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Voice of the Arab spring: Mehdi Hasan on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera is an enigma – although owned by an absolute monarch, it’s hailed as an independent voice.

On Friday 11 February, thousands of Arabs spilled on to the streets of the Middle East's capitals, from Rabat to Amman, to celebrate the downfall of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Doha, in the sleepy Gulf emirate of Qatar, was no different: hundreds of youths brought traffic to a standstill on the coastal ­Corniche Road. Shortly before midnight, some of them recognised one of the drivers stuck in the jam: the then Al Jazeera director general, Wadah Khanfar, who was on his way home from the network's headquarters to grab a few hours sleep. After pulling him out of his car, dozens of Qataris queued up to hug and kiss him and thank him for his channel's unrelenting, round-the-clock coverage of the uprisings in Cairo and Tunis.

“I wept," recalls Khanfar, seven months later, when I meet him in the café of a central-London hotel. "I was very emotional." He pauses. "In the Arab world, journalism ­really is an issue of life and death."

He isn't exaggerating. So far this year, Al Jazeera's correspondents and producers across the Middle East have been harassed, arrested, beaten and, in the case of the cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber, killed (by pro-Gaddafi fighters in Libya). As Arab governments toppled from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya - and, last month, Yemen - Al Jazeera has been on hand to beam the pictures of ecstatic protesters, revolutionaries and rebels into the living rooms of ordinary Arabs across the region - and beyond. In Tunisia, the network picked up camera-phone footage from Facebook and other social-networking sites of the riots and protests that took place in the wake of the fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in December 2010, and gave them a regional prominence they otherwise would not have achieved.

In Egypt, for 18 days straight, Al Jazeera's cameras broadcast live from Cairo's Tahrir Square, giving a platform to the demonstrators, while documenting the violence of the Mu­ba­rak regime and its supporters.

“The protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera," the New York Times observed on 27 January, as it reported on how the channel's coverage had "helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next". "They did not cause these events," argued Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East studies at George Washington University, "but it's almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera." Or, as a spokesman for WikiLeaks tweeted: "Yes, we may have helped Tunisia, Egypt. But let us not forget the elephant in the room: Al Jazeera + sat dishes."

At 45, Khanfar, a tall, bearded, elegantly dressed Palestinian, oozes charisma. A former reporter and analyst at the network, who rose rapidly through the ranks to become director general in 2004 at the age of 37, he has since featured in Time's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and Forbes's annual list of the world's most powerful people.

Khanfar describes Al Jazeera - which means "the island" - as a "phenomenon". "When it was established, in 1996, it was an exception within the Arab media landscape," he says. "By 2001, Al Jazeera was a well-established voice in the region and even internationally, because of the war in Afghanistan and the fact Al Jazeera was the only broadcaster covering the story from inside Afghanistan."

However, it has been the events of 2011, more than 2001, that have come to define the broadcaster and which have made politicians, journalists, and above all viewers, sit up and take notice of Al Jazeera and its output.

So does Khanfar believe that Al Jazeera was a driving force behind the Arab spring? He won't describe the network as a "cause" of the protests but he admits that it "magnified [protesters'] voices and made them mainstream". For example, Mubarak, he says, "used to tell the parents, 'Go down to Tahrir Square, collect your kids'. But when the parents saw what their kids were doing on Al Jazeera, it became mainstream and they joined them." Yes, but would the revolts have happened without Al Jazeera? Khanfar hesitates. "It would have happened, yes, but it would have maybe been much more expensive [in terms of lives lost] and would have taken much longer to accomplish."

In September, however, despite having presided over the most high-profile, high-impact year in the network's history, Khanfar resigned, suddenly and without warning. ­Rumours continue to swirl as to whether he jumped or was pushed but the fact that his ­replacement, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is a member of the Qatari royal family, with no background in journalism, has left some supporters fearing what the future holds. Al Jazeera, it seems, is at a crossroads.

I arrive in Doha, on a visit organised by Al Jazeera, and am greeted with a wall of hot air as I disembark from the plane. Qatar occupies a small peninsula on the north-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula - so small that most foreign maps drawn up prior to the 19th century didn't show it. Flat as a pancake, the country's sole land border is with Saudi Arabia to the south, while the rest of its territory is surrounded by the Persian Gulf.
Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar adheres to the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam, although Qa­taris tend to not practise it as strictly as their Saudi cousins. There is, for example, no legal requirement for women to wear a face veil or even a headscarf. Within minutes of leaving Doha International Airport, I can't help but notice a semi-naked Rosie Huntington-Whiteley staring out from a Burberry billboard ad.

Distances are short in Doha. Driving from the airport to my hotel and then on to the Al Jazeera headquarters, you see how tiny the thumb-shaped emirate is. Both in terms of people (1.7 million) and size (11,500 square kilometres), Qatar is smaller than Northern Ireland. And, of those 1.7 million residents, Qatari citizens make up just one in seven, or 250,000 - a population that would struggle to fill one of Cairo or Baghdad's larger neighbourhoods. The majority are migrant workers, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent.

But what Qatar lacks in size, it makes up for in money. It sits on the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world and, in 2010, according to figures compiled by the IMF, it surpassed Luxembourg to become the world's richest nation, with a per capita income of $88,000 - almost twice that of the US.

The Qatari economy is booming: growth stands at an astounding 19 per cent and cranes dot Doha's skyline; every building I pass - even the mosques - looks brand new.

It is ironic that a television news network famed for democratising and opening up a region scarred by tyranny and despotism is based here in Doha. Qatar, after all, has long been an absolute monarchy. Its emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, seized power from his ­father in a peaceful palace coup in 1995; the al-Thani family has been ruling Qatar since 1825. But the emir, a tall, corpulent man whose girth was once mocked by Colonel Gaddafi, has transformed Qatar's image and level of influence on the international stage. In recent years, Qatar has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the US victims of Hurricane Katrina; bolstered the peace process in Darfur; brokered a deal between rival Lebanese militias; and helped reduce tribal tensions in Yemen. Most recently, Qatar threw its weight behind the Egyptian protesters against Mubarak and then pushed for military action against Gaddafi's Libya, providing funding for the rebels and even military aircraft for the Nato-led bombing campaign - the only Arab state to do so.

It has been at the forefront of the Arab League's efforts to sanction and isolate Syria and has tried, in the words of Khaled Hroub of Cambridge University's Gulf Research Centre, "to wrest control from regional third parties, such as the Saudis" and "fill a regional leadership vacuum". Is it any wonder then that a recent headline in the Economist dubbed the bantam-sized emirate a "pygmy with the punch of a giant"?

It is Al Jazeera - the network founded by al-Thani in November 1996 and bankrolled by him ever since - more than any other single ­factor, that has empowered Qatar and boosted its reputation. According to the Qatari media ­consultant Hassan Rasheed, the broadcaster is "Qatar's passport to the world". At a seminar to celebrate "Al Jazeera at Fifteen Years" that I attend at Doha's Sheraton hotel, Philip Seib of the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming book The Al Jazeera Effect and Real-Time Diplomacy, says the network helped Qataris "put their country on the map". Members of the audience nod ­furiously. Seib then points out how Al Jazeera was a "public diplomacy creation . . . probably one of the most successful in history". The Al Jazeera representative on the panel suddenly looks distinctly uncomfortable.

Al Jazeera is plagued by accusations of bias. But, to the network's credit, they come from all sides: Islamists, secularists, dictators, democrats, Sunnis, Shias, Israelis, Americans - none can decide for sure whether the network is friend or foe.

Take Israel. Al Jazeera is often accused of being hostile to the Jewish state and one-sided in its coverage of issues such as the Gaza blockade; yet it was Al Jazeera that became the first Arab broadcaster to offer a voice to Israeli officials (often speaking in Hebrew!). In his 2005 book, Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West, the British journalist Hugh Miles wrote about how the interviews with Israeli army officers and military spokesmen were "truly shocking for the Arab public", especially because "many Arabs had never seen an Israeli speak before". (Khanfar tells me viewers used to phone in regularly to complain about the presence of "lying" Israeli officials on the channel.)

Whether you are for or against Al Jazeera, its power, influence and reach cannot be disputed. From the very beginning of the protests in Egypt, the Mubarak regime recognised it as a threat, revoking its licence to broadcast, ransacking its Cairo bureau and trying to take it off air. The network had to stop naming its correspondents and producers on the ground in Egypt for their own safety. Meanwhile, demonstrators in Tahrir Square could be heard chanting: "Long live Al Jazeera!"

“All this noise from such a small matchbox," a startled Hosni Mubarak is said to have remarked on a visit to the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha a few years ago. Little did the ageing tyrant realise how much damage this matchbox would do to his regime.

The headquarters consist of two nondescript buildings adjacent to one another: on the right, Al Jazeera Arabic, on the left, Al Jazeera English, which has been broadcasting since 2006. The security is intense: I have to navigate two checkpoints, providing ID and letters of invitation at each, as suspicious guards look me up and down.

Inside, it is a different story. I worked at Sky News as a producer and programme editor ­between 2005 and 2007, and I remember its Osterley studio in west London being a hive of ­frenetic activity: producers running across the newsroom, news editors barking orders to reporters on the phone, "breaking news" straps ready to go. By comparison, the sky-blue Al Jazeera English newsroom in Doha is ­sedate. There is no running and the staff - representing more than 40 nationalities (but with Brits and Americans perhaps over-represented) - seem to be a calm and deliberative bunch.

Al Jazeera English broadcasts to around 250 million households in 130 countries, not far off the global reach of its main rivals, CNN and BBC World. Al Jazeera Arabic, by contrast, reaches 70 million households, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. Between them, the two news networks employ more than a thousand staff and have 70 foreign bureaux.

I meet Al Anstey, a 45-year-old former ITN journalist who was appointed managing director of the English channel in October 2010, in his vast corner office. Sitting on a cream leather couch, his arms spread out, Anstey exudes confidence. Tall and well-built, he is wearing a dark-blue suit, his crisp white shirt open at the neck. Above his head hang four flatscreen TVs, each airing a different international news channel. "If you look at our competitors, they see the world through the prism of where they are centered," argues Anstey, nodding at the screens above him. "So CNN, with its headquarters in Atlanta, will see the world through a more American prism; the BBC sees it through a more European prism." He says Al Jazeera is different: "It covers the developing world as well as the developed world; it gives voice to disenfranchised and neglected peoples."

So it's a pan-Arab channel? "No, we see ­ourselves as a global channel," says Anstey, who has been with Al Jazeera English since it launched five years ago. "We have been extremely strong covering the Arab spring. But we were also extremely strong on the Japanese earthquake." Others at the channel seem less defensive. "I think it's critical that we keep that sensibility, that we are a Middle Eastern channel," says Mike Hannah, a South-African-born correspondent who worked for CNN as its Jerusalem bureau chief before he moved to Doha. "I think that if we lose that, we lose our specific identity."

I ask Anstey what I asked Khanfar: did Al Jazeera help cause the Arab spring? He is adamant that his channel was not behind the recent revolutions and upheavals in the region. In the past he has said Al Jazeera is "categorically anti-nothing and pro-nothing". Now he says: "The simple answer is we covered the Arab spring; we didn't create it."

Again, Hannah goes further: having acknowledged the role that Facebook and Twitter played in spurring on the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, he reminds me that it was Al Jazeera that provided the "glue" - visually and editorially - to hold it all together: "The Arabic and English channels provided the bridges that allowed people to connect with each other."

After my meetings with Anstey and Hannah, I walk over to the next-door building to see Mustafa Souag, managing director of the Arab channel, who says he has "15 minutes only" to speak to me in his tiny, cramped, ­windowless office. Dressed in a crumpled khaki suit, this Algerian intellectual is a former professor of literary theory, who once lived in London and worked for the BBC. He says his "proudest" moment at the network was when he was told by his reporters in Cairo that government sources credited the presence of Al Jazeera cameras with preventing a massacre of protesters by Mubarak's camel-riding thugs in Tahrir Square.

Souag's take on the Arab spring is distinctive: he argues that the real impact of the network was on Arab opinion in the years running up to 2011: "We provided Arab citizens with knowledge and information, [political] positions and ideas . . . when you give people the right information you empower them." But empower them in which direction? Al Jazeera's secular critics, for example, see it as a platform for Islamist parties, whom they claim are over-represented on the channel's output.

Souag, after denying that the channel acts as a showcase for "extremists", reminds me that "90 per cent of our audience are Muslims and they need to hear from these people" - that is, the Islamists. But he rejects the charge of being biased in favour of groups such as Hamas in Gaza or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: “I have asked our quality control to go through our output for the whole week and give me specific examples of imbalances, and each time I do so they come back and show me that we haven't been biased and, often, the Islamists have been given even less time than the non-­Islamists." (Back in London, Khanfar is more willing to engage with the critique: "There are too many Islamists on the screen not because of an editorial decision or an editorial bias but ­because Islamists right now are the most influential [movement] in Arab society.")

Then there is the network's relationship with its host nation. It is rare to see Al Jazeera - either the Arabic or the English channel - critically covering the Qatari regime or human-rights abuses inside the emirate. As a US state department cable released by Wiki­Leaks pointed out, Qatari officials "view AJ, both English and Arabic, as important tools of Qatari foreign policy". Another cable adds: "Al Jazeera has resolutely steered away from . . . reporting on anything politically controversial in Qatar."

I ask Anstey how often he is rung up by members of the ruling family: "never". He doesn't budge: "We are not a mouthpiece [for Qatar]; we are not a tool of public diplomacy. We have come here as journalists to carry out the profession of journalism."

He won't, however, tell me how much money the emir provides the network with - but Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for the Arabic channel, revealed in an interview with Time in February that it was "hundreds of millions of dollars annually". Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the network would survive, let alone thrive, if the Qatari authorities were to turn against it. "Simply put, the Al Jazeera success story would not have been possible without Qatar's backing," wrote Cambridge's Hroub last month.

So far, Qatar and its emir have acted as a protective shield for both the Arabic and English channels. Al Jazeera has come under "immense pressure" from regional governments, says An­stey; the network has, at one time or another, been kicked out of virtually every country in the Middle East. But, claims Anstey, he has never been subjected to any pressure from Qatar itself. It is a view echoed by Souag, Khanfar, Hannah and every other Al Jazeera journalist I speak to in Doha - on and off the record. For example, Jon Blair, the Oscar-winning documentary director, who joined Al Jazeera English at the start of the year, says: "There is a total absence of interference from above."

Self-censorship, however, is a different matter. "I think you would be hard-pushed to do a film on homosexuality in the Middle East," says one senior Al Jazeera executive. "It flies in the face of Wahhabi Islam. And so there is an element of self-censorship." But, he adds defensively, "The same thing goes on at the BBC."

The channel's foreign critics, especially in the US, don't agree. Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, an American conservative media watchdog group, refers to Al Jazeera as a "government-funded propaganda channel". In a blog post on 6 March 2010, Kincaid quoted from an Amnesty International report calling for "urgent action" on the arrest and detention of a Qatari human-rights activist, Sultan al-Khalaifi. Yet the story on the website of Al Jazeera English ended with the line, "The Qatari government could not be contacted for comment." "How is it possible that a channel based in Qatar and funded by the regime could not obtain a comment from those who pay its bills and pick its personnel?" he asked in his post.

Al Jazeera's coverage - or lack thereof - of the protests in Bahrain has also come under heavy criticism in recent months. Perhaps, say the critics, it is because of the historically close relationship between the royal families of Qatar and Bahrain; the two tiny nations belong to the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Anstey rejects the charge of bias and says the English channel has done "50-plus" stories on Bahrain. He cites the documentary Shouting in the Dark, produced by Al Jazeera English and aired on the channel in May. Filmed by an undercover crew, it meticulously documents the ruthless and violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters by Bahraini - and Saudi - security forces.

It is important here to distinguish between the English and Arab channels. When western politicians or journalists speak of Al Jazeera - especially when they do so in negative or critical terms - to which are they referring?

The award-winning (and bilingual) Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab is a close watcher of both. He finds a distinction between the louder, more "hostile" feel of the Arabic news bulletins, and the quieter, mellower, more ­considered tone of the English channel. "[Al Jazeera Arabic] keeps you on the edge," Kuttab told the American Journalism Review in April. "Its reporters are pushing issues rather than just reporting on them. They become more like activists at times, very in your face. The English channel uses more neutral terminology."

Coverage of Bahrain is a classic example of the divide. "It's true that the Arabic channel hasn't done enough on Bahrain," says a senior producer on the English channel.

Ghassan Ben Jeddo, a Beirut bureau chief for the Arabic channel, quit in April in protest at its neglect of the state-sponsored violence in Bahrain. Meanwhile, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qara­dawi, an Egyptian Sunni cleric who lives in Qatar, and whose show, Sharia and Life, is broadcast by Al Jazeera Arabic, claimed on air that "there is no people's revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one" - implying that it was an attempted Shia takeover of the Gulf kingdom, somehow distinct from the wider Arab spring.

I point this out to Souag, who shakes his head. "The coverage is completely even," he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. He says the Arabic channel had to weigh up each country and each protest movement and, in Bahrain, "we did so in spite of the fact our office was closed and our correspondent was not allowed to work [by the Bahrainis]. We were allowed to send one person there for a very short time and then he was then thrown out. So we didn't have the resources to cover it in the same way but we did try to do it." He becomes animated: "When people ask us why we have not been covering Bahrain, I ask: 'Have you been watching Al Jazeera or living on another planet?'"

Khanfar, however, is much more blunt when I ask him whether Al Jazeera gave equal coverage to Bahrain. "Not equal, no," he says. "Each revolution, each uprising, had its own weight based on its strategic importance, based on its impact across the region. You cannot compare the revolution in Egypt with the uprising in Bahrain." Khanfar is also adamant that the Sunni/Shia divide had "nothing to do with it": "If it was [about] Sunni and Shia, why did we cover the war in south Lebanon, which was all about Hezbollah, a Shia party? Why did we cover all the stories in Iraq, without differentiating between Sunni and Shia?"

Then there is the US, which, despite being an important strategic ally of Qatar, has had a rocky relationship with Al Jazeera. The network provoked outrage in the States by airing video messages from Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11 and by highlighting atrocities carried out by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2005, it was alleged that George W Bush had discussed bombing the Al Jazeera headquarters in a meeting with Tony Blair; the British premier is said to have persuaded the US president that it was, to put it mildly, a bad idea.

The US did, however, bomb the Al Jazeera bureaux in Kabul (in November 2001) and Baghdad (in April 2003). The latter attack took place despite the network having provided the Pentagon with the street name and map co-ordinates of the office, and resulted in the death of Tareq Ayoub, a reporter. (Outside the newsroom of the Arabic channel is the Al Jazeera "museum" - a rather macabre, dimly lit, high-ceilinged room. Within is the vest worn by ­Ayoub on the day he died, along with his press pass, a handwritten draft of his final report and bits of rubble from the Baghdad bureau.)

These days, relations between the US and Al Jazeera are beginning to thaw, with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, extolling it in March as "really effective" and "real news". The startling conversion of Donald Rumsfeld perhaps best sums up the extent of the transformation of its image in the west and, in particular, in the US. "I can definitively say that what Al Jazeera is doing [in Iraq] is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable," the then US defence secretary remarked in 2005. Yet, in a candid interview with David Frost on his Al Jazeera English show in September this year, Rumsfeld heaped praise on the channel, declaring that he was “delighted you are doing what you are doing".

In Doha, Anstey beams with pride when I mention these comments. "We were very pleased to be recognised," he says. "The next stage of our evolution is to be seen by more people, to push out and build our reputation. Get out into the American operators."

Al Jazeera's campaign to get access to the major US cable providers - from which it has been all but banned since September 2001 - was boosted by the fact that US viewership of Al Jazeera English's live web stream mushroomed during the Egyptian uprising - its website now receives more than 22 million visitors a month.

But one source at the channel tells me that Al Jazeera's desire to be "taken seriously" - as a February 2006 US state department cable released by WikiLeaks put it - might undermine its independence and integrity. And some of the more conspiratorially minded observers of the network have claimed that Khanfar was ­removed for being too close to the Americans; they point to a WikiLeaks cable that suggests he may have bowed, in 2005, to US diplomatic pressure and toned down the Al Jazeera website's coverage of civilian casualties in Iraq.

Intriguingly, others say that Khanfar may not have been pro-American enough for the Americans - or the Qataris! “The WikiLeaks stuff is a red herring," says a senior source at the English channel. "There was always a concern among the Qatari royals that Wadah was a bit too much of a voice-of-the-people, too pro-revolution, too progressive."

The new director general, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is, by all accounts (he turned down my request for an interview), bright, ultra-competent and, by Gulf Arab standards, progressive. And one reason he may have been chosen to replace Khanfar - "a hack, not an administrator", in the words of one executive - is to provide some order and stability to the ever-expanding but deeply turbulent media empire. Employees at the English channel, in particular, have long complained about the management style and structure. It is still a "bureaucratic nightmare" says one senior producer, while another tells me that "morale and goodwill is being eroded by bureaucracy, poor management and a lack of clear leadership".

Anstey admits that there were "challenges from pre-launch to the first couple of years on air where we were evolving extremely fast" and where the "basic challenge was of starting up a channel of this size, with staff from 40 different nations, different backgrounds and networks, and assimilating them into one company, one vision". But, he adds, "it has hugely settled in the past two or three years".

Shortly after taking over, the new director general is said to have called together his most senior managers and executives for a meeting. "What do you think about breathing?" he asked them. They looked, understandably, perplexed. He continued: "And what do you think about your heart beating?" Another pause. Silence from the staff. "What I want," the sheikh told them, "is for employees of this organisation to think as little about administration as they do about their breathing and their heartbeats."

Nonetheless, does it make sense to have one of the world's most successful and influential media operations led by a technocrat, not a journalist? One ex-employee has his worries. "The message is clearly that the state will be exerting more direct control over one of its most prized assets," wrote Will Stebbins, the former Washington DC bureau chief of Al Jazeera English, in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The DG's surname is not the issue, counters Khanfar: "the issue is to what extent he will be guaranteeing editorial policy". For the former director general, Al Jazeera's 15-year record, its independent-minded and experienced editorial staff across the world and its army of loyal but informed viewers will continue to ensure the independent spirit of the network. "Our" - Khanfar still uses the possessive - "viewers are so clever and politicised that they'll be able to sense any change. And once people realise you have become a tool for a political party or government, they will drop you. Whatever you achieved in years can be dropped in a few days."

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera's historic achievements could be under threat from another, more unexpected, direction. Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in September, Seib wrote of how "the revolutions that the network helped drive have unleashed a cascade of largely local news outlets, which provide more direct competition" to Al Jazeera. The network will be "to a certain extent, a victim of its impressive success and is unlikely to retain the dominance it once enjoyed".

It would be a mistake to underestimate Al Jazeera and, in particular, its durability. Its energy and dynamism this year have left its western rivals looking slow-footed and lacklustre. The Doha-based broadcaster will continue to be a thorn in the side of tottering dictators and despots across the Middle East.

Mehdi Hasan is the NS's senior editor (politics)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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The New Statesman’s ultimate Christmas lunchbreak guide 2016

What to eat and what not to eat while working during the festive season.

We all know the best thing about the festive season is working all the way up to Christmas Eve, so here’s a list of the best (and worst) high street Christmas lunch food my colleagues and I have painstakingly chewed up and spat out for your delectation:

Lunchbreak failsafes

Pret

Pret’s Christmas Lunch Sandwich, £3.60

Very much a Christmas sandwich by numbers this one – all the key ingredients of a traditional Christmas lunch, plus the inexplicable addition of mayonnaise. It’s a little too full, bits kept falling out, and while it’s not the best Christmas sandwich out there, it’s a solid midtable effort. Stephen Bush

Melvin the Melting Gingerbread Snowman, £1.25

If you take a morbid pleasure in melting a snowman, then Melvin is the gingerbread character for you. His marshmallow head wobbles above his dripping white icing body, but it’s only when you dunk Melvin in your tea that he truly crumbles into nothing but hot water. A festive treat. Julia Rampen

French Brie & Cranberry Toastie, £4.25 

Major disappointment. Tasted like feet, and not in the great cheese kind of way (more like Rachel from Friends’ traditional English trifle/shepherd’s pie way). I didn’t know it was possible to ruin brie. Pinja Saarikoski

Very Merry Christmas Lunch Vegan Baguette, £3.75

Great vegan sandwich, although the Christmas bells weren’t really a-ringing. Tasted more like a Moroccan feast, with the spicy, peppery veggies and pistachios. But I guess Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not always with turkey and stuffing. Pinja

Ham Hock & Sprout Macaroni Cheese, £5.50

We have reached peak comfort. Macaroni cheese: officially the world’s most comforting comfort food according to an extensive survey of all tastebuds and dopamine receptors. And Pret: the high street’s strong arms cradling you when you’re weak and vulnerable on a hungover mid-week lunchbreak, gently extracting a fiver in exchange for your regular dose of deliciously predictable flavours. This is what you get: a thick, creamy sauce with sprouts so cheese-drenched you’d never guess they were sprouts at all, and some unnecessary ham hock just to make it a bit Christmassy. Anoosh Chakelian

EAT

Festive Full Works Bloomer, £3.95

The texture of the bread is excellent and the serving of turkey and rocket is more than generous. But something about the after-taste doesn’t sit well. A potentially related disappointment is the failure of the press team to establish the meat’s exact provenance. While the ham has been procured “from the EU, with pigs raised in barns with natural sunlight”, the turkey “is cooked in the UK but is sourced from overseas”. India Bourke

Christmas Cheeseboard Bloomer, £3.96

This Eat sandwich takes its inspiration from a classic Christmas cheeseboard. As someone who is more excited by the abundance of yuletide cheese than Christmas presents, this was already right up my street. But cheese-filled Christmas sandwiches can often be bland, stodgy and – the greatest sin any festive meal can commit – boring. That’s not the case here. The cheddar is robust and nicely paired with soft, almost ricotta-like wensleydale, the multiseed bloomer pleasingly rustic, and the whole affair is well-seasoned with lemon and black pepper. But the inspired addition of slow-roasted figs and figgy pudding chutney are what turns a good, solid sandwich into a brilliant one. All in all, it leads to an unusual, irresistible taste and texture combo that is decidedly cheeseboard-esque. Anna Leszkiewicz

Brie and Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese, £6.50 for large portion

Hello! Is it brie you’re looking for? Well, this mac 'n' cheese has a lot of it. Loads. Tons. But it’s not the best brie in town – mild to the point of flavourlessness, but incredibly thick, this often felt more like an overly stodgy carbonara.  As for the alleged truffle – I couldn’t get so much as a whiff of it. Dull and heavy, for the price and whopping 1,000+ calories, this feels conspicuously lacking in luxury, despite the rumoured posh ingredients. (NB: This comes with an option of cranberry sauce, which I turned down. It’s possible that makes all the difference… but I’d be surprised.) Anna

Paul

Dinde de Noël baguette, £4.50

Paul’s “Dinde de Noel” is another sandwich suffering from the curse of the Christmas Cranberry. Once invisible in the UK at yuletide, the cranberry has gradually invaded the festivities, a culinary equivalent of  the green parakeet. In this case they are embedded in the baguette like war journalists, immovable and advancing on all the other flavours. Which is a shame as the turkey is nice, the spinach admirable in its attempts to get us to eat our greens on the sly and the baguette itself a vast improvement on yet another supermarket sandwich. Pretty good value too. I did find the horseradish isolated in one corner, but having it as well as the cream cheese is another case of excess. One or the other but not both. Stephen Brasher

Greggs

Greggs Festive Bake, £1.50

As my colleague ever so astutely observed last year, the Greggs Festive Bake is not actually a Christmas sandwich. A year on, that is still the case, but it remains a deliciously good value handful of crispy pastry and well-spiced turkey filling. The dusting of oniony-sagey crumbs on top of the pastry really improves what is a complex and satisfying flavour profile. If you’re already a fan of the versatile foodstuff that is the Greggs bake (and you should be: what other treat is always piping hot, can be eaten with one hand on the bus and costs less than £2?) you will love this Christmassy twist on a well-loved format. Caroline Crampton

Greggs Turkey Bacon and Cranberry Roll, £1.50

It’s like a sausage roll but with turkey, bacon and little cranberries instead of sausagemeat. My love of Greggs has spiralled out of control since they introduced their £2 coffee and bacon roll deal, and I love the sausage roll, but this didn’t quite work – the flavours don’t really blend, you just have a lot of turkey, the odd bit of bacon and a cranberry every now and then. It felt unnervingly like eating catfood. Stephen Bush

Benugo

Honey roast pulled ham and smoked cheddar bloomer, £3.75

A great sandwich, this manages to taste weirdly healthy yet also delicious, perhaps down to its deep brown bread. The cheese is plasticky and thin, in that perfect sliced way, contrasting nicely with the texture of the pulled pork. Token rocket adds to the virtue factor; the chutney takes it away again. Hearty. Helen Lewis

As someone who is not an enthusiastic meat-eater, I approached the ham sandwich with trepidation and no little guilt, but found it unexpectedly delicious – the combination of the bread, the cheese, the high-quality ham, and the chutney, if indeed it was chutney, made it a very pleasurable experience – even if I did feel a little bit guilty about eating ham. Jason Cowley

Brie, pistachio, spiced apple and chutney baguette, £3.75​

I feel about this sandwich the way I felt about my first love – though it would do me no wrong, it lacks true passion. The acidic tang of the chutney overpowers the brie, leaving me with the sensation of eating a chutney sandwich. If that’s what you want, go forth. If it isn’t, go elsewhere. Amelia Tait

Turkey, bacon and cranberry baguette, £4.25 

Another where the bread is the star – yeasty and wholesome. A good balance of flavours between the turkey and bacon, and a generous helping of cranberry sauce, plus the inevitable token rocket. Not too salty, not too sweety, and there’s even a cheeky bit of stuffing in there. The mayonnaise is possibly OTT, but really, who cares? Helen

This is slightly sweet, slightly salty and very Christmassy. Its cranberry, sage and horseradish flavourings are well-balanced. And while it’s no River Cottage in the wholesome stakes, it feels satisfyingly nutritious – a sensation backed-up by the later revelation (from their press team) that all their “turkey farms adhere to ISO901:2008 standard.” (That’s a good thing.) Plus, “the turkey is produced in South Yorkshire using exclusively British birds. The bacon is produced in Scotland using pork form the UK and EU. The pork in the stuffing is of UK origin and is also produced in Scotland.” You can taste it. India

Leon

Leon Christmas Wrap, £5.45​

“It would be Rudolph not to,” says the blurb for Leon’s hot wrap, featuring turkey, stuffing and ham hock. While I’m willing to award points for the triple meatiness, there is overall something a little generic about this wrap. Because it’s served hot, all the flavours smudge together, and the fresh spinach barely intrudes on the mix. Still, the cranberry and port sauce lifts the experience, adding sweetness what could otherwise be a weighty proposition. Helen

The Leon x Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry, £6.45

Always a little bit afraid to find out who Gizzi Erskine actually is for fear of becoming an adult, I approached Leon’s Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry with some apprehension. Everything from Leon is so wholesome and grainy and aspirational, it puts my usual eating habits in unflattering, baked bean-flavoured contrast. But this curry was delicious. The creamy, lightly spiced sauce was a lovely accompaniment to the juicy hunks of carrot and parsnip. Unusually, the turkey had some flavour too – lifted valiantly by the generous sprinkling of crispy onions. Apparently the Erskine family has this recipe on Boxing Day – a far cry from the customary stale crisps and backwash-addled Baileys, but almost as tasty. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Pistachio & Pomegranate Sprout Salad, £2.25 out/£2.70 in

Even stalwart vegetarian colleagues were a little appalled at the idea of this pistachio and pomegranate sprout salad. And they were right not to let me palm it off on them. Although each of the flavours work on their own, the jarring mixture gives the impression of a salad that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. The pomegranate dressing is tart and sweet, the pistachio crunchy and earthy, and the mint and dill sort of pointless. Maybe it’s all just to cover up the flavour of the one actually festive ingredient: sprouts. But even uniting against this common enemy doesn’t give the salad’s component parts much cohesion. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Mince Pie, £1.60 out/£1.90 in

Apparently this mince pie is wheat-free and infused with orange zest and earl grey. But what isn’t these days? I think I had a bikini wax of that description the other week. Anyway, regardless of its special features, this simply tasted like a very nice, very compact, very regular mince pie. Anoosh

Supermarket sweep

Tesco

Tesco Wensleydale & Spiced Carrot Chutney, £2.00

As soon as you open this sandwich, it smells like Christmas. The chutney to cheese ratio is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with equal servings of both making for the perfect consistency and taste. The fact it is carrot (carrot!) barely registers, and the overall sensation is extremely pleasant. That said, the perforated edges of the sandwich box were not properly perforated and thus it was difficult to open, something you might want to consider if you like an easy life. Amelia

Hovering somewhere between your standard cheese and pickle and the festive staple brie and cranberry, there isn’t much flourish to this Tesco sandwich. It’s what it says on the tin – cheese, chutney, plus a bit of spinach thrown into the mix. There are no hidden surprises, but what’s there is pretty good – the full-bodied wensleydale actually tastes of something (unlike a lot of the brie offerings) and the carrot chutney suits. If this sandwich was a date, it would probably be the right level of friendly towards your parents. Not a love match, but nice enough. Anna

Tesco Pigs Under Blankets, £2.35

There was gristle in the mini sausages which was exceptionally off-putting and I’m too traumatised to finish this sentence. Other than that, flavours were good. Amelia

Tesco Finest Turkey Feast, £3.00

According to this sandwich, vegetables are something that happens to other people. I thoroughly approve. The flavours here aren’t subtle – meat, meat and more meat – but they are clean and more-ish. The malted brown bread is quite posh, but could be posher. Some might find the egg mayonnaise texture jarring alongside the crisp bacon, moist turkey and doughy chestnut stuffing. Helen

Aldi

Festive Feast sandwich, £1.59

Aldi’s “Festive Feast” is no worse and a bit better than some other turkey/bacon/cranberry/stuffing combinations from rival supermarkets and no-one could complain about the price as it is only £1.59. Strangely, Aldi itself seems a bit shy about it with its logo hidden on the reverse of the carton underneath the recycling information. The brand seems to be “Just Tasty”, though whether this is to make it look more upmarket or downmarket against other sandwiches isn’t clear. Santa Claus is coming to town but he doesn’t want you to know about it. Stephen Brasher

Brie and Cranberry sandwich, £1.29

There are no shortages of brie and cranberry sandwiches at this time of year – only one or two will separate themselves from the pack to impress your tastebuds. This sandwich doesn’t. It’s a perfectly fine offering, not horrible, but forgettable. The word I’d use to describe it is “functional”. For those who think Christmas food should be about so much more than mere survival, this is not the one for you – but at £1.29 we can’t complain. Anna

Waitrose

Waitrose Christmas Roast beef, stilton and quince with crispy onions, £3.95 

Waitrose is so good at being Waitrose isn’t it? It just really owns it. And nowhere does it lean further in to its status as lord of the supermarket manor than its roast beef, stilton and quince sandwich. It comes in a little box the shape of a house, for god’s sake. You basically buy property when you buy this sandwich. And it is a sophisticated affair – succulent beef, fiery stilton, the sweet hit of quince on your saliva-drenched tongue. You will never quite be able to look Tesco in the eye again. Also, thrillingly, it comes with a mini add-your-own bag of crispy onions. The bourgeois equivalent of the salt ‘n’ shake crisps sachet. Crunch ‘n’ class. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Clementine Juice, £1.40

A shameless hasty seasonal rebrand of, uh, some orange juice. But a little weaker and without bits in. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Sandwich, £3.20

I can't work out why this sandwich was terrible, but it was. Despite the fact that it has everything you'd want, the essentials of a good Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, cranberry), it doesn't work. The ingredients were poor – the bacon sharp and flavourless, as if a piece of plastic had been left in, the stuffing dry, the turkey forgettable – the bread dry, the mayonnaise overpowering. Avoid. Stephen Bush

Heston Charcoal Bagel with Tea Smoked Salmond, £3.60

This is a really posh bagel. First of all, it’s black. Way classier than your standard beige, or flashy Instagram-courting rainbow. And it has a picture of an opulently-robed salmon on the front of the packet, tempting you in with its knowing gaze. The dill and “caraway pickled cucumber” (ie. a bit of gherkin) lift the flavour of the classic cream cheese and salmon combo. The only real Christmassy element is the lump of coal (ok, charcoal). It all tastes delicious, but there are far too many chia seeds on the bagel. They drop off everywhere and get stuck in your teeth. A middle-class nightmare. Anoosh

Sainsbury’s

Brie and Cranberry, £2.60

Tasty, not too sweet, but also could have been a little bit more robustly stuffed with ingredients. Julia

Taste the Difference Crab, King Prawn & Avocado Sandwich, £3

This seafood smorgasbord is the most delicious lunchtime snack I’ve had in some time. Like a kiss from the sea, or, more accurately, a snog with a mermaid. The avocado was a perfect creamy bed for the tangy but sweet meat. But if crab, prawn and avo mean festive flavours to you, then I’m sorry, but I don’t ever want to come to yours for Christmas dinner. It’s all about chewy and bland poultry, not poncey sea beasts. Anoosh

M&S

Scorched Squash with Beetroot & Pomegranate Relish wrap, £2.80

This sandwich is trying too hard. Yes, there’s parsnip mayonnaise. Yes, the sage and thyme wrap has a slight stuffing aftertaste. Yes, 5 per cent of the £2.80 cost goes to charity. But, no it is not remotely festive. Finding interesting veggie options at Christmas can be tough, I admit, but the best idea is often to keep it simple. What even is “scorched squash”? Serena Kutchinsky

Festive Feast Trio, £3.30

Trios are very Christmassy. The three wise men. Seeing three ships. The number of days you stick to your New Year’s resolution. So M&S gets points for its “Festive Feast Trio” just for that. But it’s also a passable seasonal platter, spread between three rolls. The “posh” prawn cocktail sandwich is only really posh by Seventies starter standards – the slimy prawns are lent an all-important crunch by the cucumber and lettuce, but it’s nothing special. Then there’s the turkey feast and brie, which doesn’t have much flavour at all – but that’s probably because it’s turkey and brie. The third wise sandwich, cheddar and grape chutney, is more moist and punchy. Basic dry, unflashy bread all round. It’s an ok selection if you can’t decide which sandwich to buy, but honestly, you should be able to decide this far down this article. Anoosh

Venison & Sour Cherry Chutney, £4.50

With the sale of Sir Edward Landseer’s most famous painting in the news, what better to accompany a viewing than a M&S Venison and Sour Cherry Chutney sandwich? It’s a winner but a little less filling would allow you to taste the venison properly and the sandwich would be more Monarch of the Glen and less “The Stag at Bay”. Stephen Brasher

Morrisons

Turkey Dinner Sandwich, £2.30

The full-works supermarket sandwiches tend to all merge into one, but this one is slightly better than the others – the cranberry sauce is a bit tarter and less pointless. Anoosh

The ghost of Christmas future

HUEL

Christmas Pudding Huel, £28 for 1.7kg (14 meals), £45 for two

“Nutritionally complete meals in a couple of minutes.” This is the message from techy flour merchants Huel (“human fuel”, not “gruel”, despite appearances). Yes, once climate change destroys all the Big Macs, the food of the future will come in varying sizes of clinical sealed white pouches, complete with a helvetica font. Its mission? To make whole meals “with minimal impact on animals and the environment”. If you’re an eco-friendly health fadder, this will be just your cup of powder.

As it’s Christmas, I tried the Christmas Pudding flavour. I mixed one scoop (38g, 152 calories – nearly a packet of Walker’s crisps, I wistfully discovered) in my special giant space beaker with the required amount of cold water. Then I drank a little bit of it. Then I shuddered. It tastes of over-diluted, grainy powdered milk, with a sprinkling of grated cardboard. It has the consistency (but none of the sugary flavour) of leftover cereal milk. The aftertaste is a sort of woody processed spice, like really cold tiny fragments of clove coating your tongue. The vanilla flavour is more palatable, but I reckon the best thing to do with this Christmas pudding is to set fire to it and leave it at that… Anoosh

Coffee shop pitstops

Costa

Turkey & All the Trimmings Toastie, £3.95

Quite pleasant but the overwhelming taste is of a wet turkey struggling to get out of a vat of cranberries and ultimately drowning. Stephen Brasher

Pigs in Blankets Panini, £4.25

I will admit I consumed this in sub-optimal conditions – heated in the office microwave, rather than grilled. But that doesn’t really excuse its blandness. I mean, come on. There are two types of pork here, plus “herby stuffing” and cranberry sauce, and the damn thing is 559 calories. How do you make anything 559 calories and not be nice? By this point, the conscientious dieter will already have mentally rejected this in favour of a chicken salad, so why not go the whole hog and put some more cheese in it? And yet nothing in here really tasted of anything more than “vague meat”.

Also, because the ciabatta hadn’t been stamped flat in a grill, it was difficult to keep the sausages – which were unpleasantly flaccid – under control. They slid out and nearly landed in my lap. (I should have taken this as a sign and abandoned them.) On a bitterly cold day, I can see this being a tempting option when it emerges toasty fresh from a grill, but it isn’t to be contemplated under any other circumstances. Helen

Gluten Free Turkey, Bacon and Cranberry Wrap, £3.20

There are two things you need in a successful wrap, whatever the time of year: an even spread of tasty ingredients and enough structural integrity that it won’t leak in your hands. Sadly, this offering from Costa could provide neither of these things in full measure. The turkey was more flavourful than in your average shop sandwich (ie, it had a slight poultry taste) but it, as well as the lettuce and bacon, had bunched at the top, meaning that after a couple of bites I was just eating wrap and sauce. And that sauce – the sweet cranberry jam had leaked out the bottom of both halves of my wrap, leaving me with unpleasantly sticky fingers. The wrap itself is slightly chalky in texture, as is usual with gluten free products (it’s made mostly from tapioca starch, according to the list of ingredients). The flavour combination is reassuringly Christmassy, but unfortunately the starchy wrap rather dampens any festive spirit this contender might have evoked. Caroline

Starbucks

Starbucks Turkey Feast baguette, £3.99

This one really is a feast: bacon AND turkey in a harmonious conversation with each other. Surprisingly the turkey tastes like what your momma makes at home, and there really is some smoky maple in the bacon. Some more cranberry chutney would perk it up to perfection, but all in all I’m left happy. Right until I remember it came from Starbucks, and start thinking about America. Pinja

Festive Veggie Feast baguette, £3.99

A Starbucks food sceptic, I did not expect to be won over by their Veggie Feast Baguette. But it was a triumph. The baguette is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, the squash full of autumnal flavour, the sage and onion stuffing ensuring this is decidedly Christmas fare. But it’s the cheese that really makes the sandwich – there is absolutely tons of rich brie, thoroughly melted and paired with a delicious real ale chutney. While other festive veggie options can feel far too healthy to really count as Christmas food, this is indulgent in the best way. Anna

High street treat

Pizza Express

Porchetta Natale Romana Pizza, £13.20

Before going further, I must admit to being an unpicky Pizza Express fan. Give me anything on a Romana base and I’m yours. So it’s unsurprising that I loved the seasonal special “Porcetta Natale Romana”, which is apparently a “delectable twist on the classic Christmas roast dinner” – or “pigging delicious”, according to a more straightforward bit of the press release. It is a juicy and delicious meat feast: pulled pork, herby stuffing, glistening scrunches of pancetta. Its triumph is also its downfall, however. By bypassing the dull flavours of turkey it also ducks being an authentic Christmas dinner on a pizza. Anoosh

Snowball Dough Balls, £3.85

The only thing more delicious than fluffy balls of dough are fluffy balls of dough with wordplay attached. So it was with disappointment that I learned Pizza Express’ seasonal rebrand of its classic dough balls starter aren’t called snow balls. Not even snough balls. No, they’re called Snowball Dough Balls. Which is silly. Still, piping hot, dusted with cinnamon and dipped in rich vanilla cream, their sheer tastiness almost makes you forget the missed opportunity to pun. Almost. Anoosh

Cauliflower Cheese Romana Pizza, £12.50

Have you ever eaten a delicious pizza, dripping with cheese, smothered in garlic, and thought, “Nice, but what would make this really amazing is some cauliflower?” No? Well, Pizza Express assumes you have with its veggie Christmas special, Cauliflower Cheese. It always slightly amazes me what meat-eaters think will get vegetarians salivating – hint: not cauliflower! But this pizza is actually really nice, mostly because of its other winning ingredients: pecorino, “pink” onion, and pine kernals. It loses points for me for having no tomato. There’s nothing that draws me to this pizza over the chain’s other (brilliant, in my humble opinion) offerings, but it’s not bad either. Anna

The artisan choice

Forman & Field

Traditional Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese Bagel, the “Boris Bagel”,​ £5.95 for two

It’s the “Boris Bagel”, from the people who brought you the Boris Bike and the Boris Bus... Except this is not double-decker and you can open it, unlike a Boris Bus window. Actually H Forman & Son are the oldest remaining salmon smokery on Fish Island in the East End, an area once home to London’s largest Jewish population and still several legendary bagel shops. This bagel has definitely got that authentic chewy, glossy quality familiar to regulars at Brick Lane’s 24-hour Beigel Bake, and a world away from crumby supermarket fare. You know when you have top-quality smoked salmon, and this is it: a classy shade of pink, and you can taste that swirling oak smoke. It’s offset by some nice creamy cream cheese, and elevated with chopped chives and lemon juice. Not exactly a Christmassy choice – perhaps one for Hannukah. What makes it Boris-y? It seems it was named after him after he sang the praises of Forman’s, and opened their new factory. But that was back when he was Mayor of London. Does Brexit mean bagels too? Oh and where’s the Sadiq Sarnie? Tom Calvocoressi

Letterbox lunch

Graze

Merry Mince Pie Flapjacks, £1.19

It is arguably against the very spirit of baby Jesus to eat something that tastes like a mince pie but is not a mince pie. This, however, is good news for mail-order desk snack connoisseurs Graze’s Mince Pie Flapjack, as – despite the name – it tastes nothing like the traditional festive offering at all. What it does taste like, however, is gingerbread, which is fine, really. Better for everyone. As a spicy, Christmas flapjack, this will warm your bellies. As a mince pie? It is nought. Amelia

Posh crisps

Fairfield’s Farm

Kelly Bronze Turkey, Sage & Onion crisps, 80p

These high-quality crisps have a satisfying thickness, reminiscent of Kettle Chips and other similarly posh potato-based snacks. The simple, stylish black packaging is eye-catching. And you can assuage waistline guilt safe in the knowledge that this is a product with strong eco-credentials – the crisps are hand-cooked on a family-run farm in Essex using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The only problem is the flavour. The turkey taste is weak, and the sage and punchy onion is overwhelming. The overall effect is that on the first bite they seem flavour-free, only for a salty aftertaste to hit seconds later. Definitely one for sharing, rather than solitary scoffing. Serena

All images are publicity shots from the respective outlets, apart from those used to illustrate Waitrose and HUEL, which are the author's own.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.