Nigel Parsons has been a busy man since he became MD of Al Jazeera International less than two years ago. Since August 2004, he has helped build the subsidiary of the Arab news net from scratch. In a year-and-a-half, the network built its headquarters in Doha, and patched together a global distribution network of cable and satellite operators, all in an unfamiliar cultural environment. ‘It has been an enormous technical challenge,’ says Parsons. ‘This is, far and away, the biggest challenge I’ve taken on and probably the last of its kind.’ Nevertheless, rehearsals are now underway. Though Parsons won’t say exactly when the launch is scheduled, he will say the subsidiary is ‘in the final furlong.’
And how does he imagine the controversial net – which has managed to provoke ire in both the US and parts of the Arab world – be received? ‘In most of the world, we are absolutely feted,’ says Parsons. ‘People can’t wait to see [an alternative channel]. The US has been the exception. And it’s not all negative there, either. There’s a mindset among fairly conservative people who don’t understand why an international news channel should be based in the Middle East.’ Parsons has said he hopes to reach 30 million households globally when introduced.
In Canada, Al Jazeera received the go-ahead to broadcast but, under pressure from lobby groups that argue it’s a propaganda mouthpiece for terrorists, the CRTC imposed such strict conditions on Al Jazeera that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to operate in the near future. ‘Countries that are about freedom of speech should give us a chance and judge us on our own merits,’ says Parsons.
It hasn’t been an easy path, but he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. ‘I didn’t think about it for a heartbeat when I was offered the job,’ he says. ‘Throughout my life I’ve always been prepared to leap into the unknown. You can’t live without risk. That’s what makes life exciting.’