Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Al Jazeera passes first test.

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel, sad news though it is, has been proven that Al Jazeera can tango with the best of the West. I was down to do the bulletin at 1500hrs, and everything was going swimmingly. But this is live news, where bombs are always going off, planes are always crashing, and treaties are always being signed. It was about 1420hrs, so I figured I had enough time. Ordinarily, I'd have put in a story saying "some news just in", followed by a couple of lines. With forty minutes to go, there'd definitely be a proper story ready to go in.

As is always the way with live news, stories were being written as we were going on air. The idea is for everything to mimic a swan: gliding gracefully above water, paddling furiously underneath. The last time I remember having an incredible breaking story was when North Korea tested its nuclear device. That was about 0350hrs in the morning, ten minutes before my bulletin. Again, graceful swan. Enough about my silly bulletin. Al Jazeera.

In the first hour after the story broke, of all the 24hr news channels, only Al Jazeera had a correspondent on the ground. Rula Amin (poached from CNN) was there with a camera, uplink and all. BBC News24 had Fergal Keane in the studio, giving context as someone who knows Beirut and Lebanese politics. He was probably there as a day reporter, as he'd done a piece on Kagame being charged with bringing down Habyarimana's plane (the spark for the Rwandan genocide). BBC World (we have both at work) went to Ian Pannell, Middle East analyst, in Jerusalem. Sky brought up Dominic Waghorn in Jerusalem as well. CNN had a Fouad Siniora (Lebanese PM) adviser on the phone, and then went to Jim Clancy, the former Beirut bureau chief, who was in Sao Paulo.

For some reason, Kim Ghattas, who has done a sterling job in Beirut was in Damascus, covering the Syria-Iraq relations restoration. She was probably covering for David Loyn, who's normally in Syria, but is in Iraq, probably giving Hugh Sykes a break. I don't know whether the Beeb provided official cover for Kim Ghattas, but Newsnight's Tim Whewell turned up in Beirut less than two hours later.

Al Jazeera was also the only channel that had any archive footage of Gemayel, all the others ran pictures, and videos of the holey windows of Mr Gemayel's car. The man who appeared to be supplying all the news organisations with on the ground news though, was the Indy's Middle East reporting giant, Robert Fisk. A call went out from our newsroom to Mr Fisk, who was actually in Beirut. Newshour had him live, and I think one of the BBC's news channels also had him. Meanwhile at the UN, the moustachioed John Bolton was giving an impassioned and impromptu press conference. Mark Seddon was reporting for Al Jazeera, Laura Trevelyan for the BBC, and the Beeb also had Jonathan Beale at the State Department.

Why does it matter how Al Jazeera did this story? Because the Middle East is still the cauldron of the world, a cauldron that draws the world's foremost power (the US) into its eye. Whenever a Middle East story breaks, Al Jazeera will become the channel of choice. The developing world, is where they want to report, the "global south". Incidentally, the Director General of Al Jazeera is on Hardtalk today, watch here. The murder of Pierre Gemayel may well precipitate a civil war in Lebanon, something the region, let alone the country cannot afford after last year's Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Precisely the premise for Friday's Unreported World. Depressingly prescient?
The Chelsea syndrome might be beginning to show - while CNN, Sky, and believe it or not, the BBC, have to tighten their belts on expenditure, Al Jazeera presumably has a bottomless pocket of oil money. Add to the mix, Mourinhoesque good management, et voila...

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