Apparent e-mail hack attack reveals Hassan Fattah, editor of U.A.E. newspaper ‘The National,’ is leaving his post

Today's front page. Inset: Hassan Fattah. ()
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Hassan M. Fattah, the former New York Times correspondent who went on to lead an ambitious but controversial Middle East newspaper, The National, is now moving on from his editorship of the five-year-old Abu Dhabi daily, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Speculation that Fattah had either resigned from or been pushed out of The National, which is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, has been swirling in recent weeks. But his departure appears to have been confirmed in a series of personal emails that were leaked to Fattah's newsroom employees today, several of which were obtained by Capital.

One of the emails includes an employment contract with a Dubai-based education company called GEMS for the position of communications director. Before the email was leaked, three sources independently told Capital that Fattah had accepted a public relations position with the company.

"Congratulations on your appointment and welcome to the GEMS group," wrote Martin Bonsall, recruitment manager for GEMS Education, in the email to Fattah.

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Another email, which was addressed to Fattah's managing editor, Laura Koot, contains the text of remarks he planned to make to the newsroom on Sept. 8 addressing "numerous rumours floating around about me."

"I cannot discuss any details or what is happening," the text continues. "However I want to say that I am heartened by the continued unflinching support among UAE leadership for The National, its mission and its management."

"Saying this confirms you are leaving. Are you sure you want to do that?," Koot replied. "Not confirming it is the only thing Ayman [Safadi, the C.E.O. of Abu Dhabi Media] has been clear about. The other option is to just come in and carry on as if nothing has happened."

Fattah did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Abu Dhabi Media, The National's parent company.

But it's not surprising that Fattah would want to pack things up and become a flack. He's had a stormy tenure in which he came under fire for mismanagement and self-censorship that seemed at odds with the mission The National embarked on when it was conceived in 2008 as a vanity play by Abu Dhabi's royal family: to bring quality journalism to a region with a poor track record of press freedom and openness.

Though based in the United Arab Emirates, The National has nonetheless been a topic of interest in Western media circles. At launch, it recruited a small army of top journalists from the U.S., Britain and Canada and even became something of a freelance fountain for A-list American writers.

But the glory days were short-lived. The unprofitable though royally-subsidized paper was eventually rocked by budget cuts and shakeups in management. Meanwhile, as tensions rose in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring and other political and economic factors, the The National's coverage on certain topics became so obsequious to the government as to render the paper a punchline even among its own journalists. The result was massive attrition, as dozens of reporters and editors left for greener pastures.

In February, I wrote an extensive feature about The National for The New Republic that explored these issues in depth.

But another one of the emails obtained by Capital sheds some light on what journalists at The National have been up against. It involves the paper's coverage of a June 2012 Madonna concert in Abu Dhabi. The paper reported that the pop icon had kept fans waiting for nearly two hours on a sweltering night. This detail was perceived as an embarassment for the U.A.E.'s capital city.

The next morning, Fattah wrote to one of his main deputies, Bob Cowan, saying he was "quite livid" and that the piece showed a lack of "operational discipline."

"What were we expected to do? Ignore it? Say that it all went like clockwork?" Cowan replied via email. "When you have that many people at an event, some semblance of truth has to be incorporated into our reportage."

As for the future editorship of The National, one insider said it's up in the air and that Fattah has still been going about his regular duties despite the fact that his looming exit has been an "open secret" for weeks.

"They have a succession problem—it has to be an Arab and they would like a local," the source said. "There will most likely not be an announcement until they find a new editor."