The era of the “inexpert” or were the media just listening to the wrong people?

A short blog post I wrote today for the Frontline Club’s Forum blog again looks at what Wadah Khanfar of Al Jazeera has to say about a “new dawn” in the Middle East – and asks if this is a new era of “the inexpert” as Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow argues, or was it a failure of the Western media and its tendency to focus on the “strong men” that meant they were taken by surprise by events in the Middle East?

Two blogs in the past seven days from different perspectives on the upheaval in the Middle East, raising the question of whether we are in uncharted territory or if the Western media in particular has been talking to the wrong people:

In a post titled Middle East uprisings: no one predicted ‘rebellious cascadeChannel 4 News presenter Jon Snow writes:

The New Year turned, we made our amateur predictions, some made their professional prognostications, and not one of them predicted Tunisia, let alone Egypt, let alone Bahrain, and heaven forbid, Libya! No one anywhere in the world predicted this rebellious cascade.

Hence here we are in a world of no experts. The thinkers are having to think the unthinkable – the old UK outpost Oman, whose security is almost exclusively in ex-British army hands, now in turmoil, Kuwait wobbly, and fear stalking the whole matter of Saudi Arabia. There’s an excellent piece in today’s FT from David Gardner (a seasoned Mideast watcher) in which he sets out the issues in Saudi very clearly. But if the unthinkable happens and Saudi upheaves, the world economy will upheave with it. We should watch for the supposed “day of rage” posted on Saudi Facebook sites for March 11. None of the “experts” expect it. But then we live in the age of the inexpert and the unexpected.

Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director-general, agrees that we are in a new era, but it is one that he is profoundly optimistic about. Speaking at TED 2011 Conference in California on 1 March spoke of “birth of a new era” in the Arab world as it embarks on a new phase in its history defined by tolerance, democracy, and freedom.

But in an article titled At Al Jazeera, we saw the Arab revolutions coming. Why didn’t the West? in the Washington Post last week Wadah Khanfar writes:

These revolutions have exposed not just the failure of traditional politicians but also the moral, political and economic bankruptcy of the old Arab elites. Those elites not only attempted to control their own people, but also sought to shape and taint the views of news media in the region and across the world.

Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognize the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality.

Criticising US and European leaders for engaging with unrepresentative leaders and being detached from the emerging reality,Wadah Khanfar adds:

These unfolding transformations have been less of a surprise for us at al-Jazeera. Since our launch nearly 15 years ago, we have chosen to keep close to the Arab street, gauging its pulse and reflecting its aspirations. It was clear to us that a revolution was in the making, and it was happening far from the gaze of a tame and superficial establishment media that allied itself with the powerful center – on the assumption that the center is always safer and more important. Many media outlets in the region failed to recognize what was happening among the Arab grass roots. Keen to conduct interviews with high-level officials and ever willing to cover repetitious news conferences, they remained oblivious to what was happening on the ground.

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