'Like a bad joke': Al Jazeera staff bemused at rightwing US venture

By Michael Safi

Al Jazeera’s surprise decision to launch a digital platform for conservatives in the US has left many within the Qatar-based news organisation dumbfounded and confused, staff have told the Guardian.

The network has announced the launch of Rightly, a platform that will host programmes and produce online content aimed at “audiences currently underrepresented in today’s media environment”, in this case right-of-centre Americans.

It will be overseen by Scott Norvell, part of the founding team of Fox News, who said in a press release that Rightly aimed to show the wide spectrum of the American right.

“American conservatism has never been monolithic,” Norvell said. “With Rightly, we are hoping to create a platform that amplifies the voices of an array of personalities that more accurately reflects the racial, cultural and generational diversity of centre-right politics in America than existing outlets.

“We aim to bring new Americans, young Americans and Americans of colour together and present conservative ideas that transcend the barriers which identity politics aim to put between us,” he said.

The platform’s first show, “an opinion-led interview programme”, will launch on Thursday.

The announcement of the new franchise appears to fit awkwardly with a Qatar government-funded organisation that has fashioned itself as a leading international outlet of the global south and an alternative to the western media perspective on regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

“So far the co-workers I’ve talked to are just dumbfounded,” said an Al Jazeera employee who asked not to be named. “They didn’t know it was coming and are confused why they would do this.”

An Al Jazeera journalist based outside Qatar said the decision was a shock to staff. “It’s pretty weird,” they said. “I can’t see how it works for them.” Some Al Jazeera staff were calling the new platform Wrongly, they added.

A staff member said they learned about the venture from Guardian coverage on Tuesday. “I was convinced there was some new satirical section of the Guardian I didn’t know about,” they said. “It seems like a bad joke or bad dream we’re all waiting to wake up from. Everyone is totally bemused.”

Another said it was “worrying” that the network was moving from producing news – albeit from a clear perspective – to trying to promote a political agenda, citing a remark from Stephen Kent, the host of the upcoming interview programme, that he was aiming to “rebuild the right meme by meme”.

“Maybe it was said in jest,” the Doha-based staff member said. “I’m going to reserve judgment until I see the show.”

Al Jazeera’s Arabic network was controversial in the US in the years after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York for regularly airing propaganda videos from al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden. It launched a left-leaning American news channel in the US in 2013, but pulled funding three years later.

It has remained a significant presence online with its AJ+ video network and its international channel, Al Jazeera English, remaining popular in the US.

Al Jazeera English staff were among those on social media expressing bewilderment and concern over the move.

Shutting down Al Jazeera was a key demand of the Gulf Arab states who launched a blockade against Qatar in 2017. Donald Trump, the US president at the time, endorsed the siege, which was finally dropped through negotiations that were clinched on 5 January this year, after it became clear Trump would not serve a second term.

Tarek Cherkaoui, the author of a book about international and Arab media outlets, said the launch of the new platform may be “pure realpolitik” on the part of decision-makers in Doha after three difficult years, in which they realised they had failed to build links with the American right.

“Decision-makers in Doha knew they had missed something, the coming of Donald Trump to the helm of the White House, but also the fact that [his adviser and media mogul, Steve] Bannon was one of the most prominent people shaping Trump’s worldview, and they had omitted to build bridges to any of these people,” said Cherkaoui, who is the manager of the TRT World Research Centre, part of a Turkish state-funded media outlet.

There was logic in reaching out to the centre-right, he added. “They’ve found that they cannot go into the Trump heartland because it’s too hard to play there … They found that this centre-right is very unappreciated and has problems with their narrative and are finding it hard to push against the hardcore Trumpists.”