Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactful

Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.

When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.

Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.

One particular aspect of that identity mattered in the Arab revolts being watched by fearful autocrats all over the region. When trouble began in Tunisia last January, Al-Jazeera had already invested much talent and money (it has never made a profit and has always been subsidised by Qatar) in its new media arm. This decision paid off in spades as the world’s news media struggled to get facts and pictures out of Tunisia. Al-Jazeera could not have reported the Arab Spring, Khanfar said last night, without internet activists. They filmed what was going on and sent it to Al-Jazeera in Doha. In this situation, Khanfar said, people with mobile phones cameras were “the most important element of our newsgathering”.

I suspect that this power to dramatise popular revolt scared Qatar’s rulers into putting one of their own in charge at Al-Jazeera. In the end Wadah Khanfar flew just a little too close to the sun. But he built something at Al-Jazeera which will be be hard to change. Someone asked him at the party after the lecture whether he had chosen to sacrifice himself to save Al-Jazeera. Yes, he said.

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