Al Jazeera English (AJE) is all set to introduce more challenging and informative current affairs programmes with new leadership in the saddle. AJE’s fearless and incisive journalism, in only three years of broadcasting, has established new benchmarks not only in this region, but also the world at large.
Under the leadership of Tony Burman (pictured), AJE is moving away from its launch phase to a higher level. He was editor-in-chief and executive director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC News) and today leads AJE as its Managing Director. In this exclusive interview with The Peninsula, AJE Managing Director Burman outlines the channel’s past achievements and reflects on its future.
What is the role played by this channel to reflect the image of Arabs in the western world in general and in the media in particular?
We are working to take advantage of the close relationship between Al Jazeera English and Arabic. It is very important for both channels to enrich each other. People rightly expect Al Jazeera English to reflect the Arab reality in the West in a way that is respectful, honest and constructive.
What are the most important programmes and documentaries that would be presented by Al Jazeera English during the third year?
With the election of Barack Obama in the United States and the biggest financial crisis there is an expectation and hope that 2009 will be usher in many positive changes worldwide. One of the key questions will be how the new administration engages with the rest of the world. To respond to this reawakened concern about international affairs, Al Jazeera English will introduce new current affairs and documentary programmes to explore the lessons of history that drive today’s events.
What are the most important achievements of Al Jazeera English in the last two years?
The first achievement was to go on the air with such high-quality programmes, and to attract a large audience very quickly. We launched to 80 million households. That’s no simple achievement. After two years on the air, Al Jazeera English is now seen in 130 million households worldwide in more than 100 countries. That is a far better record of achievement than what CNN or the BBC did.
What have been the most important achievements of Al Jazeera English after your appointment?
I took over Al Jazeera English in May this year. It was a time when everyone – staff and audience alike – wanted the channel to move out of its ‘launch’ phase and get to another level. That’s what I am committed to achieve. We have introduced what I am calling the “Al Jazeera English Renewal Project” that focuses on the channel’s main priorities and encourages the staff to shape our future.
What are the new things you have added to the form and structure of the channel?
The structure of the channel will be affected by the results of AJE’s Renewal Project. My expectations are that it will result in a channel that will be more diverse in its staff and editorial choices.
What are your plans for this channel?
We are committed to working more closely with our colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic. We want to expand our coverage to all kinds of media platforms to appeal to audiences who want to access our journalism on their own terms.
What position does Al Jazeera English hold among international news channels?
Al Jazeera English is gradually establishing its own place in the crowded media universe. In July, it won the award for ‘Best 24 hours News Channel Programme’ at the prestigious Monte Carlo Television Festival.
What does Al Jazeera English need more to be added by you?
We need to keep listening to our audience. As other news organisations cut back in their coverage of the world, Al Jazeera is committed to increasing its coverage of the world.
Would you please comment on a verdict issued by the British Labour Court discharging Al Jazeera from the charge attributed to it by one of western editors?
The important thing to remember is that the British tribunal completely cleared Al Jazeera English. The British court found that the allegations made against Al Jazeera were untrue. People sometimes try to capitalize on a situation by distorting the way things are. This is what happened here.
Which programmes have been received extensively by people during the last period?
A report from rural United States about who was attending Sarah Palin’s rallies. Palin was the Republican candidate for US Vice-President and there was no coverage in the mainstream media about ‘who’ was attending these rallies. AJE reporter Casey Kauffman, did a report in which those who attended reflected a high degree of racism and intolerance.
What did Al Jazeera English channel add to Tony Burman and what did you add to it from your private experience?
For me, the most marvellous part of joining Al Jazeera has been to connect with the Arabic side of it. In my trips to the Middle East, I have always been fascinated by this region, and struck by the openness and generosity of the people here.