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.
The security 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 pointed to concerns over the panel members on the 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 due it being 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 — a claim Hearst denies.
On the record, however, a BBC spokeswoman only explained Gardner’s pulling out by saying: “Unfortunately we are not always able to take part in events we are invited to,” she told Arab News.
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 to Al Jazeera.
Yet academics and experts slammed the one-sided nature of the panel on 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 journalist is balanced and professional,” Trendle said.
Dozens of protests outside the venue did not agree, however, holding up banners and chanting “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.”