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Multiple Factors Spur Resignations from Al Jazeera English
By Elie Chalala
Two years ago, Al Jazeera English launched a campaign claiming that Al Jazeera English would distinguish itself from its Arabic-language counterpart by being less ideological and partisan. However, recent resignations from the 24-hour international news channel suggest a different reality. David Marash, the channel’s Washington-based anchor, resigned when his two-year contract expired March 2007. According to The New York Times, Marash, a familiar face to ABC’s “Nightline” viewers, cited “increased editorial control” as one of the main reasons for his departure. The British Guardian reported that, in addition to Marash, News and Programming Director Steve Clark had resigned, along with more than 15 staff members, due to “complaints of a lack of clarity over its direction, contractual disputes and speculation over a relaunch later this year.”
“The channel that is on now – while excellent, and I plan to be a lifetime viewer – is not the channel I signed up to do,” Marash told The New York Times. Although he had positive things to say about Al Jazeera English, he grew steadily unhappy with elements of his position beyond the increased editorial control from the channel’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar. As the most visible American anchor of the channel, he became disillusioned with the assignment of stories, the “anti-American sensibility” which made its way to news coverage, and the reluctance to offer in-depth stories.
But the Arabic-language press have reported quite a different story. According to an anonymous source cited at the Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper, Al Jazeera English faces a smear campaign organized to coincide with contractual negotiations; the source went on to accuse Clark of a “condescending and colonial” attitude. The source also suggested that Clark’s successor, Alan Ansty, largely shares his predecessor’s attitudes.
Still other observers pinpoint a different source for the recent turmoil at Al Jazeera English. They suggest economic pressures, due to distribution difficulties, as a key culprit. Al Jazeera has not attracted a large audience in the West, thanks to a lack of cable distribution and thus a weak audience for Al Jazeera English in the U.S. market. Unlike the Arabic language Al Jazeera, which reaches many Arabic-speaking viewers in the U.S. through satellite service, Al Jazeera English failed to secure such distribution.
Others theorize that the failure to attract viewers can be attributed to the moderate and somewhat toned-down approach by Al Jazeera English. According to Vicki Habib of the London- and Beirut-based Al Hayat newspaper, the turmoil at Al Jazeera English has highlighted the struggle between two visions of its role: one featuring a moderate tone and attempting to emulate the many existing Western news channels from which it recruits its broadcasters, editors and technicians; the other adhering more closely to the tenor of its sister Al Jazeera Arabic, a radical pan-Arab and pan-Islamist approach. According to Al Hayat, the moderate approach has cost the channel viewers and antagonized forces within Al Jazeera English who are opposed to using different vocabulary. In other words, Al Jazeera loyalists may have been alienated by the appearance of a “schizophrenic” or “split” personality.
Will group resignations from Al Jazeera English fulfill the goals of those who resent a “different” Al Jazeera? Al Hayat’s Vicki Habib predicts that the coming days will tell. But the next step for Al Jazeera English will be influenced by what happens at Al Jazeera Arabic. With competition from half a dozen Arab satellite news channels, most significantly Al Arabiyya and the relatively new BBC Arabic, one expects Al Jazeera Arabic to continue its old approach, thus distinguishing itself from competitors. One should take note that the only sign of moderation at Al Jazeera Arabic is the cessation of its criticism of Saudi Arabia. Will this have a spillover effect on other issues and countries in the region? If it does, Al Jazeera may cease to be Al Jazeera and could become another Al Arabiyya. The same can then be said about Al Jazeera English. If Al Jazeera English were to lose its unique angle and become another CNN, BBC or similar Western TV network, its prospects for attracting a large audience and prospering financially are dim.
This essay appears in Al Jadid Online Cultural Briefings