LONDON, Asharq Al-Awsat – For years, the voice and image of Jihad Ballout have been associated with the Al-Jazeera news Channel. As their official spokesperson, he became a well-known figure due to the press policies for which the Qatar-based channel was criticized.
Ballout has surfaced again, this time at Al-Jazeera”s chief competitor, the Al-Arabiya News Channel.
In the following telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ballout discusses the reasons for his move from Al-Jazeera to Al-Arabiya and his real opinion regarding the press policies that he formerly represented. Asharq Al-Awsat also asked him about what he intended to contribute to the Al-Arabiya News Channel as director of corporate communications:
Q) Many were surprised by your sudden move between two rival channels. Was this move due to professional or financial reasons?
A) To begin with, I don”t think that the word ”sudden” is accurate because there was prior news about my move here and there. A change in one”s career is part of life, in fact it would be surprising if one was to remain in the same place for a long time. As far as I”m concerned, the move was for professional reasons. I saw that Al-Arabiya was in accordance with my professional and personal aspirations with the full acknowledgement that Al-Jazeera is also of a very high professional standard. There is also the belief that I have fulfilled my goals at Al-Jazeera.
Q) You have said that for months the news of your possible move had caused a conflict in opinion between you and the Al-Jazeera administration. What can you tell us about this?
A) To say that there was a conflict in opinion may or may not be accurate in describing the position that I found myself in. Matters reached a point where there was a difference in opinion regarding how to perform the tasks that I consider essential in any media work, particularly tasks that were assigned to me. I am not saying they were wrong and I am not saying that I was wrong. There was simply a difference in defining the priorities regarding the approaching phase on mid-term and long-term bases and the approaching phase does not suit me.
Q) Rumor has it, you received several offers before settling for that of Al-Arabiya. Could you tell us which of these was most prominent?
A) I do not think that would be appropriate especially since I have already settled with Al-Arabiya.
Q) Did you ever consider returning to print media for example?
A) The idea was not completely out of the question. In my opinion, print journalism is the base, perhaps because it is from there that I developed.
Q) When people move from one establishment to another, they take certain qualities with them. What have you bought to Al-Arabiya?
A) In my opinion, a person is the conception of his own experience hence the professional and personal experience develops with him wherever he goes, and even if he was unemployed. Undoubtedly, Al-Jazeera gave me as much as I gave it and my experience there was extremely beneficial, including the negative and positive interaction with other media sources and politicians. As for what I have bought with me, these include the contacts that I have made and the expertise of understanding and dealing with the resulting negative views whether they are intentional, conscious, or unconscious, from the public opinion of the west regarding Arab press, and Arab or Islamic communities. That would all reinforce my capabilities in my work at Al-Arabiya.
Q) Is it true that you had a hand in expanding the syndication system of Al-Jazeera”s exclusive footage, which contributed significantly to the profits for the Qatar-based news channel?
A) This is a commercial issue and not a technical one. The truth is that when I joined Al-Jazeera, this system had been implemented for some time.
Q) How would you describe the difference between both channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya?
A) I would prefer to talk about the common elements that they share because after all they are both media establishments that encompass professional elements of a high standard of professional journalism. Of course, they have to be different but these differences are very healthy in our field. I think differences ought to be reinforced because this way we give the Arab viewer options by enhancing the competition.
Q) What is your opinion concerning the Western media comparing Al-Jazeera to Fox News Channel and Al-Arabiya to CNN?
A) I think that the Arab media has reached a level that can no longer be compared to western media, and I mean from both the professional and technical aspects within specific contexts. In particular, when it comes to the speed of receiving news and broadcasting, the standard is no less than any other press sources especially when it comes to broadcasting media.
Q) Some media experts however, criticize Arab media particularly due to the rise in popularity because of the broadcasting of video recordings that specific terrorist groups send them. These experts argue that there is no journalistic effort made, and that it is not even considered journalism in the first place, in addition to the ethical aspect of broadcasting such recordings. What is your opinion regarding this?
A) This is a difficult and sensitive issue. What surrounds it is the infinite debate about how the press should deal with terrorism and the video tapes that these groups send. Any member of the press ought to pause for a moment, think, and then make a decision. His job is to remain on top of events and to convey the information to the viewer with objectivity in all aspects of the subject as much as possible. If all these factors are provided then we could then excuse a journalist”s rush towards that which is sensational. However, to be hasty and broadcast for the sake of sensation without taking the professional dimensions into consideration, is unacceptable from any professional journalist. There are mistakes made in the media but if we observe closely, particularly press establishments, we find that editorial policies have changed with time. Perhaps this is due to specific political pressures. What matters is the media product itself. It seems that some media establishments have reviewed their policies according to the direction of their publication.
Q) What is your personal opinion on this matter? Did you prefer not to broadcast the tapes?
A) I look at this completely from a professional angle. I think the observer has the right to see the whole picture and it is the media”s responsibility to convey the information in its proper context, that is without any ideological additions that serve this or that purpose. This should also be accompanied with fair debate including different views concerning the same issue. Regarding the tapes in particular, nothing should enhance unjustified contempt or anger. We should not just say that someone killed someone, but should also include background and reasons.
Q) What do you hope to achieve at Al-Arabiya?
A) In a relatively short period, Al-Arabiya has proven its ability to compete with the best of press establishments that have preceded it and as I previously mentioned, each establishment undergoes different stages. I hope that my experience of over 30 years proves to be beneficial to Al-Arabiya, of which my colleagues have reassured me. I will refrain from mentioning any details regarding my work since this has not been discussed yet at Al-Arabiya, taking into consideration that today (September 1, 2005) is my first day!
Q) Do you think that Al-Arabiya needs an official spokesperson for the approaching phase?
A) Being an official spokesperson is part of my job but I have other tasks. I am also responsible for cooperate communications. It is essential for any establishment whether media, government, commercial or even for a non-profit organization to have someone or a group that have experience in communication and keeping away from politics. Such a job requires that a person have experience in all aspects regarding media professions so that the establishment”s mission can be conveyed with clarity. I must also include that it is easy for a journalist to communicate with another journalist.
Q) Are you also responsible for western media?
A) I am responsible for the establishment”s communication. My voice may not always be heard but I would review anything coming from Al-Arabiya or on its behalf.
Q) Why is it that Al-Arabiya does not cause as much debate in the western media as Al-Jazeera?
A) This is a relative issue and do not forget that Al-Arabiya has had its share of criticism particularly about Iraq.
Q) Though it has not faced as much criticism as Al-Jazeera.
A) There is no doubt that the Arab press underwent a phase in which it was under sharp focus due to the political and security developments in Palestine and particularly in Iraq, which triggered political issues and I am referring specifically to Al-Arabiya news channel. However, a sort of contradiction emerged between the politics and opinions of some, and what Al-Arabiya considers a professional document to which it is fully committed. This could have been what placed it under the spotlight, but to ask me to categorize which of them is more subject to debate, honestly that would need a measuring scale!
Q) My question was why does Al-Arabiya rouse less controversy?
A) You should ask the western press. In my opinion, this Al-Jazeera related issue is connected to the Bin Laden tapes and that includes broadcasting specific information, which the west viewed within a political context unrelated to media. This could be the explanation.
Q) Why have you changed from a journalistic job to more of a public relations job?
A) It is also a media job and my current job requires me to be a journalist before anything else. From another aspect, at one stage, I became slightly frustrated because of the Arab press and decided to move to what resembles media work and that is communication.
Q) What were the issues that frustrated you?
A) The way Arab authorities in particular dealt with the Arab press, the respect that an Arab journalist would have abroad in the west compared to the way he was treated in Arab countries.
Q) You are the first to occupy this position in the Arab media so how would you describe it.
A) As much as it is demanding, it is a position that satisfies my professional ambitions. It is also a huge responsibility because every word I say is subject to scrutiny and interpretation since one is speaking on behalf of a huge cooperation such as Al-Arabiya. Constant accuracy is tiring aside from the fact that my job has no routine agenda. When I am finished with communicating with Arab journalists and they go to sleep, our colleagues in the US and Canada, wake up and start calling. Additionally, I have to follow up the comments of each journalist about the cooperation for which I work, and about the press in general.
Q) Did you experience pressure during any stage?
A) You are a journalist and you know that pressure comes with our profession. You also know that if there were not any pressures, you would feel marginalized and that others do not take you seriously.
Q) Did you ever feel that you were defending a guilty client whilst working at Al-Jazeera?
A) I have never defended any journalist because of an ideological aspect. In my work, I always approach a matter from a professional angle. Furthermore, I believe that it is difficult to defend any journalist who cannot view the news with professional objectivity.
Q) Have you considered writing a book about your experience at Al-Jazeera?
A) (Laughing) Writing a book is something that one who wants to retire would do. It is still too early for me.