London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Thanks to the presence of a number of pan-Arab newspapers and media outlets (including Asharq Al-Awsat) in London, for the last decade the US Embassy in the city has played host to one of the State Department’s Regional Media Hubs which aims to conduct ‘public diplomacy’ in the Arab World, engage with Arab and Iranian journalists, and monitor the Arab media.
Mark Gregory Hambley—a former US ambassador to Qatar and Lebanon—was appointed its first director when it was set up in 2003, after a decades-long career as a diplomat in the Middle East. Since retiring from the State Department in 2005, he has acted as an occasional advisor and consultant to the US government. Asharq Al-Awsat recently spoke to Ambassador Hambley about his time as director of the Hub and American efforts to engage with Arab media over the past ten years.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Where did the idea for a regional center for Arab media come from?
Mark Gregory Hambley: The idea for a media outreach center did not originate with me. It was established in response to a request by the American Congress for a better understanding of both the traditionally active Arab print media and the developing Arab satellite television networks.
The actual name for the center was the brainchild of my deputy, Dr. Nabeel Khoury, who many of your readers may know from his frequent appearances on Arab television and from his work in Alexandria, Casablanca, Baghdad and Sana’a.
For the years I was at the Center, we had special funding mandated by the Congress and a degree of autonomy from the State Department. Our mission was to introduce the Arab media to a broader range of US officials, which we did through a daily summary of the articles, opinion pieces, and editorials appearing in the pan-Arab media, including the great Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hayat and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, plus the various talk shows and programming occurring on Arab satellite television. Eleven years later, this important activity continues and has become a core activity of the center.
In addition, we organized media visits to Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein and to other places in the Arab world, and even Israel. On two of these trips to Iraq and also to Iraqi Kurdistan is, in fact, how I came to know some of the great Arab journalists of the day.Q: Why did you locate the center in London, rather than in Dubai or Cairo?
We chose to establish our media center physically in London for four reasons. First, the pan-Arab media, led by your distinguished newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat was based in the British capital. Second, London offers daily [airline] service to every important city in the Islamic world, and travel to each of these key countries was an important aspect of the work of the center. Third, most of the important Arab satellite television networks either had major operations in London or were based there; and third, in many ways, London is the “second capital” of the Arab world. It is a more welcoming city than Paris, Washington, Berlin or New York. And, fourth, everyone “in the news” passes through London, so it was possible to arrange meetings, interviews, and, on occasion, programs with them.
This also permitted us to organize, with the assistance of such notable institutions as the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the Next Century Foundation (NCF) among others, a series of dinners, meetings and conferences on issues of importance to the Middle East. These included conferences about governance, economic and social change, and the role of Islam as a growing political force.
London also hosts the largest diplomatic corps in the world, with the exception of New York, where the United Nations is located. The ambassadors, and especially those from the Arab world, are all among the finest and most influential in their capitals and were an invaluable resource to interpret and understand the trends impacting the Middle East. This was to be expected because the Dean of the London diplomatic corps is probably the most senior ambassador in the world today, His Excellency Khalid Al-Duwaisan of Kuwait. This Ambassador’s intelligence, insight and personal charm set the standard by which all other Ambassadors to the Court of St. James were measured. We used our friendship with many of the London ambassadors to promote the programs of outreach and understanding between American officials transiting London and the issues impacting the Arab world.
Q: Of the people who visited the center, who left the greatest impact?
Without a doubt, this was President George W. Bush, during his state visit to the United Kingdom. The president wanted to give one interview and one interview only during this visit, and he decided that he wanted to use an Arabic-language newspaper in the hope of reaching the largest possible audience in the Middle East. I was asked to arrange this interview. While there are many fine newspapers based in London and numerous capable journalists, only one newspaper really fit our requirements. This newspaper was Asharq al-Awsat, because it was published daily, not only in Europe and the Middle East, but at the time it was also publishing a daily edition in Baghdad. It seemed only appropriate to ask the paper’s Editor-in-Chief at the time, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, to conduct the interview with the president. He accepted this invitation and remained with the president for more than twenty minutes over the time allotted for the interview. The president said he found him to be an engaging interviewer who could ask the tough questions without rancor. This was the longest exclusive interview ever granted by an American president to any Arab journalist.
Q: What is your favorite media outlet? Where do you follow the news on a daily basis?
You may be surprised to learn that I do not have a television, so I do not watch CNN, FOX or any other of the American news channels.
I do read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post daily.
I also have a high-speed Internet with access to hundreds of news shows and television news broadcasts. I regularly watch Al-Arabiya and local stations, depending on what is happening in a particular country.
Q: Do you think that international coverage of the Palestinian issue is, in general, biased, either in favor of Israel or Palestine? If so, what can be done about this?
This is indeed the case. There are too few American and Western correspondents from either the print or satellite media reporting from the West Bank and Gaza, and very few Arab correspondents reporting from Israel herself. Dialogue will break down boundaries or—at a minimum—allow one to obtain more facts before writing articles, which will be more objective and credible.
Q: Who is your favorite journalist, both locally and internationally, and why?
I always look for articles by Zeina Karam at Associated Press and Roula Khalaf at the Financial Times. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, when he contributes an opinion article for Asharq Al-Awsat, is always excellent. The courageous Jamal Khashoggi of the new Arab News Satellite Television in Bahrain is always interesting and provocative, and I always enjoy articles in Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hayat, An-Nahar, and several of the Egyptian newspapers.
For Western journalists, I read the articles of Matt Bradley from the Wall Street Journal, Loveday Morris from the Washington Post, Michael Gordon of the New York Times, and listen to the online commentaries of Jeremy Bowen and Lyse Doucet from the BBC. In addition, I enjoy reading the blogs of a dozen or so writers from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and follow several more on Twitter.
Q: What is your take on the print media vs online media debate? Do you think new forms of media are killing off old forms?
This is an excellent question and very relevant to today’s world. Yes, this is a large problem. The younger generations, whether in America, Asia or the Middle East, are losing the skill and the aptitude for both reading and writing.
Many of the largest newspapers in the world today—regardless of their countries of origin—are having to develop extensive online platforms in order to survive. Speed seems to be more important than accuracy. In-depth analysis is often being discouraged by editors, because they do not believe that the current reading public will read a complicated explanation of a particular subject.
Q: How reliable is ‘new media,’ and can it replace traditional media?
Objectivity and credibility are the two principal qualities of a great journalist. The loss of objectivity impacts greatly the credibility of an article or, in the case of a satellite television station, the impact of its programming. The bias shown by Al-Jazeera in terms of its coverage, first in Syria and later in Egypt, has greatly tarnished its reputation as a reputable news source, in my opinion.
Can the new media, meaning the blogs, Twitter accounts and online journalism platforms, replace traditional media? Only if the leading newspapers fail to keep up with their own high standards and implant them in their online platforms. Having a newspaper online, in addition to an active web site, is perfect for me. It allows me to follow events and my favorite journalists wherever I travel in the world.
Q: What is your favorite blog or news site?
The main Arab news sites I read regularly include Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Ahram, Al-Hayat and Al-Monitor. The main English news sites are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post and the Guardian. I read numerous blogs, but I would prefer not to disclose them to protect their identities.
Q: What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on their career?
You will never get rich, but you will have an opportunity to report on the people and the events which are shaping your world. What other job can be so rewarding?
Q: Do you think that knowing more than one foreign language is beneficial for journalists?
The most important quality for a good journalist is to have an inquiring mind. The more foreign languages one can communicate in, the better. Arabic, English and Chinese would be perfect. But the knowledge of any foreign language opens the doors to a different culture, and this means that you will have a better understanding of the country you are reporting on.
Q: What characteristics do you think every successful journalist should possess?
An open mind, an inquisitive nature, a friendly disposition, and an ability to write in short-hand.
These four characteristics or abilities should contribute to making a young journalist successful.
This is an abridged version of the original interview.