As they say, all things must come to an end. This month in the United Arab Emirates we witnessed a rare occurrence, the departure of an editor-in-chief at one of the national newspapers. After five years Hassan Fattah stepped down. The news wasn’t surprising to most of us media watchers when it was officially announced by The National on the 2nd of October. The news had been unofficially published by Capital New York on the 19th of September after personal emails had been leaked to The National staffers (one email apparently contained an employment contract from Fattah’s new employers).
Fattah’s time at The National hasn’t been without controversy. The paper, which was once dubbed “The New York Times of the Middle East”, once held aloft the ideals of freedom of the press and professional journalism in a region that suffers from a lack of both. Today, while The National is a quality read it hasn’t lived up to the goals that its founders and editorial team strived for at the paper’s launch.
Instead, judging by the number of pieces that have been written about The National by blogs and other online news outlets the paper has been riven by leadership issues at the top by people who have had to juggle the demands of producing good quality editorial alongside keeping the newspaper’s owners, Abu Dhabi Media Company, happy. The nadir was reached when disgruntled employees started a Facebook site with the aim of highlighting their unhappiness at how the newspaper was run.
Fattah has moved on to the dark side, to the world of public relations. He’ll be heading up communications for a company that is not much loved in the UAE – GEMS, the ‘world’s largest private education company’. It’ll be interesting to see how he copes with the move; public relations isn’t the easiest profession at the best of times but trying to prove that paying more per year for a child’s education than one would pay for an MBA in a top UK University is good value for money would be a stretch for even the most experienced communications spin doctor. How will Fattah cope with keeping his employer happy and the press onside whilst trying to convince a skeptical public about GEMS’ altruism and the value for money provided by its services for example?
However, my gaze will remain firmly on The National. The paper is still one of my favourites and I believe that despite all of the events of the last couple of years there remains the promise of a publication which can raise journalistic standards in the Gulf. Call me naive, simple or whatever else you want, but I’d rather live in hope that The National can return to the vision spelt out by Abu Dhabi Media chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei on the eve of its inauguration, of “a free, professional and enlightened press” that will play a key role in the development of the country. Am I asking too much? Let’s hope not.