Not the Ten O'Clock News
Television - Zoe Williams is dismayed to find prejudice and triviality in a documentary about al-Jaz
In the Iraq-attack drinking game (and you thought wars provided no idle booze fun), players were enjoined to take one drink every time they heard al-Jazeera referred to as "the Arabic CNN"; nine drinks every time they heard CNN referred to as "the American al-Jazeera". It sounds like a punishing drinking schedule, but we were strictly in single-tipple territory here. The western media are permeated by this sense of mild surprise that the Arab world can master anything as modern as telly, let alone rolling news - it would never occur to anyone to cite them as an example.
BBC2's Al-Jazeera: exclusive! (9pm, 1 June), I was surprised and disappointed to find, proved no exception. The programme covered activities at the station from just before the war until the end, and opened with a text warning about disturbing images - this documentary would reproduce them "obscured"; al-Jazeera, we learnt, aired them "unobscured". This sixth-form ethics debate took up, at a guess, 70 per cent of the programme. Should the station have shown dead Iraqis? ("Well," in the words of the news editor - more in a minute about why I can't tell you his name - "We didn't in-vent the bodies. We didn't create the bodies. We simply show the bodies.") Should it have shown American prisoners of war? ("Reuters show Iraqi prisoners of war," said the head of media relations. "But Reuters can get away with a lot.") How does Tony Blair have the gall to stand up and call the broadcast of death "inhuman" when he sanctioned the death in the first place? (Nobody knows, though a lot of people seemed to be wondering.) Indeed, isn't this beyond absurd, to object more to the breach of etiquette in death, than to the loss of life? This programme showed the debate, and I think it is fair to say that it showed the staff at al-Jazeera winning it hands down. And yet this had no impact on the moral position of the programme-makers - as they made clear from the outset, pixelated death is simply more civilised. These towel-heads can say what they like.
A basic lack of respect for these journalists showed itself in many other ways, major and minor. The names of the staff were spoken, but never printed on the screen. I really think that in a documentary age, when it is considered necessary for viewers to be given an accurate name-spelling for every dingwad who "Loves the Eighties", that I should not have to be making a wild guess at the correct way to address Mowatack Talfik (I'm sure that isn't right). I know that the station's head of PR, Jihad Balloo, has, like all his colleagues, extremely sophisticated English, that he can talk on two phones at once and that he loves his smokes, but I cannot tell you whether he is named after a holy war, nor, for that matter, can I tell you whether his family is named after the bear in The Jungle Book.
There were blips of high-handed nastiness in the narration. On the rumour of a downed American plane, al-Jazeera, along with Abu Dhabi TV, followed a crowd of Iraqis as they hunted the crew. "The Americans deny the loss," said our man from Auntie, "but that doesn't stop the media feeding frenzy." Since when did two television crews following a story become a "feeding frenzy"? Since when did the Americans denying something make it not true? (As it turned out, unsurprisingly, it was true.) Since when have investigative journalists been required by decency to down tools on the say-so of General Tommy Franks? This is just garden-variety racism, and I don't bandy the accusation about lightly. John Simpson investigates, ladies and gentlemen - Tarek Ayyoub feeds.
Incidentally, I know Ayyoub is spelt correctly, because he lost his life when the Americans bombed al-Jazeera's Iraq office, and his name was given in both English and Arabic script on the poignant memorial poster in the office. The station's offices in Kabul were also bombed during the war on Afghanistan, again, just after it had broadcast images displeasing to the Americans. This seems, understandably, like too much of a coincidence to the news editor at al-Jazeera. A much better documentary - more investigative, more pacy, more hard-hitting, more controversial, more just - could have been made about that incident. Do the Americans deliberately silence media witnesses who don't fall into line? Do you sign your own death warrant when you disdain to be embedded? Is there any way of making the coalition forces accountable for their targets, or will we always have to swallow "sorry, guv, it was an accident"? But, instead, Ayyoub's death was picked over mainly for sentimental value, and the Kabul bombing mentioned only in passing.
This is not to say that there were no insights in the programme, nor that the journalists, individually, were portrayed in a bad light. But there was prejudice and an inappropriate triviality at its core. I can't help thinking that al-Jazeera would have done a much better job on the BBC.
Zoe Williams is a columnist for the Guardian
Andrew Billen is away