Turkish TV station aims to switch views

Slick English-language channel at forefront of efforts by President Erdogan to alter perceptions

People stand in front of the headquarters of Turkish daily newspaper Zaman with placards reading "Free media are resisting" in Istanbul on March 4, 2016. An Istanbul court on Friday ordered into administration the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman that is sharply critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, amid growing alarm over freedom of expression in the country. / AFP / OZAN KOSEOZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Thousands of Turks gather in Istanbul in protest at the court order placing Zaman newspaper under the control of trustees

When police stormed Turkey’s top-selling Zaman newspaper last week, global news organisations expressed outrage at what they said was an assault on press freedom.

But one English-language outlet took a more cautious view. “Turkish court appoints trustees for Istanbul-based newspaper,” read the headline on TRT World.

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The fledgling TV news channel, under the wing of the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, is at the forefront of an ambitious effort by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, to shape how the country is viewed around the world.

With sleek graphics, English-speaking foreign journalists and funded from the deep pockets of the taxpayer, it follows the blueprint of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Russia’s RT, formerly Russia Today.

Yet the goals of those running the station are grander. Carlos van Meek, director of news, says that when he was hired, his bosses told him they wanted a channel “that would rival the likes of CNN and the BBC”.

“There has [for many years] been a need for a broadcast channel delivering the events to the world from a different perspective, which presents Turkey’s own viewpoint,” says Ibrahim Eren, head of broadcasting for TRT. Ankara’s growing influence, not least in Syria and the migrant crisis, had created the need for a station showing non-Turkish viewers “how we see the world”.

Mr Erdogan’s government has long been frustrated with how its actions play out internationally, railing against foreign journalists whom he views as an extension of western influence over Turkish internal affairs.

He has delivered public insults to reporters from CNN, the Economist and the BBC, notably when the 2013 Gezi Park protests provided media outlets with gripping images of tear-gassed protesters who Mr Erdogan dismissed as terrorists and looters.

The contrast with the rest of Turkey’s media scene is jarring. While TRT World has hired expensive expatriate talent and technical staff, other Turkish journalists have been jailed, their newspapers closed and their careers ended over material the government deems offensive. In 2015 Reporters without Borders ranked Turkey 149th in the world for press freedom, behind South Sudan and Palestine.

Two people involved in planning at TRT World, which is operational after a soft launch last year, said they had yet to receive specific instructions on how to cover Turkish news.

But most of the foreign employees contacted by the FT privately expressed concern they had signed up to a project that would become halfway between state propaganda and an expression of Turkish soft power. “If we’re not careful, we end up a joke,” says a senior news staffer who is already considering quitting.

Mr van Meek, a veteran of Fox News and Al Jazeera, rejects such criticism and says the channel’s coverage will be a measure of its independence: “Watch the content. I think we are fair and objective and credible.”

But he insists there is a need to “get the Turkish side of the story out there. I do think Turkey and its viewpoint have been under-represented and misrepresented.”

Of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which has fought a four-decade war in Turkey for self-rule, he says: “To us, the PKK is a terrorist organisation. It just is.”

Inside TRT World’s Istanbul newsroom, staffers monitor the news and handle live broadcasts that are available online and as part of Turkish cable bundles. Yet almost nobody outside the country can yet watch it on television.

As a reminder of the sort of news on which a channel in the region must focus, pieces of paper stuck to the wall remind reporters that “air strikes” are two words, not one.

The benefits of being under the public broadcaster’s umbrella are apparent. During two recent high-profile terrorism incidents, TRT World was able to break a nationwide ban and broadcast live from the scene, while others had to rely on studio interviews.

Financially, it has been able to recruit widely. TRT World has not disclosed its budget — Mr Eren says it will be made public shortly — but its headcount has swelled to at least 220 in Istanbul, with additional centers in London, Singapore and Washington. Mr van Meek says hiring in Istanbul is about 70 per cent complete.

Industry analysts estimate annual running costs at £50m-£100m, rising further if the channel develops a large network of correspondents. RT’s annual budget is about £125m.

“To be really credible, you need to have boots [reporters] on the ground,” says an international news executive. “It’s a very expensive undertaking.”

But if, as Mr Erdogan often declares, Turkey needs an unbiased source of TV news, why invest such resources in a foreign-language channel that few in the country can watch?

“If you had $ 100m to improve the state of Turkish media, would you spend it on a glasshouse in the middle of Istanbul?” says Andrew Finkel, founder of P24, an organisation that aims to strengthen independent reporting in Turkey. “Why are public funds being used this way?”

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