Al-Jazeera: we'll furnish the war AND the pictures

I was impressed and humbled with the performance of the al-Jazeera news network during the recent revolution in Egypt. As CNN floundered and Fox News simply ceased to have even vestigial relevance, al-Jazeera seemed, for a moment, to be living up to its promise as a bridge between the Arab world and the West—if not transcending that promise and becoming something greater: a tribune of the Arab peoples and their neighbours; an influential, omnipresent witness of precisely the sort that the students in Tiananmen Square lacked; and, perhaps, one of the world’s essential institutions of news.

That potential is still there. The world is certainly a very much better place with al-Jazeera than without; it would be better still with five al-Jazeeras. But the time has come to raise an abstruse, nitpicky ethical point that reflects back on some of the Western journalists who have gone to work for al-Jazeera, and some of the Western leaders who have praised it so effusively. It’s this: is it quite all right for a news agency to have its own army?

I ask because it is a little difficult to disentangle al-Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatar Media Corporation, from the autocratic Qatari state. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is as nice as absolute dictators get—a man arguably in the tradition of the enlightened despots of Europe’s quite recent past, who shared outstanding personal qualities, a common commitment to education and equality, and a dedication to advancing liberal ideals, albeit by undemocratic means. It’s traditional, in enlightened autocracies, for the required oppression to officially be deemed temporary, and for this pretence of temporariness to be kept up at all costs. Official U.S. sources, keen on avoiding offence to an important ally, advance Qatar’s claim to already be a “constitutional monarchy”. (Since the current emir took power in a coup, and permits no democratic national assembly, political parties, or elections, this is the grossest imaginable insult to an actual constitutional monarchy like our own. But since our planes sometimes need places to land in that part of the world, perhaps it is best to shrug it off.)

Al-Jazeera may represent Skeikh Hamad’s ultimate defence at the bar of history, as Bach’s Musical Offering and Lagrange’s Mécanique analytique are Frederick the Great’s. The channel is described as the personal brainchild of the emir, the head of Qatar Media Corporation is one of his cousins, and the whole shebang is funded by a series of “loans”, which may or may not ever be paid back, from the Qatari treasury. It treads softly in covering Qatar’s domestic affairs, while being brave and unflinching and professional, as we have seen, in covering the more momentous ones of its neighbours. That’s a good deal for the Western consumer, and al-Jazeera is being looked at by U.S. cable companies now, thanks to a sudden spontaneous demand for its perspective.

But now Qatar has gone to war with one of the major subjects of al-Jazeera’s recent reporting.

Doha, March 20 (BNA)–Qatari Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani said Qatar would take part in the military operation being carried out against Libya. He also added in an interview with Al Jazeera following Paris summit yesterday that the aim of the Qatari decision is to stop mass killing of citizens in Libya. “Qatar will take part in the military operation out of belief in the need for Arab states to contribute for the situation has become unbearable in Libya,” he said describing the situation as a declared war and urging to stop it very quickly.

This Sheikh Hamad is not to be confused with Sheikh Hamad the emir, his uncle, or Sheikh Hamad the head of QMC, a cousin from a cadet branch of the al-Thani ruling family. And, yes, the names are a hint that al-Jazeera is tied up with the Qatari state and its vendettas in a way that, say, the BBC is decidedly not with the government in Westminster. Pro-government forces in Libya have killed at least one al-Jazeera journalist and have detained four more. The on-air talent was already starting to lose its well-bred reserve before the boss scrambled the jets:

While some people ask where are the Arab jets, the international coalition – for now at least – has a more powerful weapon on its side: the al-Jazeera television channel.

The Qatar-owned al-Jazeera had highlighted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as American aggression against Muslims, but in the case of Libya, the popular channel has supported the revolution.

Presenters refer to those killed by the Libyan regime as “martyrs” and to the air strikes as “western military operations” by an international coalition.

No worse journalistically than the worst of Fox News, you say? Well, Fox News doesn’t have its own air force. Yet. As much as we enjoy having our Western liberal pieties confirmed by al-Jazeera—without thinking too much about how the sausage is made—there are obvious questions about the viability of a news network whose owner can ring the palace and order up a bombing.

One would be “Can you rightly call it a ‘news network’ at all, except in the vestigial sense in which one might use the term to apply to the North Korean Central News Agency or the old Soviet-era TASS?” Another would be “Isn’t this the sort of thing that is likely to compromise al-Jazeera’s vaunted access to Muslim regimes pretty quickly?” And the most awkward of all: “If the reporting activity of al-Jazeera correspondents is implicitly backed up by the threat of hellfire from the sky, isn’t it justifiable for governments to regard and treat those people as enemy agents?”

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