Yesterday was a good day. I chaired the Media Women in Asia seminar staged by the Asia: New Zealand Foundation, and it's a while since I've found such a gig as enjoyable and flat-out interesting as that one.
It was a sort of Beauty and the Beast scenario, with me as Selwyn Toogood guiding three sessions: the first, with Trish Carter, who set up al Jazeera's Asia bureau, and al Jazeera news anchor and interviewer (and CNN and BBC alumnus) Veronica Pedrosa; the second, with Charlotte Glennie, who didn't come back when TVNZ dispensed with the post of Asia correspondent and now reports from China for the Australia Network, and Sagarika Ghose, who fronts India Broadcast Network's totally intense flagship show, Face the Nation; and finally a panel discussion with questions from the audience.
I came away with a newfound respect for what al Jazeera does, and in particular for the work of Carter, who arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a laptop that only wrote Arabic and in 15 months put together the Asia bureau, which employs 180 staff and operates in a news environment an order of magnitude more intense than anything we know here. Remind me why she was made redundant from TVNZ, will you?
The stakes are high. While James Bays compiled this extraordinary report for Jazeera on the Taliban's re-taking of Helmand -- running everything from schools to security under the noses of under-equipped British troops -- he was kidnapped. Trish said there were serious fears for his life by the time Bays finally called in and croaked down the line: "Got some great stuff …"
The risks come from both sides, of cpurse. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj has been held for six years without trial at Guantanamo and is now in a perilous condition after embarking on a hunger strike. The Americans have never produced any evidence to rebut his story: he was captured in Pakistan on his way to work on an assignment in Afghanistan. This is a bloody disgrace.
Charlotte Glennie's rundown on the realities of reporting China -- including the absolute need to protect local bureau staff -- was fascinating too. (One thing we didn't get to discussing was the Chinese government's new crackdown on "low taste" reality TV programmes, and in particular Idol-style talent shows. The impression persists that what alarmed the authorities was less any failure of taste than the prospect of people getting too used to the idea of voting and getting what they vote for.)
Both those networks have the considerable advantage of not having to worry too much about commercial pressure: The Australia Network broadcasts to 42 countries on the Australian taxpayer dollar; and Jazeera is required only to deliver quality journalism by its patron, the Emir of Qatar.
Ironically, there was no better demonstration of what makes Jazeera different to other global news networks than the clip with which Veronica wound up the first session: Samantha Bee's brilliant Daily Show segment on the launch of al Jazeera English. Fake news that brings the truth …
Sagarika Ghose works in a very different space: the English-language IBN is just one of hundreds of channels in a very free, unregulated commertcial media environment in a country of extremes and accelerating change. Its focus tends to be on the collision of old and new India. You can watch it here.
It was all a really useful grounding in the reality of just how much news there is in Asia, and how little of it we see. The only letdown? The no-shows from quite a few journalists and editors who had registered to attend (Mark Jennings, where were you?). So there were a handful of working mainstream journalists, the regular ethnic media identities and a bunch of keen AUT students who lapped it all up. The problem of how to get working journalists along to these things isn't new -- we struck the same thing a few years ago when I helped the British Council organise the Intermediate conference -- but it is frustrating.
Anyway, yesterday was one of the highlights of my professional year. If you weren't there, you missed something.
PS: Best reason yet to get a Freeview box: Triangle TV's new nationwide channel Stratos launches next week, and will deliver 32 hours a week of Jazeera programming, with an emphasis on the 6.30-8am breakfast slot, along with chunks of PBS and other serious programming.