Al Jazeera English: the "Kiwi mafia"

by Toby Manhire / 04 November, 2013

Close to three dozen New Zealanders work for the Doha-based 24-hour news channel.

Elizabeth Puranam, whom you may recognise from 3 News, sits alone on a disc-like plinth in the centre of the Doha newsroom. Behind her curls a gigantic cyclorama, suspended above are circular lighting rigs, around her is a newsroom full of people absorbed in their screens. In her ear is the voice of Charlie O’Kane, a gregarious director formerly of TVNZ and the Holmes show. The item she introduces – breaking news of the Libyan Prime Minister’s kidnapping – is voiced by another 3 News alumna, senior producer Mereana Hond.

When the shifts align, the al Jazeera English operation is awash with Kiwi vowels. “There are days when I’m on, and my programme editor, the assistant programme editor, the director in the gallery, the floor manager, the production manager and four out of six output producers and senior producers will all be New Zealanders,” says Puranam. “It’s crazy.”

Puranam approached al Jazeera in the hope of a spot of reporting work and was offered an anchor role. When she started, just over a year ago, she was “amazed” by the size of the New Zealand contingent. The “Kiwi mafia”, as they’ve become known, amounts to “about 35” staffers and freelancers. Crucially, they comfortably outnumber Australians.

Among the stars in the field are Istanbul-based Anita McNaught and Johannesburg correspondent Tania Page. Page is another familiar face from 3 News, as is presenter Kamahl Santamaria, who has been with al Jazeera since the start.

Like Puranam, Hond, who joined al Jazeera English in 2010, had her sights fixed on the Qatar-based broadcaster when she decided to seek work abroad. “Al Jazeera was telling stories from a different perspective, reaching parts of the globe – Africa, the Middle East, even Asia-Pacific – where stories were not being told. It was like al Jazeera was speaking my own language … It was really the only international broadcaster that could entice me away.”

Most quietly acknowledge that the generous, tax-exempted salaries have their attractions, too.

Anita McNaught says the concentration of compatriots is a blessing. “It’s always great working with another New Zealand colleague at al-Jazeera, because there’s just so much we don’t need to say. We get each others’ jokes and we understand each other.”

But that blessing is sometimes mixed. “Kamahl Santamaria, when I first had a chat with him, he said to me, ‘oh, Anita McNaught, I’m so glad to talk with you.’ And then came the crushing moment. He said, ‘I used to watch you when I got home from school.’”

“What I see is what I always saw in New Zealand,” McNaught says. “Which is that we have this nucleus of very, very skilled and able people who just need a chance to take their professional skills on to another level, to be pushed, basically, to reach the higher standard. And when given that chance, they can be really excellent.”

Tarek Bazley, a former Radio New Zealand journalist, joined the channel in London, and later moved with his family to Doha. A senior producer and reporter focused on science, technology and environment, he says the investment in news is the great attraction. While the resource is not limitless, in editorial “it feels as though the budget never factors in the decisions. It’s hugely liberating.”

Wayne Hay, the New Zealander recently in headlines after being detained and expelled from Egypt while reporting for al Jazeera English, is a former staffer turned freelancer based in south-east Asia. “What al Jazeera English provides are resources to do the job and that means that we get to stories that others don't,” he says.

“They also provide their correspondents with a lot of freedom to tell the story as they see it happening ... It can be very raw at times and you won't see too much gloss and fluff, but it delivers the news.”

The disproportionate New Zealand presence can be explained in part by the fact that other world news channels tend to employ nationals from their own countries, but there's also the impact of two New Zealanders employed in the early years – Trish Carter, who set up the (since closed) Kuala Lumpur base, and Paul Yurlish, a former programme editor in Doha.

“They were able to open the door for a few of us and I guess the door has remained open ever since because I'd like to think that we've all done a pretty good job in getting the channel to where it is today,” says Hay.

O’Kane says the perception of al Jazeera in New Zealand has noticeably changed over the past seven years. “When I left New Zealand, people were like, ‘You’re going to work for al Jazeera? Aren’t they the terrorists?’ And after a couple of years, these same people would be asking, ‘Are there any jobs? We want to move over.’”

The New Zealanders are the happiest people at al Jazeera, too, reckons O’Kane. “We’ve got a glint in our eye.” Why? “If anything turns to shit, you’ve always got the backup plan. That’s why we’ve got this cheekiness about us. We know that if we do get into trouble we can go home and everything’s going to be cool.”

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