End of western domination?

BY sonwalkar| IN Media Practice | 17/11/2006
Al Jazeera International is the nearest media equivalent to setting a non-western cat among western pigeons.



                                  Indo-Asian News Service




Prasun Sonwalkar



Many called it the beginning of the end of the western domination of the global news space. Others were not so sure, but on Wednesday the new Al Jazeera English channel mounted one of the most serious challenges by slickly presenting an alternative, non-western news agenda.


In western capitals such as London and Washington, Day 1 of the English version of the controversial channel was closely monitored, not only by rival channels but also by governments, media experts and the people.


The channel`s reach is currently limited, but it did manage to create a splash - it was the nearest media equivalent to setting a non-western cat among western pigeons. The channel`s slogan is `Setting the news agenda`.


The channel uses familiar western formats, western reportorial conventions, and even known western journalists such as David Frost, Riz Khan, Rageh Omaar, Darren Jordan and Shiulie Ghosh - but the perspective and choice of stories is fresh and non-western.


Since the early 1970s, countries of South have been campaigning at international fora such as UNESCO for a new information and communication order that presents a balanced perspective of events and issues across the globe.


The debate about the one-way flow of news and cultural traffic (west to the rest) held sway for a while, but petered out in the face of the economic and political clout of western powers such as the United States and Britain. If anything, many believe that globalisation (read Americanisation) has exponentially increased western domination of news agendas.


Seen in such a context, when Qatar-based Al Jazeera (`island` in Arabic) emerged in 1996, it was seen as a prime example of contra flow of news and cultural traffic - from the south to the north. Many saw it as an upstart channel, including the leading lights of the Saddam Hussain government as well as the George Bush administration.


The Arabic Al Jazeera channel managed to complicate the global news space by its coverage of the `war on terrorism` by providing coverage of issues and events that were largely ignored by western news superpowers such as CNN and BBC.


It not only transformed the Arab public sphere, but also managed to complicate western conception and understanding of developments in Iraq and Afghanistan by broadcasting footage of Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden.


Now with the launch of the English channel, Al Jazeera has well and truly joined the contest of news space by promising to upset the familiar west-centric status quo. Its two channels (Arabic and English) have emerged as the foremost challenge to western media imperialism.


"One of our goals is to reverse the flow of information to the south," Wadah Khanfar, director general of the Al Jazeera Group, explained. Funded mainly by the Emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera employs journalistic staff from 40 different countries. Many of them trained and worked for the BBC and have adapted their skills to non-western themes, concerns and interests.


By telecasting in English, employing known western journalists and reaching homes in western countries, the channel has clearly sought to occupy a space that was excluded or marginalised by western bias in the media.


It was no surprise that on Day 1 on Wednesday, most of the statements of support for the channel came from the US and Britain. Richard Porter, head of BBC news, said: "Looks like it is going to be a serious competitor for the two established channels, BBC World and CNN...They`re going to be reporting the south to the north, they say. They won`t follow the traditional agenda. I welcome their arrival. Competition is good in any market".


The English channels impact on Day 1 can be gauged from comments from media commentators such as Mark Lawson in The Guardian: "(However)

balanced it manages to seem on the issues of the Middle East, the first day`s reporting felt unbalanced in its concentration on that region and the resulting almost contemptuous attitude to US and British affairs.


"The problem with this approach is that an English-language broadcaster will surely limit its potential audience by continuing this editorial belittlement of the biggest English-speaking cultures".


In an information age marked by proliferation of technology, media experts are already predicting the emergence of more Al Jazeeras as regional ideas and media strengths grow across the globe - particularly in India, China and Brazil.





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