Monday, February 04, 2008

Us-and-them Syndrome

“Us-and-them syndrome eats away at al-Jazeera English”

Al-Jazeera English was launched in a blaze of publicity a little over a year ago, but what has happened to the dream of creating a multinational broadcaster since is dispiriting. The collapse in morale among employees, whether caused by financial constraints, a clash of cultures or political pressures, is a pity, because competition for Anglo-American news media is a healthy thing.

Discord was sowed from inception. The English channel operated at arm's length from the Arabic channel, offering better terms and conditions than those offered to staff at its headquarters and employees elsewhere - after all, Sir David Frost was on the payroll.

The repeated emphasis that the international channel would be independent from external influence also created ructions, because it implied that the original Arabic news channel was somehow not. Pointedly, its name was changed from al-Jazeera International to al-Jazeera English just prior to its launch.

Nigel Parsons, the English channel's managing director, started well, building a channel not wildly different from the BBC - a bit bland but certainly careful to report in a balanced way.

Yet it was never clear who the viewer was: outside Africa and Asia, resources were stretched. The mix of news could only have pleased diehard internationalists; most people also want a good dollop of news from home, but there was little from the US or Britain, where many English-speaking viewers are likely to be. There was also precious little marketing or viewing data.

Then, al-Jazeera English began to be reined in. From the summer, management clamped down on overheads and benefits, querying whether expatriate journalists needed to be paid so much. Parsons was excluded from board meetings, to the point where he reportedly had to glean information from a secretary.

Now, the climate of suspicion is such that some believe that political pressure will be exerted on their journalism, although accounts as to whether this is happening vary.

Al-Jazeera in Arabic, of course, made its reputation by being in tune with the views on the Arab street, but today's talk is of a softer line on the Saudi regime.

Two Arabic journalists recently published interviews with militants on their personal websites because they could not get them aired. One was with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, who is suspected of involvement in the killing of Benazir Bhutto. The Mehsud interview, done in December before the assassination, did not appear, but a second interview conducted with Mehsud in January did air in the past week. It is easy to stir strong feelings here, and the reality of how news organisations work is always more complex than outsiders think. But trust is breaking down. In December, an emotional staff meeting heard an avalanche of grievances. At least one industrial tribunal hearing is in the offing, and the situation is summed up in the words of an employee internet posting:
“You don't need us Westerners any more do you?”

Al-Jazeera English was meant to help extinguish such them-and-us sentiments; that they are emerging shows how bad morale is. The emotion behind the scenes is beginning to surface publicly, and once credibility drains away outside, it is very, very hard to win it back.

Source: Times Online


Angela said...

Is it possible to eradicate the us-and-them syndrome in the workplace! I wonder, once people catch on to the differences in either camp you're bound to have friction, and the question is - Why would you want to show differences among people when you want to get quality results. All you're creating is resentment and low morale.

Anonymous said...

Very typical of the corporate industry, lure people with gifts, get them on board and don't mind the consequences. Another big company trying to sit in every pie. Stick to what you know and grow from their.