What is Al-Jazeera English for?

AJILogo.jpgWe have recently witnessed a huge growth in the number of transnational English-language television channels. This workshop led by Prof. Marie Gillespie of the Open University and Dr. Ben O’Loughlin of Royal Holloway, University of London, focused on the purpose of these channels. Given that Qatar, France, Russia, Iran and China have all recently launched English-language TV stations, does this mean countries only feel they count as a ‘power’ if they have a voice alongside the BBC and CNN in the emerging ‘Anglosphere’? Are governments institutionalizing a new phase of public diplomacy in an attempt to influence other governments or publics? Or are these channels simply professional news providers, part of profit-making organizations?


Debate was anchored around two presentations. First, Dr. Mohammed El-Nawawy of the Queens University of Charlotte and Shawn Powers of the University of Southern California introduced their new study, Al-Jazeera English: Clash of Civilizations or Cross Cultural Dialogue? In the next year they will examine the impact of Al-Jazeera English in five countries, asking whether such media can have peace-making effects in world politics, acting as ‘conciliatory media’. Al-Jazeera English is an interesting case because journalists have an explicit mandate to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’ and produce news that does not offer casual demonisation, lack of context, or reduce debates to simplistic binary stand-offs. But why would the Emir of Qatar sanction this TV station alongside its Arabic version? And why recruit journalists from the West rather than from ‘voiceless’ regions? Debate focused not only on the purpose of this channel, however, but also on how researchers might ascertain its impact. For instance, few viewers have access to Al-Jazeera English at present, and those likely to reply to surveys or interviews about the channel are likely to be a self-selecting bunch: viewers who already approve of the journalistic ethos of Al-Jazeera English. How transnational media channels attempt to measure any ‘effects’ on audiences – conciliatory or otherwise – is a critical challenge in the coming years, and it remains to be seen how these channels will prove their value.


The second presentation drew on findings from the recent New Security Challenges Shifting Securities project by Marie Gillespie, Ben O’Loughlin, Prof. James Gow, King’s College, London and Dr. Andrew Hoskins, University of Warwick. The project explored how cultural and religious diversity affect news reception and the specific responses of British Muslims to media and security policy. It has also highlighted how changes in the technologies, ethics and practices of journalism shape the security stories and how they are interpreted. The study has been pioneering by connecting news producers, texts and audiences over time in ways that illuminate how audiences’ use of news contributes to their shifting perceptions of security and belonging. Insights from the Shifting Securities methodology will feed into several projects funded by the ESRC and AHRC in coming years, including in the New Political Communication Unit. An understanding of news consumption as a ritualised, social and situated process, not a matter of transmission of isolated messages to atomized viewers, can offer greater analytical purchase on questions of news credibility, the legitimation of security policy, and the ‘impact’ of media diplomacy around the world.