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  • Ayoon Wa Azan (The First ‘Scoop’)
    Sun, 09 January 2011
    Jihad el-Khazen

    One thing is reminiscent of another. An article carried by a London newspaper brought back to me my memories about an important period of my work as a journalist.

    The renowned British journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in The Independent on the 29th of December an article under the title of ‘The virtue of speaking truth to power’, which he started with the story of his father Claude Cockburn. Calude left The Times in 1933 to publish The Week, a radical magazine/political bulletin.

    Patrick wrote about how his father found great difficulty winning over readers and subscribers for his publication, which he started with 40 pounds he had borrowed from a friend. Just as he began to fear that his project will have to come to an end, the then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald intervened, inadvertently of course, and saved Claude Cockburn and his magazine.

    MacDonald had held an international economics conference in the Geological Museum in London, in a desperate effort to deal with the Great Depression. Cockburn wrote in his hitherto unknown magazine that the conference was dead on its feet. The Prime Minister responded by holding a press conference in which he attacked Cockburn and The Week, and accused the journalist of being a false and misleading prophet of disaster.

    As a result, people started looking for the magazine and requesting it, until the magazine became famous and prolific, and lasted many years in circulation.

    This story motivated me to write a similar story about the history of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. I was the first Editor in Chief of the newspaper, and I place this story at the disposal of any colleague who might write in the future about the history of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and what it has accomplished.

    The idea of publishing an Arabic language newspaper in London was first proposed by Brother Hisham Hafez, Rest in Peace, and was enthusiastically supported by Brother Mohammed Ali Hafez. Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince at the time who was to become king later, welcomed the idea when the brothers proposed it to him, only to lose his enthusiasm later. However, the day was saved when he, Rest in Peace, came to London on an official visit in the spring of 1978, if I recall correctly. We issued several trial issues for the Crown Prince to read and get acquainted with the journalistic project we were in the process of developing. Here, I must give the credit of issuing the newspaper (along with others of course) to Sheikh Faisal Hejailan, the Saudi ambassador in London at the time, and the Deputy Minister of Information Dr. Abdul Aziz Khoja, the current Minister of Information. Both gentlemen have contributed significantly in propping up the newspaper to the Crown Prince, and the verbal approval of issuing the newspaper came at the airport in London as Prince Fahd ended his official visit.

    In the beginning, we ran a very important exclusive on the details of the formation of the U.S Central Command (for the Middle East). The story was written by colleague Bob Lebling, Bureau Chief of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in Washington D.C., who worked with me in The Daily Star in Beirut, and Arab News in Jeddah, of which both I was the chief editor. Today, he still works in Aramco and prefers our countries, for some mysterious reason, to any other country.

    The first scoop passed and we continued to look for a way to rekindle interest in the new newspaper, when the Camp David affair exploded in our faces and the peace between Egypt and Israel. The Cairo bureau chief, the dear colleague Salah al-Din Hafez, Rest in Peace, one of the most ethical and high-caliber journalists, had decided to step down as the majority of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat contributors stood against Camp David and criticized President Anwar Sadat. He was succeeded in his post as Al-Sharq Al-Awsat bureau chief in Cairo by the colleague and friend Ibrahim Saada, who after that went on to become the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Al-Akhbar and its chief editor.

    The dispute over Camp David helped increase the circulation of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and its fame. However, what happened next was a gift from heaven. One day, there suddenly were numerous phone calls from colleagues and friends in Cairo, when President Sadat held a press conference with brother Ibrahim Saada at his side, and attacked Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and its stances on the peace process. He said that the ‘high’ salary received by the newspaper’s bureau chief in Cairo is suspicious, and that Prince Fahd is using the newspaper against him.

    I think that this press conference was worth a million dollars (in its value at the time) of free publicity for the newspaper, which since became the subject of interest for many foreign governments and the foreign media. If there is anything I can boast from that period, it would be that Al-Sharq Al-Awsat continued to be printed at Al-Ahram’s printing presses, and continued to be circulated in Egypt, rarely being banned by the censors. I also boast the fact that we maintained friendship with all colleagues in Egypt, which I never stopped visiting.

    Today, I wrote from memory, and I hope that I did not recall anything incorrectly. However, those who will write the history of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat will need to go back to Brother Mohammed Hafez and others who witnessed that period, and to the published material which is indeed available.

    [email protected]

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