LONDON: BBC journalist Frank Gardner pulled out of a debate over the future of Al Jazeera held Monday, which media commentators had slammed for being one-sided and which drew a crowd of protesters.
The correspondent was due to chair a panel discussion at the London-based Frontline Club but pulled out due to concerns raised by the BBC.
Commentators also cast doubt over the balance of the panel debate, which was entitled "The Al Jazeera Case."
Arab News has exclusively learned from confirmed sources within the BBC that Gardner declined to moderate the panel as it was deemed "a propaganda stunt by Qatar and Al-Jazeera with no attempt at balance on the panel."
In an email to Arab News, the BBC source criticized the organizers for failing "to invite anyone from the UAE, Saudi, Bahrain or Egypt onto the panel in time."
Panel members included Wadah Khanfar, the ex-director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, along with Giles Trendle, managing director of Al Jazeera English. It also included David Hearst, editor in chief of Middle East Eye, a website widely believed to be funded by Qatar. Hearst denies this, although on Monday he sidestepped a question about exactly who funds the website.
A BBC spokeswoman, when asked by Arab News to comment on the record, only explained Gardner's pulling out by saying: “Unfortunately we are not always able to take part in events we are invited to.”
Laura Gane of the Frontline Club told Arab News that, “understandably ... the BBC was concerned about him talking about another network."
Yet Gane also responded to questions raised about the one-sided nature of the panel discussion.
“We completely accept the fact that … there was an issue of neutrality,” she said.
“We knew we had an audience that would really challenge people.”
The panel also included Marc Jones of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Exeter University, whose work has focused on “political repression in Bahrain,” according to the Frontline Club website.
Safa Al-Ahmad, an Saudi Arabian journalist and filmmaker, took Gardner’s place as moderator of the panel — and did challenge some of the speakers, with some audience members also raising strong objections about Al Jazeera’s output.
Yet academics and experts slammed the choice of panelists in the debate over the future of Al Jazeera, which has been caught up in the bitter diplomatic dispute in the Gulf over Qatar’s alleged support of extremist groups.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said that such a debate needed to be more balanced.
“This is a serious family dispute. You can’t just have one member of the family airing their grievances,” he told Arab News. “You need both sides.”
Gerges said that Qatar was seeking to change the narrative about Al Jazeera to focus on freedom of speech and media rights. “This is not just about Al Jazeera - they are just one element in the equation.”
Middle East politics and business expert Michael Barron, director of Michael Barron Consulting, said however that it was valid for the TV network to present its case.
“Al Jazeera is part of the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors, with both sides strongly pressing their point of view. This panel appears to be an attempt to put forward the Al-Jazeera case which they are entitled to do. There will undoubtedly be occasions when the counter view is put forward such as the UAE foreign minister speaking in London this morning,” he told Arab News.
Former and current Al Jazeera executives Wadah Khanfar and Giles Trendle defended Al Jazeera’s record at Monday night’s event.
“We believe our journalism is balanced and professional,” Trendle said.
Trendle claimed that Al Jazeera retained “editorial independence” from the Qatari government, and said categorically that the network will not be shut down.
Wadah Khanfar, the former director general of Al Jazeera, said that Al Jazeera had broken “taboos” by putting forward both sides of the story, and was not a “tool of the state.”
One audience member, a former employee of Al Jazeera, vehemently disagreed with this view.
“When I joined in 2009, this was the most exciting news channel on the planet, producing the best international news and current affairs we had ever seen. But Qatar ruined it,” she said.
The former staffer said she noticed a “creeping executive interference” at the English-language channel, and said she resigned on principle.
“Al Jazeera Arabic was used as a political tool by the Qatari government, not directly, but indirectly and all over the place. The deal was that you left Al Jazeera English alone, but in the end you didn’t.
“Why did Al Jazeera English allow pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, the agenda in Qatar, to infect and ruin a beautifully neutral channel and turn it into a propaganda channel?”
Wadah Khanfar, sitting on stage, laughed at such accusations; the former Al Jazeera employee shot back saying, “don’t laugh Wadah — it’s really serious.”
Dozens of protesters outside the venue held up banners and chanted “close down Al Jazeera!”
Political activist Sohaib Amr, one of those assembled outside the venue, cited several examples of Al Jazeera allegedly supporting terrorism.
“If you go to the terrorist and just give promotion to them… it will make propaganda for them,” he told Arab News.
“There is a difference between freedom of speech and promoting terrorism.”