The early recruits to Al Jazeera English, myself included, were drawn by a compelling vision. It was to be the first truly global channel that did not come from any fixed cultural or national context, but rather addressed a heterogeneous audience by originating from four separate broadcast centers scattered around the world. The only problem was that it was never clear why the channel was called Al Jazeera, or indeed why it was headquartered in the Middle East. The vision never fully embraced the success of the original channel, and even appeared to place itself beyond it. Many seized on the fact that the English channel was established as a wholly separate entity as a repudiation of what were considered to be the excesses of Al Jazeera Arabic. This was when the rumors really began to fly that Khanfar would be undone by his alleged Islamist sympathies—much like Tayseer Allouni, who, before his own fall, had been, as Khanfar was now, one of the channel’s best known figures.
There was an expectation that the English channel would be a more sober and sophisticated Al Jazeera, less parochial and operating with higher journalistic standards. While this perception may have played to the English service’s favor, it reflected poorly on the broad Al Jazeera brand, and that implication was never strenuously enough denied. Almost the entire staff were imported, with few of them having any real experience of the Middle East, and fewer still speaking any Arabic. There was a barely concealed discomfort with the sister Arabic channel amongst many of the new arrivals, coupled with the widespread belief that the path to success for Al Jazeera International, as the English service was initially called, was to emphasize the distance between the two.
This tension between the channels did not go unnoticed by outsiders, and soon there were attempts to exploit it. On a visit to the State Department to promote Al Jazeera English, it was suggested to me that any pressure I could exert on my Arabic colleagues to tone down their reporting would be rewarded with increased access. The discontent at Al Jazeera Arabic was palpable, at the perceived slight to the legacy in which so much blood and toil had been invested, and it soon reached the ears of the Qatari owners. Again they called on Khanfar, to repair the rift, and rescue the brand from confusion. He more than rose to the occasion.
Overnight, Khanfar was transformed from the managing director of the Arabic channel to the director general of a global network, with a diverse portfolio of channels broadcasting in both Arabic and English. He immediately set about bridging the chasm between the two news channels. One of the first steps was to change the name of Al Jazeera International to Al Jazeera English, to make it clear that both channels shared the same perspective and were animated by the same spirit, while being separated only by language. Achieving coherence between the two was a long process, and it involved some key personnel changes along with the rebranding, but the universally celebrated coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East is a testament to his ultimate success.
Khanfar in many ways prefigured the Arab Spring. His overarching vision was that the network be the voice of a world in transition. He could be mesmerizing in both Arabic and English, as he spoke from the horizon of aspirations yet to be realized but that were already shaping the course of current events. It was also why he made plenty of people nervous. Bursting with impatience at the autocratic regimes smothering Middle Eastern societies, he is emblematic of the generation that took to the streets to demand change. Though marginalized and making only a cameo appearance in Western consciousness as the so-called Arab street, Khanfar recognized them as history’s true actors, and addressed them long before they had coalesced into a visible, and very vocal public. I was always impressed with how he spoke about the Al Jazeera audience, as he described them with such intimacy. The Arab Spring was that audience made flesh.