Channel of terror

Al-Jazeera: how Arab TV news challenged the world

Hugh Miles <em>Abacus, 438pp, £10.99</em>


Remember the sight of Saddam Hussein's palaces exploding in flames at night? They were recorded by the Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera. Remember the videos of Osama Bin Laden taunting the west? They first appeared on al-Jazeera. Rem-ember Yasser Arafat telling the world that he wanted to die as "a martyr, a martyr, a martyr"? He said it to al-Jazeera.

Day after day, al-Jazeera has been first with the news from the Middle East, not least because it can talk to the militants who are now beyond the reach of western journalists. Its access has been so good, in fact, that America has often suspected the channel of being a mouthpiece for its enemies. Whether by mistake (as Washington, DC claims) or deliberately (as most of the Arab world believes), the US has twice bombed the network's offices in Kabul and in Baghdad, killing one of its correspondents, Tareq Ayyoub. Iraq's interim government has banned al-Jazeera from the country, regarding it as a "channel of terrorism". Despite the expulsion, it still manages to break news of kidnappings, beheadings and statements by insurgents.

Al-Jazeera has upset not just America and its Iraqi friends. In the eight years since it started broadcasting from the Gulf emirate of Qatar, it has antagonised Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Syria. It has been accused of being a CIA front, a pawn of the Zionists, a plaything of the Ba'athists and loudspeaker for Islamists. What all the critics have in common is that they cannot control al-Jazeera, and the network's image of iconoclastic independence has turned it into one of the world's most-watched satellite television networks. It has spawned many imitations, including the US-funded Alhurra station, but none matches its popularity.

Hugh Miles - the Arabic-speaking son of a British diplomat who spent the Iraq war monitoring al-Jazeera for Sky News - tells the fascinating story of how al-Jazeera rose from the ashes of a failed BBC venture in Arabic-language broadcasting, which the Saudis killed off in 1996 in anger at an interview with a Saudi dissident. Inadvertently, they helped to create a network that was even more distasteful to them - airing programmes on whether oral sex was permissible in Islam, interviewing Israeli leaders, giving time to dissidents from across the Arab world and turning another renegade Saudi, Bin Laden, into an icon for millions of Muslims.

At first al-Jazeera made little impact, but the network had a bizarre stroke of luck. A French satellite channel, Canal France International, unintentionally broadcast a hard-core porn film in an afternoon slot intended for a show aimed at schoolchildren in the Middle East. CFI was thrown off the Arabsat satellite and its coveted place was given over to al-Jazeera. The channel began to win audiences with its mixture of polished professional broadcasting, taboo-breaking discussion programmes and sensational reporting.

Whereas other Arab channels avoided anything that would anger a brotherly Arab government, al-Jazeera often seemed determined to get up the noses of all of them at the same time. As its offices were closed down around the region, Salam Pax, the Baghdad blogger, quipped that the station should change its motto to "Al-Jazeera: the only Arab network with no offices in the Arab world".

Miles's account is often excellent and entertaining, but it is much too long and at times patchy. He records hardly any instances of the mistakes and errors of judgement that plague any news organ-isation. He scorns the US and treats the station with a bit too much reverence. For example, he makes too little of how, in order to establish al-Jazeera in Iraq, "concessions had to be made to placate the regime" and journalists had to "self-censor". Al-Jazeera's bureau in Baghdad was staffed by two Iraqi journalists, one of them a former head of Iraqi television. Could they really report reliably from Saddam's Iraq?

The story of al-Jazeera embodies the contradictions of the Middle East. It is hated by America, but is based only a few miles away from the US regional headquarters in Qatar; it is a force for pluralism and democracy, but survives only through the munificence of the emirate's autocratic dynasty. This experiment in journalistic freedom could yet be rolled back. Enjoy al-Jazeera while it is still around.

Anton La Guardia is diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph and author of Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians (John Murray)

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Coronation, Texas-style