Al Jazeera could foil Beeb's Arabic revival

The
saddest day of my 27 years with the BBC came one Sunday morning in
April 1996 when I woke to learn that Saudi-owned Orbit Television had
unceremoniously switched off the corporation’s Arabic Television News
channel.

Later that day I was given just over an hour’s notice to
go into Television Centre, close the service down and give notice to
the 150 or so staff that they were to lose their jobs.

I,
therefore, ought to be thrilled to see BBC Arabic Television once again
proudly beamed across the Middle East and North Africa.

But if
the truth is told, I’m torn. When the BBC asked me 18 months ago for my
thoughts on reviving the channel, the essence of my contribution came
down to one unalloyed assertion: do it well or don’t do it at all.

I
will come back to that issue in a moment, but first let’s deal with the
widely held view that the BBC has “missed the boat” on Arabic
television. The revived channel is certainly very late on the scene,
but is it too late? I’m not convinced.

The Middle East will
remain in various degrees of political, social and religious turmoil
for decades, and my view is that in five or 10 years, audiences will
not be choosing their source of news simply on the basis of who was
there first.

But this is entirely dependent on the BBC channel
being a class act. Arab audiences rightly demand a quality output that
relates to their cultures. They also have to trust it not to filter the
news through the perspective of Anglo-American political and military
policies.

This is not easily achieved. With the Orbit-funded
project, we were often accused of being the “Petrodollar” channel and
there were deeply felt suspicions that the BBC had been “bought” by the
Saudis. These suspicions were mostly put to rest as time went on, but
the cost of asserting our editorial principles meant an angry and
terminal breakdown of relations with the Saudi owners of Orbit.

BBC
Arabic Television Mark II will be faced with a different set of
suspicions, not least as a result of Britain’s military adventures in
Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Arabs
love conspiracy theories, even when there is no conspiracy, but what
will they make of Arabic being the only foreign language television
channel funded by Foreign Office grant-in-aid, when the first time
around – before Britain found itself up to its armpits in the
quicksands of Iraq – the FCO didn’t want to know? Will the Petrodollar
Channel jibe now be replaced by Daily Mail-style derision that it is
the Blair Broadcasting Corporation?

But back to my view that the new channel will have to be done well, or not at all.

When
the original channel was launched in 1994, we were on air three months
after the Orbit contract was signed. For the first month, it was just
for two hours a day and, to be honest, it was pretty rough around the
edges. But it was still a huge improvement on anything else then on
offer to the Middle East.

Now things have changed. Al Jazeera,
launched with many of the BBC-trained Arab journalists who used to work
for me, now dominates the region, but there is also the more cautious
Saudi-funded Al Arabiya and the America’s Al Hurra among the new
satellite channels competing for the attention of the Arab world.

When
the plan for the revived BBC channel was first made public last year,
the cost was put at £28m a year – for a 24-hour service. That seemed to
me to be an acceptable estimate. For comparison, consider the reputed
annual budgets for Sky News (£35m+) and BBC News 24 (£50m+).

Now, we are told, the BBC Arabic channel will be a 12- hour-a-day service with a budget of just £19m.

These
figures don’t add up. The extra cost of running a rolling satellite
television news channel for the full 24 hours is relatively marginal.
Transmitting the service for just 12 hours is like building a house and
trying to save money by living in it only half of each day.

Clearly something is going to have to give with the revived project and I fear that the BBC will end up with a “cheap ‘n’

cheerful”
repetitive output that won’t enhance the corporation’s reputation, or
help it wrench audiences away from Al Jazeera and the other established
broadcasters in the region.

There is another very important issue
that should be addressed, and that is the future of the underpublicised
and underfunded BBC World.

I have to declare a further interest
here. Before moving to set up the original BBC Arabic TV channel, I was
news development editor for BBC World Service Television News, as BBC
World was then called. BBC World is unique in the corporation in that
it is a news channel funded by commercials.

It has never turned a profit, nor does it seem likely to.

In
the 14 years it has been in existence, it has always punched above its
weight, but there is no denying that its limited resources sometimes
show on air.

BBC World’s chief television rival has, until now,
been CNN, but next year both channels will be challenged by a new,
well-funded English-language rival – Al Jazeera International.

Al
Jazeera International will have the sort of start-up budget that BBC
World can only dream of. Its main target will be the many millions of
English-speaking Muslims around the world, not least in Asia. It is
inevitable that it will also pick up significant numbers of viewers
among the many non- Muslims hostile to the United States and Britain.

With
this threat in mind, there are those in the BBC who wonder aloud
whether it would be better to put the money being set aside for Arabic
Television towards reinforcing BBC World to help it meet the challenge
of Al Jazeera International. It would be better, they say, to have one
properly-funded international television news channel, than to have two
that are clearly cash-starved and do nothing for the image of the BBC
or the UK.

Ian Richardson is founder of Richardson Media

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