It took years for Al Jazeera English to be allowed into this country, accompanied by quite a bit of controversy. But now that it’s here, we don’t hear much about it; Bernie Farber, chief executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, says that “from what we have noticed, there seems to be little reaction to AJE in Canada.” People were fearing (in some cases, hoping) there would be fireworks from the anglophone arm of the Middle Eastern news channel. CRTC commissioner Marc Patrone warned of “the potential use of our broadcast system to spread ethnic or religious hatred.” But so far, the reaction seems to be something more startling: indifference.
Tony Burman, the former CBC editor-in-chief who now runs AJE, thinks people have realized that “there’s no real comparison between Fox News and AJE. AJE does not push an ideological line.” Farber has a more prosaic explanation: “The number of subscribers may not be large enough” for people to complain about anti-Western coverage, since it’s not available in all parts of Canada. But it may also be that AJE is not exciting enough to be controversial. On a network that devotes half an hour to Avi Lewis interviewing Cornel West, or four minutes to a reporter walking around the oil sands in Alberta, shock value is in short supply.
AJE is considered middle-of-the-road compared to its parent network; that’s why it was cleared for broadcast while Al Jazeera Arabic failed to get clearance in 2004. Farber told Maclean’s that though AJE seems unsupportive of Israel, there is “nothing to suggest that AJE has engaged in some of the blatant anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that was emanating from its parent network.”
That middle-of-the-road style also extends to the network’s relaxed pace. Instead of cutting stories into tight, fast-paced segments, AJE lingers. When its crew travels to the Canadian Arctic, we spend time with interviewees doing mundane things like eating or trying to fold their underwear. Another piece, on the effect of the U.S. oil spill on Newfoundland, includes a shot of a fisherman’s daughter mugging for the camera.
In technical terms, too, the network tends to be low-tech, with harsh lighting and sound. In a segment on Canadian relief efforts in Haiti, the editors sometimes stop the narration and allow us to hear snatches of conversation and the sounds of crying and laughing. Even in-studio segments sometimes have distant miking or interviewees who don’t hear the question until several seconds after it’s been asked. It’s an international network, but it has a strangely local look to it.
Burman says this is a conscious choice to make the network “easy to distinguish from the other mainstream English networks.” He argues that the “greater length” of the stories is a selling point, getting attention with long segments on international issues. The Arabic version is faster and livelier, and devotes more time to pundits; it’s closer to what Burman calls “the heated pacing that is really now part of a lot of modern news channels, to the point where you’re almost breathless after a few minutes of watching.” AJE tries to be more measured: a 22-minute segment on the Afghan detainee documents (with Bob Rae among the participants) was framed as a partisan debate but didn’t have the high emotional temperature—or loudness—of arguments on Al Jazeera Arabic or CNN.
Of course, the reason most networks try to go for what Burman calls “highly paced news” is that it works. When doing a report on Israel’s demolishing of houses, AJE’s reporter referred to Israeli settlements as “illegal.” But what stood out was not the report’s point of view, but that it was a bit genteel, picking interviewees who weren’t particularly angry or ostentatious in their suffering. Compared to reports on Al Jazeera Arabic or even the BBC, with more interviews per minute and more spectacular footage of violence, it may seem tame. Though Farber says AJE will hold “regular, as-needed meetings” with Jewish organizations to address concerns, the real issue about the network’s future in North America may be that it’s not enough like its Arabic parent—at least, when it comes to excitement.