Friday, 11 March 2011

I'm prolly on a no fly list now or How I learned to love Al Jazeera

 Someone asked me the other day how the writing is going...Despite having promised to not get sucked into yet another North African revolution, Libya was too much to resist. It resembles the struggle and conflict that occurred in Europe in times when cruel Kings and Emperors ruled and people wanted to get rid of them. Then of course there's the comparisons with the last days of Hitler and the brutal repression of Hungary in 1956. As most of you know, I'm a massive fan of the BBC and the news division ( the jewel in the crown) and I regularly depend on the Beeb for my news. This time however after having seen the umpteenth loop of  "our man on the ground in Benghazi", I decided I wanted to know more. As a direct consequence, not only is Al Jazeera English in my favourites, we've subscribed to the service on our telly. I'll be honest, the moment we added the station to our service, I had an odd feeling my details were on their way to the CIA or Homeland Security even. At the very least I must be on a no fly list  right now, only thing that would make it worse is if they found out I'm a big left leaning lapsed Catholic who wouldn't vote Tory even in my worse nightmare. When I failed to hear the odd clicking on the phone line, utterly didn't have the tell tale slow or disappearing e-mails and no one in a trench coat followed me around the shops for a week, I realized there was nothing in the least bit subversive in watching Al Jazeera. As far as I know, it's MI5 and MI6's favourite alternative to old auntie Beeb.

Now keep in mind that while I'd been aware of Al Jazeera English for a while, it was always in that sort of "mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden" way. What a surprise to see it was nothing like that. My first surprise was to see just how well they used the resources of the net to supplement traditional feet on the ground reporters. The second thing that struck me seconds later was the realization that if I was a dictator, especially an Arab one, I'd hate Al Jazeera. This station is radio free Arab World in an age where it's never been more important. It doesn't stop there, the fact that it's Arab centric doesn't stop them from reporting the news from other parts of the world or doing a cracking sports coverage. Just like the BBC, it's taken the important decision to let you know in the scrawl below the truly important things like.. the football results, who was humiliated in the cricket and all the other sport stories a well travelled person who's not American would want to know. Unlike the BBC's weather which is designed to showcase new presenters and get them over the jitters of going on air, Al Jazeera weather tells you stuff you really want to know and has a canny graphic that shows wind and snow and other weather things.

What about the babe factor I hear you asking? BBC news world service has taken on ITV and SKY  with well dressed fit Asian women who are not only beautiful, but incredibly smart, Al Jazeera is not above siddling up to the pretty woman strategy, and like the BBC makes sure all the presenters are more than just news readers. During the current coverage of the Libyan  situation, every presenter has had to do interviews on the spot and from little or no apparent preperation sometimes. It's this ability to jump into a story nearly effortlessly without missing out on the small local details that raise the information to significant detail,  that impresses the most. Considering that there are at any given point  these days, 4 or 5 places going up in smoke at the same time and they all seem to have equal levels of merit and jeopardy, it's nice to see how they manage to juggle the lot without ignoring the developments in any one place .   Which brings me to the biggest reason I love Al Jazeera, you know how some stations will spend all night on the same loop of film and three bits of fact? Al Jazeera know a lot, at least as much as The BBC or Radio France, but unlike them they run with the information if it seems to come from a reliable source, if however the information seems significant but unsubstantiated, they leave it to us to decide by adding a "not verified " tag in the commentary. In a situation as fluid as Lybia is, it's the only way to get information out in a timely and significant manner. Often times the trusted unsubstantiated sources are the ONLY sources to be had and have proven to be on the  whole, reliable.

Al Jazeera has the kind of access in North Africa and the Arab world that most other news organizations only dream of, meaning the first person on the ground is often an Al Jazeera reporter and that he or she is breaking news long before another network gets near the story.  As well, the wide range of topics covered in films is so diverse and original you'd think you were watching BBC4 on a Sunday. One film the other day that caught my eye  was the story they did on Arabic speaking Jews in Israel who used to play Arab music at the Cafe Noah  in Tel Aviv. The story shows a deft touch by their film-makers and reporters  when dealing with people and trying to tell the truth. I'm not sure if every film they do goes down particularly well with all local authorities, but they certainly have an air of truth and sincerity that you miss when some other networks cover the same material. The depth of understanding you get when you watch such a story is important if you want to get up close to a place and it's people. If you are like me, addicted to the BBC, make time for this fine news network's line up of special reports. Another fine report is the moving Across the shouting Valley, a film about separated families in the Golan Heights.

All this comes at a time when the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the claim this last week that "We are losing the global information war". CNN. The BBC, Al Jazeera apparently the Chinese and the Russians all have international English language news networks. I'm not familiar with the last two but can attest that Canada's CBC Newsworld and a few others had until maybe two years ago been considered world leaders in English language news. Since the election of Tories in Canada and most recently in the UK both the CBC and the BBC have been under pressure to streamline and cater to a shrinking news agenda. At least the BBC still has it's reputation intact, but the CBC in Canada is regularly days off the story and sometimes misses or completely buggers up a story to a point you wonder if they were watching the same event.  In the  USA, CNN and FOX news  fought it out for years to see who could lean furthest to the right before falling completely into invention and paranoia. While Fox won that race, CNN hasn't covered itself in glory for quite some time now. It has been isolationist, blatantly anti immigrant,  anti Arab and anti left. If you wanted to know what was going on in the world, CNN which used to be the first stop some 10 years ago,  is now the last place you look. It's a laughing stock and not because it fails to sell the American message and view, but because it prefers to to do that over telling us the news. One particularly laughable interview had a panel on green house gasses that included as many academics as there were loonies who were paid to over the years deny that cigarettes cause cancer and that oil pollutes. The last honest journalist died when they were smothered by the Patriot act. News is not about the point of view, it's about facts, it's about exposing the lies and the killers and the thieves who regularly outdo each other to see who can get the most from their people while not getting caught by Panorama in a sting. Where the BBC and Al Jazeera triumph is that they give us the news and they uphold the values of freedom and democracy in doing so. CNN and other mouth piece networks tow the line of the regime and constituency that pays the bills and determines just who can speak and what they can say on the sole qualifier that it's patriotic or not. Truth be damned, basic freedoms be damned, it more important to look good than to tell the truth. As for Networks like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and presumably others, it's a question of not getting the money from the state to mount a serious news gathering operation. Where many national news broadcasters had correspondents on every continent and major capital, it now needs to be choosy where they send their three grizzled and sun baked masochists, as regular Moscow and Paris correspondents have been deemed surplus to requirement. Africa may as well not exist, same with Central Europe and parts of the Pacific. The other night on CNN, some feminist was on about how nobody was talking about the 6 Ivorian women killed by soldiers during a protest. Well if she'd switched over to the BBC or Al Jazeera she'd be shocked to see it's just CNN making room for NFL scores while real networks had them in the regular news loop for several days.  How many times have you watched a BBC report, then tuned into a local news programme on Planet Earth in English and find it overdubbed and cut into pieces? That's called repackaged news. It's late it's stale and it's an insult to the original journalist. Small budgets and narrow focus news casts are the reason so called national broadcasters, public and private, are failing in even the most basic of tasks when putting together the news. If you don't have the money to cover an event, don't pretend it hasn't happened, be honest and simulcast somebody else's stream. At least the news gets out.

As a news junkie, I always liked knowing as much as I could about something, but now that we live in the age of Twitter and Skype, news, real news that matters can be so profoundly reported with a combination of field reporters, research, short films and great panels, that the network that cannot do this will be reduced to the role of small regional news organization that pays to have somebody else's news fill the time they used to produce content for.  If International news outlets recognize that they are no longer just in the business of echoing the views of the Foreign Office or the US corporate sector, they will continue to grow viewership on telly and on-line. Those however who continue to pander to increasingly parochial and commercial interests will suffer with plummeting numbers and an ever increasing ignorance among it's viewers as to the true state of the World.  If however it's just a case of diminishing budgets with diminishing returns, just give up now and admit your news comes from the BBC and at least then use your money more wisely on local issues.

If more people had access to the BBC or Al Jazeera, the big powers of the world would not get away with incredibly bizarre explanations as to why a no fly zone would not work or straw men like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the BNP and  EDL lies would be challenged even by some of the smarter Daily Mail readers, Chinese citizens and Russians would understand quickly just what their governments are prepared to do to keep them in check,  and the people of Western Libya would for example know their leader is a murderous nutcase who is being propped up by an small but powerful elite guard, tolerated by outside powers who prefer him killing his people than trusting the population to choose a peaceful government that would treat the said outside interests fairly and of course that he's hanging on by his fingernails and would fall if just a few more people in the right places stopped obeying him. The role of international reliable honest news outlets in a wired world that is connected by the net, is now more important than in any other time in the history of humanity. Mrs. Clinton is right , the US has lost that war, but the real winners are the people who have had the example of others and then chosen to rid themselves of chains they have endured in some cases for for over 50 years.

This same media has the obligation and need to educate viewers across the world about the pitfalls of democracy and the rush to paradise as well. The example of how Tunisia and Egypt and even Yemen are dealing with protesters is key in setting the levels of expectation that are realistic for whatever happens in a post dictator North Africa and Middle East. A free and fair international media is important when we are demanding free and fair democracies around the World. The new democracies cannot function without the population knowing what they need to know and in the older democracies the media needs to insure they do not forget there is a wider world out there. Those new societies will flourish with or without the recognition of them by the established West, but will be so much more stronger if they are part of the news cycle on stations like CNN or the BBC. The fact is that if we hear about places, our governments and the companies in our countries won't be able to exploit those places quite as easily as when we are isolated and unaware. Sometimes ignorance is not bliss.

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