A Summit with feasting and suffering

"I DON'T WANT the World Media Summit to be about elites - it should be open to regular journalists who are working in the field", Dr Mostefa Souag told me in a snatched private conversation between meetings. The acting director general of the Al Jazeera network is fond of casting himself as an everyman media worker who almost inadvertently finds himself at the head of a global news organisation. But in common with many of WMS' advertised narratives, it was hard to say whether Souag expressed a shared vision.

Jim Boumela at the podium; © Tim Dawson

International Federation of Journalists president Jim Boumela spoke on the physical threats to reporters and photographers

The resonances of its backdrop were more decadent than democratic. Nearly 400 attendees were accommodated in a five-star Doha hotel where lavish banquets were expedited by dozens of staff beneath vast chandeliers.

The World Media Summit is a relatively new phenomenon. Previous summits in 2009 and 2012 took place in Beijing and Moscow. Its work is guided by a "presidum" made up of representatives of its principal members: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press, BBC, CNN, Google, Grupo Folha, Itar Tass, Koyodo News, MIH Group, NBC, The New York Times, Sputnik, Thomson Reuters, The Hindu and the Xinhua News Agency.

If presence and position in Doha were a gauge, however, AP, Al Jazeera, Sputnik (a vast new Russian news agency), The Hindu, Xinhua News and Koyodo are today's major players. Their representatives' opening remarks seemed to anticipate a global alliance of news gathering behemoths. No announcement followed this, however, so perhaps it was no more than coincidence born of overusing the social media metaphor of sharing. The BBC, although a member of the presidium and represented in the shape of BBC Scotland's Ken MacQuarrie, did not trouble the formal proceedings.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

The event was designed to showcase Al Jazeera on home turf and to emphasise the Network's proud boast that it is the "world's fifth biggest news network". This was achieved with an impressive smorgasbord of experience and expertise from world's media companies as well as individual practitioners.

The African Independent Group's chief executive told how he has revitalised its print titles with hundreds of smart-phone-equipped community reporters. In the Philippines, the Rappler group crowd sources real-time information via Twitter to combat the threat of hurricanes, delegates learned. Pundits might have ridiculed Vox.com, but the currency of the originally mocking coinage of "voxplaining" underlines the distinctiveness of its approach, said Jennifer Williams, its deputy foreign editor. Associated Press meanwhile is experimenting with robot reporters on the one hand, while on the other celebrating its success securing the release of 2000 slaves in the global seafood industry.

The recurring motifs were of an industry that is still reeling from the catastrophic loss of advertising post 2008 and the wholesale migration of public interest to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. "Big media companies used to be landlords, now we are just tenants" said one speaker, describing news providers' relationships with social media platforms. "The jury is still out on the future of the news media - we don't know what is the business model," said Narasimhan Ram, publisher of The Hindu.

On the actual practice of producing journalism there was testimony to interest and outrage. Barry Malone described how a relentless social media campaign by his department at Al Jazeera had driven the ignored civilian slaughter in South Sudan up the news agenda.

Jim Boumela, president of the International Federation of Journalists, made a moving speech on the physical threats to reporters and photographers - noting that almost no one remembers the names of 30 journalists massacred in Maguindanao in the Philippines in 2009. "Hopes that UN officials would intervene to safeguard journalists have been dashed", he complained. And Swedish foreign correspondent Martin Schibbye painted a chilling picture of his mock execution and 438 days in prison in Ethiopia. "Journalists are now more afraid of lawyers than landmines", he said.

As the summit's proceedings drew to a close it was hard to put your finger on what overall conclusions might be drawn? The underlying topography of certain global media alliances had perhaps been revealed by the shifting sands beneath which they are usually hidden. Spotlights were shone on exemplars from the media landscape. And agreeable networking and remaking of acquaintances had been facilitated.

Al Jazeera also demonstrated its ambition to be the pre-eminent media voice of the Arab world, whatever sticks and arrows geo-politics and world oil prices throws its way. Nothing about the lavish backdrop of the event hinted at the effect that current oil prices might be having on the Qatari news network's budgets.

The NUJ delegation attended at Al Jazeera's invitation to participate in a concurrent negotiation with the Qatari-network on behalf of members. Those talks added the prospect of satisfaction to the undoubted stimulation provided by the Summit. Despite Al Jazeera's announcement of significant job losses since the Summit, the NUJ's London chapel report that local negotiations have improved since the NUJ met Souag.