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Tony Burman at his Toronto home on July 25, 2011. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Tony Burman at his Toronto home on July 25, 2011. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Television

Tony Burman, Al Jazeera and the future of news Add to ...

Tony Burman was in his 11th-floor office at Al Jazeera English in Washington, D.C. – a stone’s throw from the White House – when a news item appeared on his computer screen that made the veteran Canadian news man stop dead in his tracks.

In testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had delivered a well-aimed blow to mainstream U.S. broadcast media, crediting Al Jazeera as being the one channel offering “real news,” while the more xenophobic, celebrity-obsessed American media was falling far short. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, and arguments about talking heads and the kind of stuff we do on our news, which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners,” Clinton bluntly told Congress.

Burman had met Clinton two years earlier while he was managing director of Al Jazeera English, based in Doha, Qatar, where he says the Secretary of State made it clear that the Obama administration “regarded Al Jazeera as part of the Middle East solution.”

It was, obviously, all good news for Burman, a 63-year-old originally from Montreal, who returned State-side last year to take on a new role as AJE’s chief strategic adviser, in charge of getting the six-year-old news service into more households in Canada and the United States, where it had – particularly prior to the Arab Spring – been virtually invisible.

Under Burman’s tenure, AJE saw its audience reach climb to 220 million worldwide. It’s a track record the former CBC news executive is justifiably proud of. And as he prepares to leave AJE, to become lecturer and chair of the Velma Rogers Graham Research endowment at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, Burman reflects on the challenges facing news organizations, the impact of social media, the flaws in a Fox News-style of force-feeding opinion, and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire’s egregious “crossing of the line” with the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked Britain.

What does the current crisis in Britain say about the modern-day tactics of gossip/scoop-obsessed news publications?

The Murdoch scandal is a crucial wake-up call for everyone who values the role of journalism and politics as being honest, fair and public-spirited. As familiar as most of us in the news industry are with the shady dealings of much of the tabloid press in Britain, particularly the Murdoch press, it’s clear they did cross the line. The letters which surfaced in London in the last few days effectively prove that. They indicate that hacking was opening discussed at daily editorial meetings. The worrisome thing is that once this kind of thing is tolerated, it does spread. And there are examples in North America (notably the National Enquirer). Responsible people, both in the public and in journalism, should stand on the highest mountain and say this is outrageous. Canada is well-positioned to fend off some of the more insidious aspects of this kind of journalistic and political culture. And that’s because I believe most of our news organizations are committed to quality journalism.

But there is a huge appetite among Canadians to buy the celebrity glossies and watch the Hollywood-centric entertainment TV shows produced in the U.S. So isn’t it right to concede that at least some of that culture has seeped in here?

Canadians are as susceptible to things that are not necessarily high-minded, but there hasn’t been a real culture here where gossip and titillation dominate our media. And proof lies in the revolt recently against the Fox-lite Sun News Network.

When I returned from the Middle East to Washington, I started watching American media and woke up like Rip Van Winkle. I couldn’t believe in the two or three years I’d been away, how dramatically the quality of mainstream media in the States has declined. As journalists, part of our raison d’être is to help people better understand their country and their world. But when we get to the point where the American public knows more about Charlie Sheen and Casey Anthony than they do about the debt crisis or world affairs, then there’s a failure there. And to a great extent, that failure lies with the media – not the public. In the U.S., the broadcast media in particular does a poor job of making crucial issues clear and relevant for Americans to understand. And I think that’s a real threat to a functioning democracy.

It’s a slippery slope for us in Canada, too. In our history, we have always been tempted to imitate Americans. But, coming back here after three years away, I’m baffled when I see some Canadians wanting to imitate the worst of America.

Many mainstream news organizations have debated the wisdom of using social media as an information gathering tool. But Al Jazeera jumped in with both feet. Why was it at the forefront?

I don’t think there was any great “vision” at the beginning at Al Jazeera about the use of social media. We were as uncertain as other news organizations about how to use these tools. But whether it was the Israeli-Gaza conflict or the so-called Arab Spring, we were often denied access to important centres of the story. And our journalists and crews were often harassed and targeted by tyrannical regimes; in the case of Libya, for example, one of our cameramen was murdered in a government ambush. We had no other alternative but to rely on the thousands of people who were there, on the scene, risking their lives as eyewitnesses, sending us information and video, largely on their cell phones or via Facebook and Twitter.

Is there any validity to the argument that, if we allow input from our audiences, the quality of the content is going to be harmed because they’re not trained journalists?

This was a valid argument, perhaps, a few years ago. But there is a latent elitism to that. We have always needed to rely on people in our audiences and in the public to be our eye witnesses. The challenge in our use of social media is to determine how to organize it and marshal it in ways that enrich our content and better serve our audiences. And we can do that by creating ways to double-check and verify the accuracy of this information. We can’t just put things on the air, on the Web or in print.

And, of course, this means that mistakes can be made. During the Arab protests, a man claiming to be a government representative critical of the protesters got on Al Jazeera briefly because Al Jazeera believed his credentials. But within a minute or two, it pulled him off the air when it was clear this was a hoax.

Does the online dissemination of news matter more in the Arab world, than say, Europe and North America?

In the Middle East, we’re dealing with a part of the world where more than 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years of age, which is far more than in this country. Although this is not a population blessed with millions of computers, they have millions of cellphones, and this is increasing. In Tunisia, where the “Arab Awakening” began last December, it began with one dramatic incident, captured on a cellphone which was put on Facebook and then rebroadcast repeatedly on television throughout the region and the world. This is a ground-breaking example of the new cyclical relationship that is developing between new and traditional media.

Who gets social media right?

After more than three years away, I find it fascinating – although somewhat discouraging – to see how social media are evolving here. So much of it is being directed at entertainment, sports, gossip and distraction. Even in journalistic initiatives, it seems the focus is often on getting people to rant or vent, tapping into the type of blowhard journalism which is now so common on cable TV. Where does that take us?

I think that’s a squandered opportunity. There is so much potential here in North America, compared to the developing world, because computers, smartphones and the Internet are everywhere. It's a way to enrich our coverage and capture a younger audience. But in the developing world, social media are being used far more to help people learn about their societies and figure out how to make them better. We should learn from that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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