BBC TV Arabic is the new government-funded network that the BBC World Service planned to launch in late 2007. It would become the first BBC TV channel in a foreign language after its previous foray into the Middle East television market, which failed in 1996 in a spat with the Saudi Arabian royal family.
BBC has been offering an Arabic radio service since 1938 that has built considerable credibility in the region. A columnist in the Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat writes that BBC has always had a trustworthy reputation in the Middle East and when he was younger, it was very common for him to hear the phrase “Do not believe a news report until it is confirmed by the BBC.” 
In 1994, the BBC World Service started a commercial TV service in Arabic in partnership with the newly established Orbit Communications, a private broadcasting system based in Rome but with close ties to Saudi Arabian government.
The experience lasted two years, until in May 1996, the channel broadcast a documentary on the Islamic law in Saudi Arabia. Alexander Zilo, president of Orbit, qualified it as “a sneering and racist attack,” adding that “we had to act.”
A senior TV executive said after BBC Arabic shut down, “there is a reason why we have never broadcast in Arabic. It is the same reason why we have never given any serious consideration to broadcasting in Chinese.” In other words, Western broadcasters felt that censorship was too suffocating in the region.
Many BBC journalists who came out with no job ended up getting hired by a network that was about to usher in a new era in Middle East media: al-Jazeera.
According to BBC officials, the company has been eager to try again. “Since the closure of the first BBC Arabic Television,” said Hosam El Sokkary, head of the BBC Arabic Service, “we have been trying to go back to the market.”
And apparently wisely so. According to internal BBC research, 80 to 85 percent of respondents in seven Arabic countries said that they would be “fairly likely” or “very likely” to watch an Arabic TV version of the BBC.
All BBC networks are publicly funded, and it was understood that any BBC Arabic TV endeavor should follow this standard in order to remain credible and independent. Thus, in 2004, the company and the UK Foreign Office initiated talks about developing a new Arabic network.
In 2005, as part of the review of its charter, the BBC reintroduced the idea. It presented a restructuring project to the UK Parliament that would include the closing of ten BBC local radios in Eastern Europe and the creation of an Arabic TV network among other new initiatives.
Consequently, BBC broadcasts in Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Thai languages were gradually terminated by March 2006. According to BBC World Service Director Nigel Chapman, the closures reflected the new dynamics of the Eastern European news market where BBC stations were losing audience as local and national radio services “with similar values as the BBC” emerged.
As argued in the International Herald Tribune, this move highlights a “shift in the front lines of the East-West idea divide from the former Iron Curtain to the banks of Euphrates.”
The BBC Arabic TV project was officially announced on October 25, 2005 and scheduled to launch in 2007. The latest planned launch date of the station is the March 11, 2008 although this may be delayed further.
Debate on the independence of the network
The provisions for the BBC Services’ editorial independence are somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, the BBC is funded by the UK government, but on the other, the BBC Charter asserts that it “shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its output, the times and manner in which this is supplied, and in the management of its affairs.”
In response to a public diplomacy review undertaken by the Foreign Affairs Committee, both the Parliament and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs agreed on the necessity to preserve the BBC’s editorial independence. At the same time, the agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of Culture states that: The World Service must be provided … in accordance with any objectives, priorities and targets agreed with [the Foreign Secretary.] The BBC must consult and co-operate with the Foreign Secretary and obtain from her such information regarding international developments, conditions in countries outside the UK, and the policies of Her Majesty’s Government in its international relations, as the BBC needs to help it plan and prepare the provision of the World Service in the public interest.
In June 2005, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Lord Triesman stated before the BBC Charter Review Committee that because the BBC World Service was “heavily dependent upon public finance” it had an obligation to “face in a general strategic direction that is useful to the United Kingdom." In response, the committee argued (bold in the original document):
We recommend that under no circumstances should the BBC World Service be allowed to be treated or seen as a “tool” of public diplomacy or of governmental goals. Everything should be done to protect the editorial independence on which its reputation depends.
Since BBC Arabic TV is not on the air yet, one can only speculate about what strategy the network will follow. Hosam El Sokkary foresees a code of ethics similar to the rest of the BBC. “We are there to let people have a chance to understand the multifaceted angles, the different perspectives of any particular issues,” he said. “But our message is professional. It’s not political.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave an indication in a press conference in late July about what his government intends to do with the new service. He said that as part of “the common front against terrorism and against the propaganda that fuels it … I confirm funding for a BBC Arabic channel.”That the Prime Minister included the future Arabic network in a speech on security lets us assume that he envisions it as part of a grand strategy.
What seems fairly clear is that BBC Arabic TV wants to position itself as an alternative to al-Jazeera. “What it will do, I am sure, is present an alternative or a different perspective on events to that propounded by an al-Jazeera, which has been phenomenally successful,” said BBC Panorama’s Peter Taylor before the Foreign Affairs committee in October 2005. “But I stress, it will not be a propaganda vehicle, it will be a sort of corrective.” Along similar lines, Lord Triesman explained that the network would counter “extreme views” that circulate in the Middle Eastern media.
The channel was first conceptualized as a 24-hour network, but due to lack of funding it will begin on a twelve-hour a day basis only. “The proposal made it clear that BBC World Service was confident, based on careful research, that a 12-hour service would make a significant impact,” Lord Triesman responded to a Member of Parliament. “A 12-hour service was deemed to be correct when assessed against the availability of funding and the relative priority weightings attached to BBCWS's [BBC World Service] global aims and objectives.”
The new service will cost ₤19 million a year ($38 million.) The BBC estimates that it would need an extra ₤6 million ($12 million) if it were to broadcast around the clock.
The TV network will not replace the radio services in Arabic. Both will interact with one another. Moreover, the company plans to add an Internet component to the duo and make programming more interactive. “The new channel will not simply be another satellite news station,” said Salah Negm, BBC TV Arabic News Editor. “It’s part of a wider vision to introduce a multi-media BBC Arabic Service - drawing on the great traditions and strengths of its radio and online operation to better serve audiences across the Arab world." The channel will draw on iPoint technology, which allows viewers to call into a TV show from their 3G mobile phones or internet webcams and either record a video blog for broadcast later or ask to participate live on air.
BBC Arabic will be headquartered in the BBC Broadcasting House in London, unlike the World Service which is located in the Bush House. It will have several offices in the Middle East, with the biggest bureau in Cairo. Its staff will reportedly amount to about a 100 people, taking only the TV team into account, and between 250 and 300 when considering radio, multimedia, and online content support.
The BBC aims to attract 30 million viewers weekly. Nigel Chapman is optimistic about the channel’s prospects, “We believe the new Arabic TV service will at least double the reach of the BBC’s Arabic radio service, which has 12 million listeners at the moment. That’s 25 million viewers every week and we would like to get around the 30 million mark.”
Competition with other regional networks
The Middle East media landscape has dramatically changed since the closure of the first BBC Arabic network in 1996. Satellite stations have mushroomed in the past few years and have weakened official control over freedom of expression. On the other hand, competition has intensified leading to broadcast innovation and cutting-edge programming. Within this highly competitive market, BBC Arabic will have to find its own voice and niche audience.
The network’s schedule will be a mix of breaking news, debate, and some documentary and current affairs programs, largely developed by the BBC.
Although Middle Eastern audiences can now access over 200 channels through satellite, El Sokkary is confident the new network will make a difference. “The number of news and information channels is very limited,” he said. “You can count up to three or four. So in terms of numbers, it’s not a crowded market. In terms of what we have to offer, we do believe it’s a unique offer, we do believe that there is a need.” Moreover, “one of the big differences is that channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are regional,” BBC director of global news Richard Sambrook said, “they report the Middle East to the Middle East. We will be reporting the world to the Middle East.”
The BBC expects that its reputation will attract a large audience and raise broadcasting and programming standards in the Middle Eastern. “The BBC is the gold standard of coverage,” Nigel Chapman said, “against which Middle Eastern viewers will judge channels like al-Jazeera and state-owned services and come to their own conclusions.” Media analysts in the region tend to agree. “The BBC will put other TV channels in the region under a great deal of pressure,” said Dr. Batarfi, managing editor of al-Madinah Arabic daily. “They will have to improve. They will have to be more objective and more accountable.” Media observers are rather confident that the BBC can succeed. First, it enjoys a good reputation thanks to its radio programs. More importantly, “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,” said Hussein Y. Amin, a senior editor at Transnational Broadcasting Studies. “Nor did it present materials that portrayed Islam in a negative light or attack Islam as a religion.”
Interestingly, there hasn’t been outspoken criticism against the creation of BBC TV Arabic. It appears that no one questions the pertinence of such stations, especially not in the Arab world. Adel Darwish, from Asharq Alawsat praised the launch of the channel in a column titled, “The BBC Arabic Channel: Welcome Back.” Amin wrote:
“...there is no doubt in my mind that the BBC’s Arabic TV will … succeed. (…) 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.”
However, some warned of possible downfalls. Ian Richardson, who was in charge of the first BBC TV Arabic, thinks the network is under funded. “Clearly something is going to have to give with the revived project,” he said, “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 away audiences from al-Jazeera and the other established television broadcasters.”
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) also claims that the BBC may be perceived as a mouthpiece of the British government, and that could subsequently undermine the reputation of the company. “The implications of this project will not be lost on the region, where many will think that this is a political maneuver,” IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said. “The US channel Al Hurra, for example, is undoubtedly professional, but many people switch off because of the perception that it is a mouthpiece for government. The BBC may suffer in the same way.”
On the other hand, some commentators judge the BBC for being too critical of the West. In a controversial piece titled “The Biased Broadcasting Company,” Frank Stewart, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, remains skeptical about the BBC’s potential to wield a positive influence. “If the BBC's Arabic TV programs resemble its radio programs,” he wrote in The New York Times, “then they will be just as anti-Western as anything that comes out of the Gulf, if not more so. They will serve to increase, rather than to diminish tensions, hostilities and misunderstandings among nations.”
That sentiment was echoed by Tariq Alhomayed, Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat:
"We welcome the Arabic BBC only if it chooses to be a genuine media channel that acquires its methods from the reputation of the British Association. However, if administration is left to Arab media representatives of Arab satellite channels and Arab media associations, the very kind from which we suffer, who will manage according to their ideological orientations and use these channels as a mouthpiece through which they seek revenge from personal and regional enemies, then the new BBC Arabic channel is not welcome."