International TV News – The Way Forward

Edward Victor and Sarah Smith interview award-winning CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera journalist, Afshin Rattansi, about newsgathering and his novel, “The Dream of the Decade – The London Novels” published by Booksurge and available on Amazon.com.

Edward Victor: Afshin Rattansi, your new book looks at -among other things- the way news is made in newsrooms. Given that you have worked at three top networks, the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, do you think there has been any change since you wrote your book https://dopewope.com/?

Afshin Rattansi: A character in the third novel of the quartet reappears to work at a large media organization around the time of the war on Yugoslavia. That war was covered in an extraordinary way and was widely criticised afterwards. After all, reporting on hundreds of thousands of people dying in the heart of Europe is what journalism textbooks after World War II were written for and yet, anyone using TV news to find out what happened in Sarajevo would have been confused at best. It was only after the war that some excellent programmes were made.

“The Dream of the Decade” deals with unwitting bias or unwitting lack of balance. Every story was nuanced by the life experiences of the kind of people that get the jobs in newsrooms. Though the book deals with coverage of stories on the environment, healthcare and many other issues, the in-built bias of journalists reaches its apotheosis with regard to war reporting. Whether it be the wars on Latin American states in the 1980s or the war on Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it’s remarkable how hard it is for a viewer to hear a spectrum of views on any war.

Edward Victor: You also started the developing world’s first English language 24 hour satellite TV news and current affairs network, based in the Middle East. As the man in charge, did you use your experience to produce news differently?

Afshin Rattansi: I hope so. Though I was the editor of the channel, there were the constraints any manager would have on the way we broadcast news. Most recently, at the BBC, one realised the constraints on a very well established network when reporting the run-up to the war on Iraq. At the Dubai Channel, we came from a developing world perspective and concentrated on the financial background. “Follow the money” was the watchword when we covered, say the Ethiopia-Eritrea war or the privatisation of natural resource management demanded by the IMF. I always thought it was interesting that Business Week outsold The Economist and that Business Week magazine was often the best source for really getting a balanced view of a story. Everything from the most local – for example, food resources or crime prevention – to the most global – say, Kyoto, the drug trade or nuclear arms – usually has private profit at the heart of it.

Whether it be Hollywood or the matter of Palestine, following the money is a pretty good way for journalists to cover a story…and being very wary of Microsoft’s “copy and paste” functions when allied to Reuters and AP wire stories. Reuters, after all, is mainly a financial services company and though it has excellent journalists, their “daily wraps” of the main stories of the day will not be those that most concern ordinary people, certainly not the greatest proportion of humanity or the greatest audience.

Sarah Smith: Al Jazeera is launching an English language station. The expert on Al Jazeera, Hugh Miles, wrote about (in Al Jazeera : How Arab TV News Challenges America) how the Arabic language station hired you -as an award-winning journalist- once the channel became more successful and wanted to raise its profile. Will you be working for the English language station?

Afshin Rattansi: I certainly haven’t been approached. And whilst I think it has the potential to be something great – even building on the work that developing world international stations have been making since the Dubai Channel – I’m as yet unsure of the direction the channel is taking. They’ve taken on some excellent personnel. I think what will be critical – not only for sound editorial reasons – will be whether they can carve a niche that separates them from industry leaders such as CNN, the BBC and Fox. There are a lot of free-to-air international TV stations, now. But Al Jazeera Arabic was different because its perspective was shared by a swathe of people from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean that just wasn’t compatible with the big corporate names in news.

Sarah Smith: But why have you not wanted to be part of such an exciting project – given your published work on managing start-up TV stations, getting cable access, writing remits and so forth? You were, after all, the first ever English-language recruit to Al Jazeera.

Afshin Rattansi: So far, I’ve already been told that there is no place for me on the network so, obviously, they’ve missed something very important in the start-up of the new channel! But, more seriously, it has to be said that within the industry, there are some great journalists who, I would have thought, would have been ideal recruits. International TV station start-ups are always complex and perhaps management of the new station has a long range plan that involves more commercial BBC-style news at the beginning to gain market access. My first boss at the BBC, Paul Gibbs, is one of the directors of the new channel so I know that they have some heavyweights when it comes to knowing the industry. He will be commissioning programmes and at the BBC Business Unit was known for innovative strands of programming.

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