Discussions of the significance of transnational radio news networks and their impact on Arab audiences usually arrive sooner or later at the unprecedented popularity of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) World Service Arabic Language service, the only news network to dominate ratings among Arab radio listeners. In fact, a new BBC World Service Arabic television service, slated for launch in 2007, was conceived, sold and funded on the foundations of BBC Radio's Arabic Service, which remains a dominant force and hugely admired in the Middle East.
The region first heard rumors of a BBC World Television Arabic Service back in the early 1990s, when the market for satellite television in the Middle East was just starting to form. Negotiations for the BBC Arabic channel started with the Saudi investment group Mawarid's subsidiary, the Rome-based Orbit Communications Corporation. An agreement was signed on 24 March 1994, but the project was short-lived. On Sunday, 21 April 1996, the BBC World Service Arabic Language Television channel, beamed across the Middle East and North Africa by the popular Orbit satellite network package, was closed down.
During its short life, there were numerous disputes between the Orbit officials and the BBC World Service Arabic language management on the editorial independence of the latter, particularly about the BBC's failure to observe the cultural sensitivities of the Saudis—especially when it comes to the Saudi royal family. The BBC had crossed an invisible line when its reporting focused on a Saudi dissident, Al Mes’ari, living in London and criticizing the Saudi royals. In addition, the BBC rebroadcast an Arabic-dubbed BBC show, Panorama, which criticized the Saudi judicial system in general and its application of capital punishment in particular.
With the closure of the BBC television service in Arabic, Arab audiences had to wait—albeit not for long—for another network to provide them with relatively independent, credible, accurate, unbiased and balanced news in Arabic. The failure of the first BBC Arabic television is a sad story, not just because of the death of a dream but also because its closure represented a blow to press freedom and freedom of expression.
Now, a decade after its retreat, the BBC is going to try again. In October, the corporation announced that it had shut down 10 of its World Service radio stations that directed their signals to the communist countries of Europe during the Cold War. They will be replaced with a new Arabic satellite television channel, launched in 2007 and financed by a Foreign Office grant of £239 million for 2005/6 and an estimated yearly operating cost of £19 million. The mission is difficult, but not impossible, since the satellite television market is not the same as it was.
The media environment in today’s Middle East clearly is different than the environment in the early ’90s, when BBC’s first Arabic-language television experiment failed. In 1994, there was no competition for the BBC World Service Television’s Arabic Service; in 2005, the satellite platform is crowded with networks, many of them 24-hour Arabic news channels. If we ask Arab audiences where they get their news and information, the answer will almost universally be “satellite television,” whether from personally owned sets or those shared by villages or local coffee shops. Today, Arab audiences have many satellite news channels that they watch with increasing loyalty, while fewer and fewer Arabs watch national TV channels for news and information. With governments more willing to tolerate criticism than in the past and less fearful of (or more aware of the difficulty of stopping) media freedom, the BBC faces a more welcoming and more tolerant environment than it did at the time of its first foray into Arabic television broadcasting.
The BBC World Service Television’s Arabic Service, however, also enters a highly competitive television market that did not exist in the past. The first type of competition comes from Arab satellite television services. During the past ten years, channels such as Al Jazeera (out of Qatar) and Al Arabia (out of Dubai) have succeeded at creating worldwide audiences and achieving dominance in Arabic satellite news broadcasting. These two channels dominate all other news or news-oriented general networks in the region, including Al Nil lil-Akhbar (Egypt’s Nile News), Al Ikhbarieh (Saudi’s News-Teller), Abu Dhabi Television, and more recently, Alhurra (The Free One), an American Arabic-language network that entered the Middle East satellite market as part of the US government’s public diplomacy campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs.
The main question for the BBC World Service Television’s Arabic Service hinges on its ability to compete on this crowded platform, especially now that Arab media organizations performed better than expected, delivering news with international production standards and winning large audiences throughout the world. Experts claim that Al Jazeera, for example, now has an audience of over 35 million viewers in coffee shops and living rooms across the Middle East.
The second source of competition for the BBC Arabic Service television channel comes from the Arab national state-owned broadcasting services. Some state broadcasting services have been liberalizing and reforming slowly, improving production standards and lessening the share of protocol news, as well as creating interesting and sometimes controversial news programming. In large part, this liberalization is the result of increased competition from the satellite news channels, with national broadcast officials afraid to lose their entire audiences to the satellite television channels.
The third kind of competition for the BBC World Service Television’s Arabic Service comes from Arab audiences themselves. Arab audiences—as opposed to Western audiences—have the benefit of being able to watch the Arabic-language news networks as well as English-language news networks like CNN, BBC World, Fox News, Euronews, and the many other news networks available on Nilesat and Arabsat, the two main direct broadcast satellites covering the Middle East. Most of the Arab elite and upper classes are the primary decision makers in Arab states are tuned in to English-language networks and always have been loyal viewers.
The BBC’s competitive advantage is its reputation. For decades Arabs have looked to the BBC, in its Arabic radio and Arabic television incarnations as well as its English language news service, as an honest provider of relatively unbiased news and one of the best foreign broadcasters covering the Middle East. Expectations are that the new BBC Arabic Television Service will meet the same standard. There is a perception that, unlike other networks, the BBC did not participate in the broadcast of materials that provoked sectarian tensions in the Arab world. Nor did it present materials that portrayed Islam in a negative light or attack Islam as a religion. The BBC also enjoys a good reputation in the Middle East for showing respect to the region’s people, languages and cultural and historical legacy. This perception gives the BBC a powerful advantage.
While the BBC Arabic service eventaully will compete with the US-funded Alhurra channel for Arab “hearts and minds,” it is more likely to have a better position since it enjoys an established reputation for independence and credibility, both of which are considered important in pubic diplomacy. But the content of the BBC’s Arabic television channel most likely will be presented from a British point of view rather than an Arab perspective, and Arab audiences, who have been on the defense since the introduction of Alhurra, most likely will be on alert for any kind of approach that hints at bias or attempts to influence their opinions, especially from a television service that is broadcasting out of Great Britain, a country which is one of the “occupying” forces in Iraq.
Those running the BBC’s Arabic television news channel must understand that Arab audiences expect the service to support democracy and human rights aggressively. This means that Arab audiences are looking for the BBC to tackle issues of democratization and corruption, as well as to open the door of free debate for different political players in the region, whether it’s the Moslem Brotherhood, opposition parties, or human rights activists. This may be a challenge for the British, since it was a hesitation to broach some of these same issues that caused the BBC Arabic television channel to close down in 1994 in the first place.
Despite the fact that the BBC World Service Television’s Arabic Service is returning a decade late to the game, there is no doubt in my mind that the BBC’s Arabic TV will not only succeed, but will also force existing channels—both terrestrial and satellite—to improve their standards of production as well as promote ethical, unbiased and independent reporting. The introduction of this service to the Middle East is a powerful boost to the burgeoning sense of confidence in news reporting and to the growth of press freedom and democracy in the region. In the end, the Arab people will be the winners, as they have access to more information, new perspectives, and the respect that a highly competitive and increasingly world-standard media environment provides its audiences.