BEIRUT: As we watch the Arab world’s long-standing regimes fall on satellite TV, another great regional power is in crisis – journalism itself.
Or at least that’s what Ali Jaber, MBC’s incoming general manager, thinks.In a Monday interview, the Lebanese television executive, student, teacher and recently turned TV star discussed the ebbs and flows of the Arab media, and how he fits into it all.
Jaber is no layman on the subject of media in the Middle East. After working as a print journalist in Lebanon for 15 years, he played a key role in establishing Future TV in 1992.
In 2003, Jaber oversaw a restructuring of the Dubai’s seven satellite television stations. He recently accepted the position of general manager at MBC, and is also working on a PhD at Cambridge, entitled “Arab Satellite Television between 1990 and 2010.”
Despite his years in the media, Jaber says that media does not have an “absolute affect on people … it only raises awareness.”
Mohammad Bouazizi, the 26 year old vegetable seller whose self-immolation is credited with sparking the Tunisian revolution, “had no idea about satellite television when be set himself on fire,” Jaber says.
“There are real issues that move the people, that moved them to Tahrir Square [and] that pushed them to the streets, risking their lives every day in Egypt and Syria and Tunis.”
Jaber lauds Al-Jazeera’s “great idea of putting a camera that just transmits, minute for minute, 24 hours a day, Tahrir Square” as “the most interesting thing” about satellite media’s role in the Arab spring.
But, he says, “we have a major crisis now in journalism, and it has become clear with the ‘Arab spring.’” “Journalists are playing activists and not journalists,” Jaber says. “They are using media to [further] their own political agenda, bluntly.”
Jaber is especially critical of the use of unverified so-called “citizen journalism.” “You just get a satellite phone picture from I don’t know who, saying that he is in Deraa, Syria. He might be in Stockholm or California.”
Jaber compares these failures to what he calls “the first failure of Arab national media” during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, “when the Arab media portrayed the Arabs as victorious in the most disastrous war that has occurred in the region for decades.”
Jaber doesn’t necessarily blame journalists themselves. He says “they have not been taught that journalism is not only good writing, it is ethics, it is legal boundaries … and it is a lot of social responsibility.”
It is these values that he hopes to instill at the Mohammad Bin Rashid School for Communication at the American University in Dubai, a school he helped to set up and where he acts as dean. The school’s namesake, who is the prime minister and monarch of Dubai, funds tuition for 75 percent of the students, who Jaber says are recruited from “everywhere.”
If the school, whose first class of 32 students graduated in May, aims to teach old-school ethics and values, it isn’t ignoring modernity. “We teach something called multi-platform writing,” he says. “In the same course you learn how to write the same article for online, for radio, for a slide show, for television, and for a mobile [phone].”
Jaber recently left Dubai TV, and will start at the top of MBC in September, remaining dean at AUD. He calls the new job “challenging, because [in the past] I have either worked with something that did not exist and I set it up or ran it according to my own system, or I deconstructed it.” At MBC, he says the hurdle is to “get into a successful thing, and try to find [his] role there.”
Although Jaber calls his move to MBC the third and final act in his career, earlier this year he also became a judge on the first series of “Arabs Got Talent.” He says he is enjoying his foray in front of the camera, after he “spent 20 years of my life putting people in front of the camera.”
Jaber says that he is no Simon Cowell, his acerbic counterpoint on the original British series.
“I wasn’tbrought in to play the Simon Cowell,” Jaber says. “I was brought in to play the Ali Jaber, who has a bit of Simon in him. But much nicer.”