piece of advice from Ben: if you’re publishing a report, make sure the author is available to do interviews the day before publication (they like to prerecord interviews the day before) and also on the day of publication (so s/he can come into the studio for a live interview). They prefer studio interviews to Skype.
What makes a story of interest to them? They are always on the look out for something that is new or surprising. It depends on whether it is a busy news day – a story is more likely to get on air at the weekend when there is less around. A well written press release helps, as does an embargoed advance copy of a report.
They are also always on the look out for good interviewees to add to their database so they can call them in as experts to take part in studio debates. London is on air in the evening from 7-11pm. Guests can come in at this time to appear or they may come in earlier in the day to be interviewed by the anchor in Doha. NGO experts may be called in to comment on other stories so get in touch if you have suggestions for articulate interviewees. They are also happy to interview people in the field, for example in remote areas, if you can bring them in via a BGAN. Like other broadcasters, they are always keen to find different voices.
Editors have a planning meeting on a Thursday to look at the following week and then a daily morning meeting looking at the next day’s stories.
There are no official viewing figures for AJ but it is available to view in 250m homes. The biggest audiences are in Africa and the Middle East. AJ Arabic is watched in 22 Arabic speaking countries. They also have good audiences in countries like the Philippines and Malaysia. Their market research suggests that AJ’s audience profile is younger than other broadcasters so they are always interested in stories that touch on young people.
They are very receptive to stories from NGOs and are keen to establish good working relationships. They like to be able to go to NGOs for background, access, an expert voice. They may call NGOs into the studio to respond to a correspondent’s report. They welcome any information NGOs can offer on likely trouble spots/ crisis watching.
There are a number of innovative new media projects emerging out of the new media unit in Doha – for example crowd sourcing reports from Gaza, Somalis texting in etc
Ben.Rayner@aljazeera.net Head of News, London
Maria.Hadjiconstanti@aljazeera.net Planning editor, London
Neil.Cairns@aljazeera.net Editor, Earthrise