Al Jazeera chief hints at privatisation
LONDON • Al Jazeera, the Arab broadcaster owned by Qatar, could be privatised if its plan to expand into televising the Champions League and other sports proves lucrative.
Wadah Khanfar, the network’s director-general, told The Times that a sell-off was a medium-term option once the state-subsidised Al Jazeera had become profitable. Al Jazeera has launched three sports channels in an attempt to generate income.
Khanfar said: “It will be up to the board to decide, but it is a realistic possibility in the long term. But it is not realistic in the next two years. “We have to be able to maintain the independence of our editorial line and we have to no longer depend on subsidy. We have a plan - that will take a few years - so that we become self-financing.”
Al Jazeera dates back to 1996, when former BBC staff joined forces to form an Arabic news channel, with an initial grant from the Emir of Qatar. The channel became pre-eminent in the region, with up to 70 million committed viewers, according to Khanfar, but it failed to become profitable by the original goal of 2001.
No financial figures are available. The state of Qatar provides an annual subsidy, thought to run into tens of millions of dollars, to make up a shortfall in advertising income.
The network runs seven channels, including a 20-month-old English news service, and it hopes that eventually a premium sports service, which has just over one million subscribers, will generate significant income.
It has come under diplomatic pressure from the United States. Washington has urged privatisation at times when it has been critical of the coverage Al Jazeera has given to Osama bin Laden and other militants. Khanfar defended the station’s approach: “You have to cover the voices of the margin. How can you understand the Middle East without understanding military groups?”
Khanfar, who is in Britain for the Edinburgh Television Festival, elevated that observation into a wider philosophy - an argument against “hotel roof journalism”. The plea is borne out of personal experience. The 39-year-old, who describes himself as “a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport”, began his career reporting for Al Jazeera in southern Africa.
He said that television news reporting on the Middle East and elsewhere needed to focus less on politics and to “encourage reporters to become more and more expert in their fields and give more emphasis to field coverage”. Al Jazeera’s budget allows its English service to employ 600 journalists in 50 countries, higher numbers than most of its rivals.
The approach extends to what are considered military enemies by the US Administration. “Some of us (news networks) don’t take the Taleban as a source,” Khanfar said. “We do, but we have learnt how to authenticate what they are saying. ”
Such an approach helped to lead to Al Jazeera’s Arabic news service being banned from Iraq four years ago.
Khanfar said that there was no interference from Qatar in the network’s coverage. Although a separate editorial board, appointed from journalists in the company, is established to maintain standards, when 2,000 Britons were asked by YouGov to say which television news coverage they trusted least on news, Al Jazeera English scored the highest, at 33 percent. BBC and ITV news were at 6 percent.
In the United States the broadcaster is regularly criticised and Al Jazeera has struggled to get any leading American cable network to distribute its English channel.
However, Khanfar said he hoped that the climate would change, possibly when the US presidential election was concluded.
“I think the view of Al Jazeera is gradually changing and that we are not the source of the trouble,” he said. “We have been out of Iraq for the past four years, but during that time has Iraq got a lot more stable?”