BBC returns to Arab TV

New service to be publicly funded

When the BBC launched its Arabic TV service March 11, it marked the return of the British pubcaster to the Arab TV market for the first time in more than a decade.

That first experience ended in 1996 when the BBC’s joint venture with Saudi paybox Orbit collapsed less than two years in (Orbit execs pulled the plug after the BBC broadcast an episode of its Panorama documentary strand that was critical of the Saudi Arabian government).

A number of employees from the failed project went on to join Al-Jazeera, which would launch later that year and in doing so become a pioneering force in Arab news reporting.

This time round, BBC execs seem to have learned the perils of public-private partnership. The new service will be the Beeb’s first publicly funded satcaster with a total of $50 million allocated from the coffers of the British government’s foreign and commonwealth office. The channel initially is broadcast 12 hours a day, with the switchover to a 24-hour service expected by the summer.

“Taking very firmly the public-funded route means that this service is operating on exactly the same footing as all our BBC services in the U.K.,” says BBC head of Africa and the Middle East Jerry Timmons. “That form of funding insulates us. It doesn’t stop people criticizing us or pressuring us, but it does put you in a very strong position to resist and stick to your fundamental job.”

BBC Arabic’s main competition for Arab auds will come from the existing market leaders Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, and MBC’s Al-Arabiya, Saudi-owned but based out of Dubai. Those two channels have already established clear niches for themselves on either side of an increasingly polarized Arab world.

BBC execs are hoping its long history in the Arab world (its Arabic radio service celebrated its 70th anniversary this January and is the BBC’s oldest language service after English) will put it in good stead when it comes to finding a middle ground. That task, however, won’t be easy.

“You have to think about the BBC as an international broadcast that is part of the Arabic heritage now,” says BBC Arabic topper Salah Negm, who has previously worked as chief news editor at Al-Jazeera and head of news gathering at Al-Arabiya. “It has been broadcasting for over 70 years, so it is not new to the market. Its proposition is very well known, and there is a lot of trust in it.”

That said, the station has already ruffled a few feathers. MBC execs accused the startup station of deliberately poaching members of its staff — an accusation BBC execs deny — while BBC Arabic’s choice to launch its broadcast with an interview of Arab League chief Amr Moussa left some in the region underwhelmed. Al-Jazeera, for example, launched its English service in 2006 with an interview with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The BBC also will have to ensure its source of coin — namely the British government — doesn’t allow Arab viewers to see the station as simply an extension of British foreign policy, a fate the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra has never been able to successfully shake off. That other foreign-funded Arab news services — such as France 24, Russia Today, Germany’s Deutsche-Welle and even Iran’s Al-Alam — have also failed to make any real dent in the popularity of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya also offers warnings.

“The most important thing is the content,” Negm says. “Our core values are trust, objectivity, reliability and accuracy. If we are faithful to that promise, then the questions about our funding will not be asked.”

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