From CNN to Al-Jazeera

Mike Hanna’s journalistic journey through the Middle East.

311_Mark Hanna of Al Jazeera (photo credit: Ilan Evyatar)
311_Mark Hanna of Al Jazeera
(photo credit: Ilan Evyatar)
Mike Hanna has often been accused of having an anti- Israel bias, both while working as CNN’s Middle East bureau chief and in his current position as a roving correspondent for Al-Jazeera’s English language service, but if you expect to meet someone who is one-sided and blatantly pro-Palestinian then think again.
Hanna is articulate and knowledgeable and comes across as striving for the highest journalistic standards, denying that Al-Jazeera is prejudiced when it comes to Israel while at the same time making no secret of the fact that the perspective of his current employer is far different to that of your average Western news organization.
Catch him out with an example where he has tilted from balance and he will admit the error. When I challenge Hanna on a blog comparison of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s proposals to shift the borders to reflect demographic realities to concepts such as a “pure Aryan nation,” Hanna states: “To be quite honest, I wouldn’t use that sort of term in a television report and I think that would be wrong. I completely agree with you that the comparison was probably wrong as well.”
Born in colonial Tanganyika (now called Tanzania) and educated in South Africa, Hanna, 55, was at CNN for 10 years prior to joining Al-Jazeera, and before that he worked for the British broadcaster ITN after having set up an independent radio station in South Africa in the early 1980s.
So what made Hanna make the move from the prestigious position of CNN’s Middle East bureau chief and take up a post as a correspondent with the fledgling Qatari channel? “CNN was great in the beginning but got problematic editorially for me,” explains Hanna. “It came to a head when I was bureau chief here for CNN for three years and basically it became no longer comfortable for me and I had to move on.”
That discomfort, says Hanna, wasn’t just related to his work in the region. He also puts it down to a changing climate with the introduction of Fox News and later on the events of 9/11.
“It was a mixture of things,” says Hanna. “It was a change of management at CNN; it was the rise of Fox News, for example; and then there was 9/11 and all those factors together led to CNN chasing ratings. It was a mixture of things that tended to make CNN dumb down and start specifically chasing Fox, which was a silly thing to do particularly in terms of ratings... At that particular time, we were having discussions about it and the thing was that if we were to move that way we would never capture the audience that Fox had, because they created that audience, and secondly we would lose those viewers who had been loyal to what CNN stood for. Of course both transpired – CNN lost ratings, it lost what it had been and never really got what it was trying to be.”
As for the pressures of being Middle East bureau chief, Hanna says: “This story has always been, particularly in the United States media, the rock face of a lot of editorial decisions. There is no more contentious place outside the US than here. It’s a domestic story in the US, so anything that happens in an American media organization you are going to feel the first effects of here.
Why is a tiny island like Qatar running such a huge operation?
“I think the driving force was two things. I think it was the very acute realization of the emir of Qatar that he needs to establish a brand that will give a sense of normal democratic values like a free media, which is where Al-Jazeera Arabic came from – Al-Jazeera Arabic is obviously very much focused on the Arab world, whereas we are much wider. Al- Jazeera Arabic has transformed media in the Arab world and it drove other states to starting up that kind of media because so many people watched it. In a way Al-Jazeera English was a natural offshoot of that – to move beyond Arab-language viewership to a truly international viewership with the very clear intention of giving a face to this little tiny peninsula and raising its international standing. Perhaps in terms of the investment, which is obviously very considerable, I think he got a good return on that investment in terms of raising the image and recognition of Qatar.”
How much of an effect have Al- Jazeera and similar outlets had on freedom in the Arab world?
“I think it’s difficult to gauge empirically. I think Al-Jazeera Arabic introduced a concept that was alien to the Arab world – that yes, it is possible for media to be vigorous and for media to take lines that are determined by news and not by governments. I think Al- Jazeera Arabic was the one that started pushing that trend. Secondly, part of what our English [service] is about is that all English-language news had always been centric to where it was from. Now that tended to be West, or what in our terms you would call North and South, the undeveloped South as opposed to the developed North. These would be the major urban centers, the French, the British, the Americans, and these would provide world news that was largely and quite justifiably with themselves as the center. What we’ve done and what has been our absolute charter from the beginning is to provide a worldview that does reflect where we are, that does reflect a view that is not necessarily determined by Western values or Western ideas about what’s important but is determined more by the fact that there is a vast swathe of the underdeveloped world that never had a voice. Where there is a bias within Al-Jazeera English, it is a bias toward those who actually are getting a voice they never had before, simply because of what we choose to cover and how we view ourselves.”

So are you presenting the voice of the Arab world, the Arab message?
“It’s not necessarily the Arab world and the Arab message; it’s more the Southern world. What I meant was that Qatar is a Middle Eastern state, our headquarters are there so we will be presenting news from an awareness of what is happening there as much as what is happening from Washington...
In terms of the sort of ‘voice of the voiceless’ that is very much the stories that are not done, the Somalias, the Yemens, places that mainline media never cover unless it’s disaster or war, and we are constantly pushing to report not only on a drop-in basis but on a continuum from those types of places, which widens the context and understanding of what is happening there and at the same time not ignoring the important centers of news.
“What is critical is to understand that what is being decided in Washington has ramifications in some village in Afghanistan, and through reporting of everything to try and not necessarily correlate but to give context of one to the other so news truly is international in impact. US media, for example, has a largely domestic audience, so for CBS or NBC or CNN Domestic your reporting will be largely about the US soldier or the US government official and it will not be that much about the villager who is affected by the actions of that person, and that’s fine, it’s not a point of criticism, it’s a point of explanation.
Our choice is to actually try to do both, because we are in the middle, because we are not beholden to either side. So essentially it is trying to create a wider context.”
Who makes the editorial decisions at Al-Jazeera?
“Like at any media organization, it’s a sort of a defined editorial chain where we will kind of have gatekeepers along the way.”

Who are those gatekeepers, who is in the inner sanctum when it comes to those decisions?
“I think very strongly it comes from a network-wide charter, Al-Jazeera as Al- Jazeera rather than as Al-Jazeera Arabic or Al-Jazeera English. That is our basic charter, which is to give a voice to the voiceless, to shine a light. Specific editorial lines. That’s a day-to-day thing as in any news organizations. It’s a work in progress, because we are an organization that is so unique in terms of being so multicultural. Nobody can get away with a worldview that comes from an ITN News at Ten producer or the worldview that comes from a guy who worked at Al-Arabiya TV and was head of news there. Nobody can get away with it because there is so much being brought together so it’s more a thing of us finding on our own what our editorial position is and it is created on the basis of day-to-day judgments taken by professional news people.”

Is there a line drawn on what you can do, what you can look at within the Arab world?
“No, not beyond the normal limits of public television. No, we do not show beheadings, no, we do not show deaths on camera.”
But Al-Jazeera has been known to show very graphic images of the results of Israeli actions.
“Initially, but I think that now the editorial standards are absolutely similar, or they increasingly are. What is shown or what isn’t shown will sometimes differ because of different audiences, but the intent is to make it editorially coherent.
So once again for us the guidelines for us are like what any respectable news organization would strive for, but at the same time there is an ongoing healthy debate about what is or isn’t permissible.
The whole thing about that is what political intent there is, and I’ve had no feeling of there being a political intent behind, for example, showing more graphic examples of Israeli actions than say public floggings in the Swat Valley.
Well, we did show both. Are we prevented in some countries from filming that? Yes, that’s what happens in news, that some countries that you operate in won’t let you work without a minder.
They will attempt to censor what you do. Once again, you will do the judgment as you always do, ‘Has it got to a point where we cannot report the story because of these restrictions, in which case we are out.’”
How freely do you operate from the Arab world? How freely do you operate from Gaza?
I think quite honestly very freely. When I’m in Gaza I operate no differently than the way I operate here. In Iraq, Al-Jazeera English was kicked out for 18 months, which largely had nothing to do with us and had more to do with relations between the Iraqi government and the Qatari government. But we are back there and operating as freely as one can operate in a place like Iraq. We’ve had problems with operating out of Saudi Arabia, and once again that was a government- to-government issue rather than anything about our reporting.
These are things that happen in most media organizations, but I don’t feel restricted because I’m from Al-Jazeera. In Israel, for example, the kind of restrictions are the kind of restrictions you will find in most countries.
But Al-Jazeera has had problems in Israel.
“Not really, [Al-Jazeera] Arabic has had some problems... but then the problems I had with CNN in Israel were immense. But that goes with the territory. I think the point that I am trying to make is that it’s not because of Al-Jazeera, it’s because someone might have made a mistake, which always happens in reporting, or somebody might have highlighted something that the government doesn’t like, in which case they will bring pressure to bear – it’s their right to. I’m not naïve, I know that obviously a very close eye is kept on us because of expectations or non-expectations of us.
Here, I know that from the moment we opened this bureau we’ve been watched, and justifiably so. That doesn’t change the way we report or what we report on. It’s just a constant reminder of the responsibilities that you have anywhere, not just in Israel or in Gaza, to report. Personally, I’ve never had any pressure, for example, reporting from Gaza or reporting from Hamas[-controlled] Gaza. Maybe the pressures are different on my Arab colleagues, but I don’t think so, quite honestly.”
The focus of Al-Jazeera can be very heavily on Israel, and that focus is not on Israel’s achievements.
“That’s a criticism made that’s made in virtually every country, quite honestly.
Once again, I’m not denying that’s a valid criticism, by the way. Just as we would not want to reflect Iraq as a war zone beyond redemption with no culture. You will try to show a full picture of events although that’s very difficult sometimes... Do we not spend enough time at looking at beyond the purely political? Yes, that is a valid criticism.
It’s not just looking beyond the purely political; Israel will often be moved up to the top of the news on Al-Jazeera ahead of what are ostensibly more important items.
“I think that that criticism is valid and it’s not a defense, but I don’t think that applies only to us. I think that is just bad news management. I understand why that happens because, hey, if you want a bulletin that people are going to watch, you know what your news areas are. Look, through no fault of its own, Israel is going to top the news agenda in most news media.

Isn’t there an overweighting on Israel that suggests a very subtle bias?
“I think empirically it’s quite possible to see that. All I have to say is that to my knowledge there is no intent. Certainly I’ve never been conscious of any deeper agenda of Al-Jazeera or even of CNN that it has to go there because... It’s more that classic knee jerk that news is breaking, where is news breaking, ah!... Israel creates its news, we don’t have to focus to bring it up.
You wouldn’t say then that Al-Jazeera has an inherent bias against Israel?
No, not that I’m conscious of.
And the people working for the channel, the reporters, the correspondents? You personally, even while at CNN, have been the subject of accusations of bias against Israel.
“Yes, but once again that goes with the territory, to be the subject of accusations of bias against the government of Iraq, against the Russian government, against the South African government. Obviously it’s not something that you dismiss. It’s not always people just trying to undercut the issue, you’ve got to look and say, is there something that I’m missing or is this something I actually am conscious of.
Have there been cases where you have said: ‘I’ve got this wrong’?
 “Yes, that’s part of reporting and the whole kind of concept of objective news I don’t think exists. I think that the skittle of working in news is to be aware of any biases you might have and within that to have a policy of fairness and equity.
Would Al-Jazeera employ a qualified, competent, talented Israeli journalist?
“I don’t think the fact that you are Israeli [if you were to apply for a job] would count against you in any way. If it did, that would be against everything that we say we stand for. So if there is a secret bias, then that would be against what we are about.

Do you think an application would stand the test?
“Yes, and if it didn’t I think it would be a huge issue."