Flora Gregory, head of documentaries and features at Al Jazeera English, spoke with realscreen about the issue of disappearing international coverage in Western countries and what kind of documentaries work on her channel.
What’s the mandate for Al Jazeera English when it comes to factual programming and documentaries?
Programming that complements news, really, and gives a bit more detail. One of the things we do, particularly on ‘Witness’ and our other strands, is look at what’s happening in ordinary people’s lives, so we go into more detail on the ground. So where the news has gone, we’re kind of explaining what is happening and over a long period of time. The idea is we make news relevant to ordinary people.
When we started, the focus was voices that weren’t heard in a developing world, and we still do that. We cover regions that were neglected by other major news channels, so we concentrated quite a bit of coverage on South America and of course, because we’re transmitting out of the Gulf, we look at the Middle East, the Gulf and the Far East.
Where do your docs come from currently?
It’s a big mixture. We’re looking globally. We work across four main hubs [Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington DC and London] and in each of those hubs there are people looking in their big areas; someone’s looking across the Americas, especially South America, someone’s looking in the Far East for filmmakers and for films. [It's] the same in Doha and in London.
The majority of our programming is a mixture of commissions and in-house productions. But we are always looking for acquisitions, it’s a continual part of what we do.
At the beginning of the year Oxfam and Phil Harding put out a report about how international coverage is in danger of disappearing from British television. Although Al Jazeera English goes out to more than just England, do you think your channel is combating this ‘switch off’?
There have been a number of reports like this. There’s a whole procession of reports that discuss this issue, and in fact I’ve been to a meeting recently to discuss it. Obviously we’re reporting to a global audience and we think globally. Although London is on our doorstep, we don’t see the world that way. I’ve worked in the UK for a long time as an independent, so I can see the difference; it’s changing. Even the UK government is looking at how to influence the broadcasters and how they look at the developing world in the UK, so it’s a bigger problem. But I think it’s the same problem in all countries, I don’t think it’s specific just to the UK. You could probably say the same for America. We’re all, in a way, fairly insular; all interested in what happens to our country and our own citizens.
What is your advice to producers looking to work with Al Jazeera English?
It depends [on] what it is they want to do. But if they’re pitching stories at us, for instance, we have a pitching website www.ajicommisioning.net. People need to register on it and then pitch. We just ask people to pitch ideas on the website or contact the most relevant person in their closest hub.
I think it’s always helpful to watch what we do to be familiar with our output, and most people can watch us, they just have to find out where we are. If filmmakers are interested in pitching to us, they can watch our output wherever they are; that’s the first thing. That’s very helpful because [then] they don’t waste their time or ours. And watch the different strands. For ‘Witness,’ our stories are about ordinary people; there’s a narrative, it’s traditional storytelling. The way we look at issue on ‘Witness’ is down/up and on ‘People and Power’ they tend to look at big issues from up/down. Get to know the channel, which is what most filmmakers should do for any channel, really.
For more on Al Jazeera English, see the May-June issue of realscreen.