English / Journalism / Media

Al Jazeera scores another victory in the information war (from Coffee House, The Spectator Blog)

Al Jazeera scores another victory in the information war

Fraser Nelson

Now that Gaddafi has been killed, which television station will the world turn to? I suspect that, right now, Al Jazeera will be on in No.10 and the White House, and indeed television sets across Asia and India. At a time when the BBC is retreating from global news, its Dubai-based rival is expanding — and this has harsh implications. The Arab Spring demonstrated the importance of media to world affairs, and the Americans are mindful that they’re losing this battle. The America-style television news formula — celebrity newscasters and short packages rather thin on analysis — go down badly outside America. ‘We are in an information war and we are losing,’ Hillary Clinton warned the Senate foreign relations committee in March. ‘Al Jazeera is winning.’

The BBC has traditionally fared better. But the BBC has come under fierce competition from Al Jazeera — and rather than respond, it’s caving in and going home. It is losing out in the ‘most trusted’ surveys worldwide. When the BBC World Service closed down its 21-man Serbian radio operation, Al Jazeera Balkans set about hiring 150 people in Sarajevo headed by the veteran Croatian journalist Goran Milic. That’s its formula: it doesn’t foist Anderson Cooper on the world, but has local television champions. When its reporters made enemies in Morocco and Gaddafi’s Libya, its stature rose further. When Israel wanted to tool up in the global information wars, it’s telling that there were calls for a ‘Jewish Al Jazeera’ rather than a Jewish BBC.

Dennis Sewell, a contributing editor of The Spectator and former BBC World Service journalist, wrote about this in May:

“Al Jazeera English is a polished, professional operation that has recruited many of its staff from the BBC or its Canadian or Australian equivalents. It has a broad international agenda and its coverage displays no obvious bias. Someone who spent an hour or two watching the channel would be likely to come away perplexed at the controversy surrounding it.”

The Chinese are also expanding into the television market, often providing news packages for African stations to run. Russia Today is now broadcasting in Arabic and Spanish. As Dennis concluded in his piece:

“When so many other states are investing so much in diplomacy through broadcasting, it would be foolish of Britain to throw away the strong hand cards we already hold.”

I’d like to leave CoffeeHousers with a controversial and (I suspect) unpopular thought. If Britain is to compete in the global information market, what is our best chance of so doing? I’m not sure that the BBC is the answer anymore. For all of its assets, it doesn’t respond very quickly to new upstarts. It can allow its brand to be contaminated, as happened when BBC World’s Moscow service was nobbled by the Kremlin. Overall, the BBC’s bureaucracy is stifling, rendering it both short-sighted and slow-moving. A tragedy, when one considers the wealth of journalistic talent it employs.

I’d say that Sky News is Britain’s better bet. It constantly bests the BBC in foreign coverage (as it did during the fall of Tripoli) and its brilliant iPad App is the most recent reminder of its ability to innovate. The Murdoch takeover, had it allowed to go ahead, would have up bolstered Sky News and helped it take on the world. I still hope it will.