Al-Jazeera's new voice

Observations on television

A year late, and dogged by internal disputes, al-Jazeera finally launches its English-language version on 15 November. The timing is apposite: ten years on from the launch of the original Arabic-language channel and straight after the US midterms and the sentencing of Saddam Hussein.

The new channel hopes initially to reach up to five million viewers, bringing a different perspective on events to homes used to CNN, the BBC and Fox. "We're trying to enable viewers to put on different spectacles," Nigel Parsons, al-Jazeera's managing director, tells me. "We will cover stories that others are not covering."

Broadcasting from Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington and London, al-Jazeera's most potent weapon will be its raw material. Across the Middle East, it will be the first - and often the only - source of pictures. Thus it will be able to challenge US propaganda, not least during wars.

The biggest test will be how it combines its perspective with a requirement for objectivity. This has led to tension between executives of the Arabic- and English-language stations. What will they do, for example, about hostage videos and al-Qaeda statements? Will they be as squeamish as western stations?

Channel executives have used the protracted delay to woo hostile governments, notably the US, which has twice attacked al-Jazeera offices. Paradoxically, Parsons says, one country where the network has encountered few problems is Israel. "It's just about the only country in the Middle East that hasn't tried to shut us down at some point," he says. "The Israelis have been more open and candid with us than the Americans."

Editorially, Parsons insists, the channel will not fit the western stereotype. "Existing stations work from the assumption of: 'Shock horror, Iran may become a nuclear power.' But no one asks why it's OK for Israel or India to have the bomb but not Pakistan or Iran. Similarly, when Hamas won in Palestine, it might have been a shock in London or Washington, but it wasn't to those in the region."

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