MBC takes aim at BBC

Arab network accuses Brits of poaching staff

MBC Group, the Arab world’s leading satellite network, has launched an uncharacteristically stinging attack against the BBC for what it claims has been a concerted campaign to lure its staff to the BBC Arabic TV service, set to launch by the end of the year.

A dozen staffers at Al-Arabiya, MBC’s top-rated newscaster, have jumped ship to join the service, including editors, producers and reporters.

The BBC venture, funded by the U.K. government to the tune of some $34 million annually, is headed by Egyptian journo Salah Negm, previously head of newsgathering at Al-Arabiya.

“It is no secret that in the content industry, there is a natural ebb and flow of talent,” said Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s director of marketing, PR and commercial. “But it is the systematic, targeted, deliberate and ongoing nature of this poaching that is distressing. We would have expected far more responsible and sensible behavior from the BBC.”

Beeb execs dismissed MBC’s complaints. “All job offers by the BBC for the forthcoming Arabic television station have been conducted in accordance with the BBC’s fair, open and competitive recruitment policy. All jobs have been publicly advertised, and no one has been headhunted. The BBC cannot control who does or does not apply. We also cannot deny someone a job based on their relationship with a previous employer. That would be discriminatory,” press officials said. That explanation isn’t cutting it with MBC execs.

“It is one thing to post a job advert on the Net and quite another to individually handpick and approach selected individuals, using insider information,” said Hayek.

Launched in 1991 by Saudi Sheik Waleed bin Ibrahim (brother-in-law of the late Saudi King Fahd), MBC is the Arab world’s first privately owned, 24-hour, pan-regional satcaster. Sixteen years later, MBC Group now includes five entertainment channels as well as news web Al-Arabiya.

The spat highlights the extent to which the Arab TV news market has become an increasingly crowded, and cut-throat, neighborhood.

In addition to Al-Jazeera, backed by the government of Qatar and launched in 1996, and the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, which bowed in 2003, a number of non-Arab-based satcasters have joined the fray.

Russia, Germany, France, the U.S. and Iran have all launched their own Arabic-language news channels, with mixed results.

While Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have largely seen off the challenges by the Western-backed Arab news channels, the imminently launching BBC Arabic TV reps their biggest competitor yet. The BBC has a long-standing presence in the region thanks to its well-respected Arabic radio service.