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The Al Jazeera moment and multipolarity

Aurelie Basha - 26th February 2011

As millions of viewers around the world turn to Al Jazeera to watch the upheaval in the Middle East, the Qatar-based news network has become itself an actor in the events. This reflects its role as a voice for the Middle East and is indicative of broader, global shifts. Just as the “CNN effect” was a symptom of unipolarity, the “Al Jazeera” effect is a symptom of mutipolarity. In so far as this gives viewers a more sophisticated understanding of the world, this can only be a good thing.

Some background

After the Gulf War, there was much talk about the “CNN effect”, namely that CNN and its 24-hour news cycle was setting the policy-making agenda. However, the point was that CNN, a Western-based news outlet, had a key effect in creating empathy within Western audiences, and in increasing their willingness to engage with the rest of the world’s problems. As such, it reflected the unipolar nature of the world at that moment in time.

Marshall McLuhan, writing 30 years before the internet, wrote about the role of electronic communication in pulling people together to create a “global village.” While this gravitational pull has continued in social networks, a parallel and reverse trend is occurring in news networks. Here, the gravitational pull is outwards, moving to regional and plural perspectives. 

Its role in the Middle East

In the Middle East, there is no doubt that al Jazeera has become an actor in its own right. It has had a mobilising effect and served as a source of information as the internet was cut off, and played a key role in shattering the idea that somehow Arab societies were not ready for democracy.

Ironically, its status as a central player in the Middle East has been encouraged by the local governments’ attacks. In Egypt, for instance, its journalists were detained, its offices were vandalised and its content was thrown off the airwaves. The resilience of the company in the face of this onslaught – in finding new correspondents on the ground, in getting its content aired by other networks – is remarkable.

Its role internationally

When the dust settles, internationally, although the network may have opened up new audiences and improved its reputation, it will mostly join the ranks of the many news networks that have proliferated since the “CNN moment” in an attempt to provide different perspectives. Indeed, tapping into the 24-hour news cycle has become a powerful public diplomacy tool since, and in reaction to, the Gulf War.

The launch dates for many of these networks is interesting in itself. Most of them came on the air after the Gulf War or in a second, larger wave, roughly at the same time as the U.S. media came under intense criticism for towing the Bush administration’s line. For instance, Al Jazeera was created in 1996 and launched its English-speaking service in 2006.

So let’s look at some of other alternative English-speaking news services out there.

Euronews, a pan-European, publicly-owned news service was set up in 1993, explicitly in response to the dominance of CNN during the Gulf War and promised to provide a European lens on the news. Better yet was Chirac’s France 24 project, a public-private partnership launched in 2006. It was intrinsically tied to Chirac’s Gaullist views on multipolarity and on the need to export France’s “soft power” in the absence of “hard power”: its mission statement is "to cover international news with a French perspective... and to carry the values of France throughout the world."

Further afield, there have been similar attempts, especially from countries on the sidelines of international politics like Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. The latter launched Press TV in 2007 specifically to counterbalance CNN and BBC and to “heed the often neglected voices and perspective of a great portion of the world.” Similarly, China last year announced that it was investing $7 billion in foreign language news services.

With all these new voices entering the arena of news, it is interesting (and indicative of shifting power balances) that the BBC World Service, one of the world’s oldest and best-respected news services, is facing 16% budget cuts while Sarkozy has suggested that his government might cut its contribution to France 24.

And for viewers

All of this, I believe, is a good thing. In subtle ways, al Jazeera’s reporting has been different from its Western counterparts. For one, it talks a little bit more about Western collusion in the regimes in the Middle East. As such, for Western audiences, it brings us closer to seeing ourselves the way the world sees us. This kind of deeper understanding makes for better policy.