Belfast Telegraph

Swat the flies and tell the truth... live on al-Jazeera

By Robert Fisk

This is al-Jazeera. The familiar "jib shot" as the boom swings the camera down from the height of the studio, and there is Sami Zeidan or David Foster or Darren Jordan or Nick Clark or Ghida Fakhry.

And, reeling with exhaustion just behind the two floor cameras after 12 hours - live on the hour, almost every hour - is your hero. Just a touch of the hands to the hair - see how vain you get within 24 hours of being the 'presenter's friend' - and you are following the lady who's just wired you up on to the stage while they're showing a PKG (yes, a "package") from the Libyan border.

There's a kind of cathedral-like hush in the vast al-Jazeera studio even when they're not going live from the floor, a pitter-patter of keyboards as everyone emails everyone else sitting two seats away. "Now Bob Fisk, you've lived here for more than 30 years, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent. Tell us what this really means."

And of course, off I waffle about Obama, Aipac, Bashar al-Assad's wife, about the fact that the Brits and the French have run out of bombs to attack Gaddafi and are buying more from the Americans.

I warn David Foster that revolutions don't always end happily.

"Remember the French revolution of 1789 that ended in the Terror?" I pontificate. Quick as a flash, Foster goes for me. "Well, I don't personally remember, Bob, but then again you're older than me." Aaaaagh!

But the great thing is that on al-Jazeera English, you can say what you want, tell the truth in other words - and thank God nothing much actually happens in Qatar, home of al-Jazeera, because I doubt that the Emir, who funds this extraordinary shooting match, would be subjected to quite the same serious interrogation by its titans of journalism.

But then again, both the English and the Arabic versions of al-Jazeera are, in their less than odd way, a state project, part of the nation's diplomacy, an extension of Qatar's foreign policy, an institution that helps Qatar to "punch above its weight".

Then I'm back on again, and this time, in the middle of a Fisk tirade against Western duplicity in the Gulf, a bumblebee-sized fly whizzes round the head of the presenter and bashes into my nose. I give it an enormous swat and suddenly realise that the viewer will not see the fly, just Fisk bashing himself in the face.

So "my goodness!" I cried to the presenter live on air, "you've got a rogue fly in your studio." Then my eye moved towards one of the cameras, only to see a stray cat wandering across the studio.

Was it normal to have wildlife on this scale in their state-of-the-art studio? I quickly discovered that it was. There is another stray cat and he/she once went on air, a set of furry paws walking carefully along the top of the screen behind the presenter's head, visible to viewers around the world.

It became another bit of the al-Jazeera legend - along with George W Bush's insane desire to bomb the studios - and the laid-back element to all this is part of the station's charm.

No-one knows, for example, how many viewers it has. "Millions and millions," one reporter tells me with a shrug of the shoulders, "but there is no ratings system in the Arab world."

It's two days before I learn the voice behind "This is al-Jazeera" is Mike Walker, the British 'team leader' of the picture department, and I knock on his door.

"My daughter is a bit embarrassed," he tells me, "but she thinks it's cool." I bid farewell and he shouts: "This is Robert Fisk." I run for my life. Al-Jazeera Wildlife would make a good channel. Or al-Jazeera Comedy.

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