Tony Burman shares the stage with moderator Susan Ormiston during Tuesday night’s discussion about Al Jazeera television.

Al Jazeera looks to the north for a ‘southern’ perspective

Former CBC news chief Tony Burman spoke before an enthusiastic audience of journalists and curious onlookers Tuesday night about his new role as managing director of Al Jazeera’s English language network (AJE).

Speaking at the University of Toronto’s Innis College, Burman’s message was primarily promotional as he noted the CRTC’s current decision to consider AJE’s inclusion on Canadian cable and satellite networks. He also spoke on some of the elements which set his network apart from traditional ‘western’ television outlets.

Headquartered in Doha, Qatar, AJE is seen in more than 100 nations by over 135-million households. Its objective is to bring a non-western perspective to world news reporting. Burman emphasised how such a non-western viewpoint can change the context of a story.

“We bring the three F’s: the southern perspective of food, fuel and finance in the developing world. You won’t see that as much from northern outlets,” he said.

While AJE’s focus originates in the south, its management is decidedly from the more ‘western’ northern hemisphere.

“(Our) chief editorial gatekeepers are from the … BBC, CBC, US networks while most staff is from the south or developing world,” Burman noted.

Despite the primarily western management of AJE, Burman contrasted the network to an awakening of the developing world by stating that, after the “rise of the west, then the US, came the rise of the rest.”

Another comparison Burman drew between western media and AJE is their coverage of the Middle East.

“Coverage of the Middle East is done in such an alarmist way (in the western media) that people in the region don’t know what’s going on. We’re there and we can put it in a deeper context,” Burman said.

His point about being based in the proximity of the conflict in the Middle East is well taken but having an objective distance from events can also provide deeper context.

“We can tell stories about the US that weren’t being covered in the election campaign,” said Avi Lewis, hired by AJE to cover last year’s election from the US.

Lewis, formerly of the CBC and Toronto’s CityTv, says being on the outside looking in allows for a whole different take on a story.

“We’re trying to bust stereotypes (about the US) using issue-based coverage, the stuff nobody else covers,” he said.

Whether it’s being close enough to get the real feel for a story, or being far enough to maintain an objective tone, Burman and his crew believe they have all the bases covered.