Give me Al-Jazeera English - not BBC World News
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am one of the BBC’s biggest fans. They can rig as many games shows as they like, so far as I’m concerned (did anyone ever think the competitions were real and fair anyway?) . They can swear on air at the most innocent of pensioners. It is a small price to pay for a national broadcasting service that is the best in the world.
Anyone who feels their loyalty to the Beeb wobbling a little should try four months in the USA – where you can surf through fifty TV stations without finding something worth watching, and where the impecunious Public Broadcasting radio stations make a valiant effort but are not a patch on Radio 4. There is nothing like In Our Time anywhere else, nor anything like the Today programme (whose lustre would be further enshrined, in my view, if it retained the services of Mr Stourton – just to come late into this old controversy).
If the Labour government, or its successor, starves the BBC into commercialism it will have committed the century’s biggest crime against British culture (and there are plenty of crimes to choose from …ID cards, detention without trial, school testing, etc. etc.).
So you know where I stand.
But even I think that there is an occasional Achilles heel in this otherwise glorious edifice. BBC World News, watched – or rather not watched – in hotel rooms across the world, is one such heel.
Last week I had the opportunity to compare in detail the offering of BBC World News and Al-Jazeera English. OK, it’s been a slightly unfair comparison, because Al-Jazeera is the only news station with reporters on the ground in the Gaza strip and it was able to get some really gritty frontline accounts of the appalling effects of Israeli bombing. The BBC was left rather plaintively on the Israeli frontier, speculating on the smoke rising in the distance – and having to exploit the (few) Israeli casualties for all they were worth.
But it’s not just a question of who has reporters where. Whereas BBC terrestrial television channels have excellent up-to-the-minute political and news coverage (it would take a lot to beat Newsnight), the commentary on World News is low grade and repetitive. They were still repeating their review of 2008 on January 3, even as the Israeli tanks mustered. And when they are not repeating their own programmes, they are repeating the adverts for them. A ghastly trailer for some history of mathematics seemed to appear at least four times an hour, informing us that the ancient Chinese had no concept of ‘zero’ (…and if you think that’s fascinating, well tune in and learn more..).
True, Al-Jazeera is fairly Middle East focussed (but someone’s got to be for heaven’s sake), and you could hardly mistake it for being pro-Israel (but someone has got to give the Israeli spokesmen a hard time). More important though is that it actually brings fresh news and intelligent comment, with a minimum of repetition. To be fair there is some, but it is the repetition of better programmes (we saw twice a really excellent critical analysis of Mubarak’s Egypt).
One of its best stunts was gathering together the weasel words of George W Bush on the Palestinian question – including the speech in which he said he was looking forward to a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. That didn’t actually need any comment. The passage of time alone revealed its emptiness.
The joke is that if you close your eyes and just listen to Al-Jazeera, you’d think it was the BBC. A good station attracts good journalists. And many of them are British, with the kind of plummy British accents that – under pressure of regionalization and democratization – the BBC would now shy away from.
There’s a lesson for Auntie here.