This article is by LSE MSc student Séverine Guex
“Giving a voice to the voiceless,” this is the well-known mission of the news channel Al Jazeera. Launched twenty-two years ago in Qatar, Al Jazeera Arabic was the first independent news channel in the Arab world. Aiming to provide comprehensive news and live debate, the channel now reaches more than 270 million households in over 140 countries across the globe, Part of a growing network comprising more than 10 channels and divisions, Al Jazeera English viewers watch the channel to be informed, inspired or even entertained, through diverse channels ranging from news to documentaries, and even kids programming and sports coverage. Its presence on social media is also significant, particularly through the highly shared short clips featured on AJ+.
The LSE Master’s Media, Communication and Development cohort had the chance to visit the Al Jazeera English headquarters at their London offices* earlier this month. Situated on the 16th floor of the Shard, , our tour began with a viewing of the very technical Global Operations room, where images and videos from journalists in the field pass before being redirected to the production gallery. As Peter Wood, manager of broadcast centre operations, explained, the room has direct connections to the Doha and Washington, DC offices. In the production gallery, the technical aspects of the editing and directing happen. Cameras in the TV studio are adjusted from an IPad in this room. The director’s desk manages everything, and takes creative action in case of technical or other problems. In a supporting role, a production assistant is responsible for the timing of the program. Their work is coordinated using the same editorial system “I news”.
The TV studio and newsroom boasts a breathtaking view of the city, something that is certainly not due to chance. Indeed, before setting up on the 16th floor, cameras tests were conducted on three different floors of the Shard, in order to choose the floor with the best view and level of brightness. A balance of light exposure is curated through a filter system installed directly on the windows, which is automatically adjusted throughout the day. The studio is also on an open-floor plan, due to today’s general trend for greater transparency, however, this can make technical work much more challenging!
The visit ended with a Q&A with the Executive Producer of News, Ben Rayner, who talked about the process of news production and Al Jazeera’s present and future challenges.
Ben stressed the importance of producing an “Al Jazeera story,” as well as the ongoing editorial questioning of components that make an Al Jazeera news agenda distinct from that of other news channels.Al Jazeera likes to think of itself as a more challenging channel, bringing historical nuance to stories through in-depth analysis. While the Middle East is certainly a massive area, it is “not a channel by Muslims for Muslims,” indeed, their aim is much broader as Mohamed Zayani and Sofiane Sahraoui outline in their book The Culture of Al Jazeera. We also discussed the very costly ‘mistake’ of the launch and shut down of Al-Jazeera America.
Questioning those in power, and holding them to account, is one of the channel’s core missions. However, this does not always happen. As one of our students pointed out, Al Jazeera hasn’t questioned power as much in, for example, India with regard to Hindutva governance, or with regard to its own funders in Qatar. Moreover, when being questioned on the differences between the Arabic and the English versions of the style of reporting and news coverage, the answer was that Al Jazeera Arabic is more focused on stories from the Middle East, whereas Al Jazeera English has a more ‘global’ agenda. Additionally, it was noted that journalists’ lives are at risk in certain parts of the world, due to their affiliation with Al Jazeera, something that can have an influence on their writing and reporting. Responding to queries regarding the challenges of the future, we heard that global news itself is a challenge, because it is much more difficult to hold a diverse audience’s interest and involvement, compared with a domestic one. Finally, it appears that one of the main challenges ahead for Al Jazeera is how to gain and retain television viewers, and how to maintain a cost-effective way of producing expensive segments.
By Séverine Guex
*With thanks to Lauren Bray and Marcela Pizzaro for making this visit possible.