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Al-Jazeera network seeks to dominate . from London

Agence France-Presse LONDON, Nov 14, 2006 (AFP) – Al-Jazeera is out to capitalize on the strategic importance of London as a European capital when it kicks off its English-language service Wednesday. The Al-Jazeera International venture is out to make a splash and has recruited a string of top television faces from the BBC – which …


Agence France-Presse

LONDON, Nov 14, 2006 (AFP) – Al-Jazeera is out to capitalize on the strategic importance of London as a European capital when it kicks off its English-language service Wednesday. The Al-Jazeera International venture is out to make a splash and has recruited a string of top television faces from the BBC – which is revamping its World Service to combat the pan-Arab broadcaster. London is one of the new 24-hour channel s four key bureaus which will broadcast coverage in a relay with Washington, Kuala Lumpur and the Doha headquarters in Qatar. Part of the London bureau s five hours of broadcasting will concentrate on regional news, covering Britain, continental Europe and Russia. And it is hoping to make a statement of intent by kicking off with an exclusive interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. London is one of the key strategic places in the world, London bureau chief Sue Phillips told AFP. It s common sense to be here – it s strategically well-placed and there are a lot of players in London. Blair will not be the only person we are possibly getting. There will be high-profile people from day one.

The new channel is hoping to make waves by providing a different perspective on world events, a global news channel based in the Middle East. But Phillips denied British newspaper reports of editorial tensions between her internationalist bureau and Arab-centric chiefs at the Qatar headquarters. I ve been here for two years and I ve not experienced any tensions, she said. It s decentralized and as you move around the world to each broadcast centre, as they take over they become editorially independent.

Al-Jazeera has creamed off a host of top names from British television, including former BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar, dubbed the Scud Stud for his reports from Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, newscaster Darren Jordon, who fronted the BBC’s flagship news bulletins, and ITN s Shiulie Ghosh. It has pulled off a coup by landing Sir David Frost from the BBC, the only person to have interviewed the last seven US presidents and the last six British prime ministers. The 67-year-old veteran s ability to secure stellar interviewees is renowned. Al-Jazeera is bankrolled from the emir of Qatar s vast fortune. Despite the wealth of cash, Phillips said the broadcaster had not been headhunting well-known faces from British television. Most people have come to us enquiring about joining. We ve done very little advertising, she said. They look to this as something new. It s groundbreaking and they want to do something different.

Mindful of Al-Jazeera s growth since its launch 10 years ago, the BBC has carried out the biggest-ever reshuffle of its international broadcasts to meet the new challenge. BBC World Service radio has slashed 10 of the 43 languages it used to broadcast in, mostly in eastern Europe, to free up funding for a new Arabic television service expected to launch in 2007. Al-Jazeera says it is not trying to compete with Britain s two domestic 24-hour news channels – BBC News 24 and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News – but it does hope to become a point of reference. We see Al-Jazeera International as alternative viewing, Phillips said. In terms of domestic news, we will cover it where we think it is a newsworthy story. A story that we cover in Britain is going to be seen by a viewer in Australia or Latin America, so it would have to have a global news perspective.

There are two mini-bureaus in Athens and Moscow working under London and others may spring up in European capitals depending on how the channel goes. New recruit Shereen El Feki, a former writer for The Economist magazine, is to host the People and Power program, a mixture of documentaries and analysis, focusing on grassroots stories about global shifts in the balance of power. It s an opportunity. Part of the excitement is to be with something that doesn t have established ways of doing things, she told AFP. Because we re new, there are a lot of uncertainties but there’s a lot of freedom as well, and that s the real attraction. 10 years ago, who would have thought that a station out of a small Gulf state would have such an impact on on the Arab world and then be able to launch an English channel? That s a real shift in the balance of power.

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