Plurality of news has to be at the heart of any democracy, but be it governments or regulators there are still choices to be made, writes Julian Clover.
Al Jazeera is currently having a good war. Its coverage of the Middle Eastern Spring is gaining it new friends and distribution contracts. Not to ignore the journalists in the region that so often put their lives on the line, it has even turned the jamming of its satellite signal into a publicity opportunity. This is a far cry from the brickbats it once received based on the perception rather than the reality of what takes place on the channel. In any case, it would have never received an Ofcom licence had even half of its ill informed critics have been correct.
If it was the Gulf War that made CNN’s name – I question the premise when girl falling down a well or OJ Simpson helped the channel to as great a prominence – then it will be the events in Egypt and Libya that do the business for Al Jazeera. Time will tell as to whether US operators are as willing as Denmark’s YouSee to allocate shelf space to the English language service, but as we know only too well the technology is there for the consumer to pull it in anyway.
Al Jazeera English is already available to UK audiences and has a timeslice for terrestrial viewers in Freeview, where it sits alongside Russia Today and the 24 hour BBC News Channel and Sky News. It cannot be said that there is not a plurality of news available to UK audiences.
Indeed, when Sky News became the centre of the argument in the debate over whether News Corp should receive approval to take up that of BSkyB it did not already own, one could have been mistaken for thinking Sky News was the only news channel available on the platform.
As well as Sky News, actually the second most watched news channel in the UK after the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today there are also shades of opinion from Iran (via London), France, India and China. This excludes foreign language channels that are required to be placed elsewhere within the guide.
One well placed source told me this week that he was aware of more channels preparing to launch than there were spaces within the news section. There’s just two channels left before news crashes into the documentary genre.
The plurality of news as an argument for the prevention of the BSkyB takeover only really stands if there is a return to the once mooted relaxation of rules regarding impartiality. The Iranian Press TV has already stretched this enough to raise the interest of Ofcom, but my hunch is that most Press TV viewers know exactly what they are going to get when they tune in.