published in the Press Gazette,
London, April 11, 2003)
FAILED DREAM THAT LED TO AL-JAZEERA
on Britain's role in the birth of the Arabic channel...
21 April, 1996, is a date that will forever be burnt into my memory and
the memories of the 150 or so former staff of BBC Arabic Television. It
was the day that I killed off, at just over an hour's notice, my baby:
a television service launched with high hopes and, given a fair wind,
one that could have brought about sweeping changes in the media in the
Arab world - not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in
Europe and the US; indeed any country that had a substantial Arab community.
could have forecast back then that out of the ashes of BBC Arabic Television
would rise Al-Jazeera? And who could have forecast that its astonishing
impact would reverberate not just around the Middle East but across the
Television, launched by the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide,
and funded by the giant Saudi Arabian Mawarid Group, was always going
to be a problem child with an uncertain and fraught future. The project
to establish a BBC Arabic-language TV channel, beamed across the Middle
East, North Africa and ultimately to Europe and the US, was either brave
or foolhardy depending on your viewpoint.
for this channel had gone on between the BBC and Mawarid's subsidiary,
Orbit Communications Corporation, for several months before finally being
signed on 24 March, 1994. BBC World Service Television, as it was then
known, desperately needed a big new contract to cover itself financially
in the wake of Rupert Murdoch's surprise purchase of Star-TV, from which
he had unceremoniously dumped the BBC's signal to the Chinese mainland
and Hong Kong.
of the Arabic channel was conceived, sold and purchased on the foundations
and ethos of the BBC World Service Arabic radio service, which is widely
heard and hugely admired in the Middle East.
were many senior people at Bush House who'd had bruising encounters with
the Saudis and they all urged great caution with the project. They were
particularly sceptical about assurances that Orbit was prepared to guarantee
BBC editorial independence.
the short life of BBC Arabic Television, there were several angry "liaison
meetings" with Orbit and the guarantees of editorial independence
proved to be a sour joke, only barely obscured by a thin smokescreen about
the BBC's alleged failure to observe "cultural sensitivities"
- Saudi code for anything not to the royal family's liking.
became clear to Orbit and Mawarid that it had, in their terms, created
a monster not prepared to toe the Saudi line, it was only a matter of
time before there would be a final parting of the ways. Having failed
to tame the BBC, Orbit was clearly going to make sure no one else had
its agreement to work with the BBC for an "orderly wind-down"
of the service was shown to be worthless when it switched off the BBC
channel without warning at the close of the transmissions on the night
of Saturday, 20 April, 1996. Then there was a unique aspect of the deal
Orbit had negotiated with the BBC. It had won the BBC's agreement to own
all the computer, editing and studio equipment to be installed at the
BBC for Arabic Television. The reason, we were told, was this was more
"tax efficient". Whether this stands up to close scrutiny is
now relatively immaterial because it did ultimately help Orbit to obstruct
plans to relaunch the channel with new financial backers.
the Arabic-language computer terminals, a purpose-built digital studio,
the editing rooms and the presentation suites had to be mothballed while
Orbit exercised its ownership of the equipment, refusing to allow it to
be used by anyone else and failing at the same time to remove it. In the
end, the nails in the BBC Arabic Television coffin were driven into it
with vigour by the Saudi royal family and its supporters, aided by the
BBC's difficulty in finding suitable alternative backers.
days of Arabic Television being switched off by Orbit, several potential
alternative backers had emerged and secret preliminary discussions got
under way. There were many clandestine meetings but all came to nothing,
for two prime reasons. First, the Saudis let it be known that they would
make life difficult for alternative backers, who inevitably needed Saudi
goodwill to maintain their other commercial interests in good health.
Second, none of the potential backers appeared to have any better concept
of BBC editorial freedom than Orbit. Then, of course, there was the hostile
attitude of the British Government and British business interests, angered
that BBC Arabic Television was rocking the Saudi boat.
of BBC Arabic Television is a sad story because of the death of a dream.
At the time, the greatest loss was thought to be the fact that tens of
millions of Arabs were being deprived of an unbiased, modern television
service tailored to their own cultures and in their own language.
is an ill wind that blows no good.
Satellite Television went on air at the beginning of November 1996, staffed
chiefly by former members of BBC Arabic Television, all of them fervent
believers in the BBC ethos of balance and fairness.
lost a channel that was both unique and prestigious, but there are times
when I have to confess to myself that maybe the baton that was accidentally
handed to Al-Jazeera should now be left with it.
Arabic Television itself may be dead, its editorial spirit, its style
and even its programmes, albeit under different names, live on -- transmitted
from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.
Richardson is a former managing editor of BBC Arabic Television and is
currently director of Preddon Lee Limited
Television was relaunched by BBC World Service in March 2008 and is now
funded out of the British television licence fee]
article from the same issue
and cowed faces of prisoners of war as they are interviewed by a television
reporter, the mangled bodies of adults and children killed by missiles
while they were shopping in a busy market, the bloodied corpses of British
soldiers killed in action. These have become some of the abiding images
in a conflict where the level of media coverage has been unprecedented.
of Arabic satellite television news channel Al-Jazeera's to the continuous
churn of war images has confirmed what many predicted - that it would
be one of the most significant media stories of the war.
of the Qatar-based channel, which is part-financed by that country's Government,
to broadcast those images has earned it the opprobrium of the West where
it has been maligned as little more than a propaganda channel for Saddam
It is a
charge that is strenuously denied by Al-Jazeera, whose journalists have
been asked not to talk to the media without consulting the central press
office operating out of Doha, such has been the media interest in the
critics seem only to look at our coverage with one eye," says recently
appointed spokesman Jihad Ballout. "When the Pentagon said that the
media should refrain from using the pictures to allow time for the families
to be informed, we happily obliged. We carried Donald Rumsfeld's press
conference when we were singled out and subsequent criticism of us. And
we went further than that and carried an interview with one of the mothers
of the US prisoners of war."
problem Al-Jazeera faces in its coverage of the war is access, adds Ballout.
Only one of its journalists was given permission to be "embedded"
with the US troops.
last week characterise how difficult it is to easily compartmentalise
the channel, which was created by BBC-trained staff who had worked on
the corporation's Arabic Television channel. In the early hours of Wednesday
morning the Basra Sherataon hotel, where Al-Jazeera's crew was based,
came under heavy shelling, leading the channel to write to the Pentagon
calling on it to ensure its teams' safety.
24 hours later, Al-Jazeera announced it was indefinitely suspending broadcasts
from Baghdad after one of its reporters, Tayseer Allouni, was expelled
and another banned from working by the Iraqi authorities.
cameraman Tareq Ayoub died after the company's office in Baghdad was hit
by a missile. The station is convinced that this was a US strike and called
Ayoub a "martyr of duty".
Al-Jazeera's former chief editor and now main anchor, says that the channel,
which is banned in Jordan and Kuwait, has been accused of being Zionist,
as well as being the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden during the Afghan war.
set out to reflect the story accurately, but there will always be someone
who says you are supporting the views of the opposition."
debate about the role Al-Jazeera has played in this conflict looks set
to continue, it is clear that because it is broadcast to around 50 million
people and is received in around 87 per cent of the 100,000 Arab households
in the UK, the channel has become increasingly important to the US and
British Governments as they battle to win over the Iraqi people.
Campbell, the prime minister's director of communications, in an interview
he gave to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said the Government
had had to adapt its media strategy to deal with the Arabic media. A dedicated
Islamic media unit has been set up within the Foreign Office and ministers
have been asked to set aside an hour in their diaries "to do Arabic
media" because "it is important, it matters that they hear what
we are genuinely saying, as opposed to what is being mediated to them",
thrown up by a commercial news channel broadcasting to the Arab world,
without the regulatory constraints imposed on Western media, will increase
when two new English-language services are launched by Al-Jazeera. One,
which will be a simultaneous translation service, is due to launch this
year, and a new, entirely English service is under discussion - although
it would take a year to set up.
a former World Service editor who was charged with setting up the BBC
Arabic Television channel, believes "things will be changed forever"
by the ascendancy of Al-Jazeera and channels such as Abu Dhabi TV.
networks have been covering war head to head, as it were, and suddenly
we have an Arab TV service which is extremely competent. We're now being
confronted with things that were never really given genuine thought before."
Sambrook, BBC director of news, agrees: "The West is having to adapt
to a strong pan-national Arab media. They are not going to go away - indeed,
there will be more 'Al-Jazeeras' in future," he says.
it was not clear that the shelling was directed at the hotel in Basra,
where Al-Jazeera was the only TV outfit present, it echoes the strike
on the channel's offices in Afghanistan by US forces, which some saw as
a deliberate attempt to disable the broadcaster before the fighting moved
TV news organisations, even before talk of war in Iraq, have been concerned
that the US military, despite firm denials, might at some stage in the
war want to shut down uncomfortable media communications from inside the
war zone," says Nik Gowing, a BBC World presenter who spent several
months investigating the 2001 strike that also damaged the BBC's offices.
Gowing does, however, warn against making hasty conclusions about whether
the hotel was deliberately targeted.
emerges about the shelling incident, Ballout is in no doubt that the "propaganda
war" is being fought as hard as the military campaign.
the outset, this war has not only been fought on the battleground, but
also on the airwaves and in the newspapers," he says.
on the channel because of its decision to show pictures of what were believed
to be dead British soldiers are "hypocritical", Richardson believes.
all these years the global networks have been putting stuff out and not
giving a thought to showing some fairly graphic pictures from Jerusalem,
the Middle East and certainly when they showed pictures of Iraqi prisoners
of war they did not block out their faces," he argues. "For
years nobody gave a thought to fact that the images were being seen by
people where the event was taking place, and now that the situation is
reversed, everyone is saying it's shocking."
insists that the channel is experiencing the same kind of treatment as
colleagues working for British and US newspapers and broadcasters when
their Governments consider they are not helping their war aims.
feel sorry for the likes of Andrew Marr and Peter Arnett, who have been
criticised, and I hope that people feel sorry for us," says Haddad,
who adds that editorial policy still adheres to producer guidelines laid
down by the BBC.
don't show footage just for the hell of it. Any decision we make has to
conform to three basic principles: newsworthiness; relevance to the wider
context and whether there are verified sources," says Ballout. "If
those three things are satisfied then we go ahead." But Al-Jazeera,
as Sambrook points out, is "producing TV news for an Arab audience
which reflects Arab values, both in content, style and tone".
unique to the Arab world also shape the channel's decision-making, explains
Ballout, who says that when the channel was created one of the main premises
was that it would not "succumb" to censorship. "For decades
the censors played havoc and everything was doctored, censored or tamed,"
he claims. "Our commitment was to give as complete coverage as we
rejects claims that showing pictures of prisoners of war contravened the
Geneva Convention. "We have it on good authority that the Convention
applies to states at war, not to news organisations." He emphasises
that the footage was carried with a warning that viewers might find it
concedes that "people have said, with good reason, that the Arab
world has a higher threshold of tolerance because for five or six decades
now they have been living with death, carnage and destruction".
in a fiercely competitive market, the channel is setting out to attract
more Arab viewers and, unconstrained by the broadcast regulations encountered
by the British media, it can adopt an approach that has popular appeal.
such as BBC World and CNN tread a difficult line when it comes to covering
the Middle East, Al-Jazeera chooses to refer to Palestinians who are killed
the roots of Al-Jazeera's journalism are firmly in the BBC World Service,
former journalists reserve some criticism for what was perceived as an
Anglo-centric operation. "When I joined the corporation in the Seventies
we were told we were broadcasting news as seen from London," says
one source. "We are trying to cover the news as seen from the battlefield."
rejects any suggestions that, by showing in graphic detail the realities
of war, the channel has set out to turn the tide of publicopinion against
the conflict. "That's not what we are here to do. Our job is to have
a professional attitude towards news." Richardson believes that the
channel has made some "misjudgements and mistakes", largely
as a result of inexperience but "the occasional error of judgement
should not obscure the fact that they are doing their best to be a truly
independent news service".
"No broadcaster working in a situation like this has got entirely
clean hands. If we are going to talk about biased broadcasting then go
no further than Fox TV in the US, which makes no attempt to see the war
from any other perspective. It's pretty rich that the US can accuse Al-Jazeera
of bias and lacking in judgement and taste when there is a channel with
reporters saying they will use guns against the likes of Osama bin Laden."