A BBC foray into Arabic television ended in disaster a year ago [April
1996]. Ian Richardson on the fall-out from a sad and damaging
episode in the corporation's history
Today [April 28, 1997],
the BBC World Service announces that its widely acclaimed Arabic radio
transmissions are shortly to be increased by five hours a day, providing
the Middle East and North Africa with a continuous service of just under
18 hours a day. Ironically, this news coincides with the first anniversary
of the closure of the ill-fated [original] BBC Arabic Television Channel.
Launched in June 1994,
the channel was unique for several reasons, but primarily because it
was funded by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, Mawarid. The BBC's attempt
to establish a Saudi-funded Arabic-language television channel beamed
across the Middle East, North Africa and ultimately to Europe and the
United States, was either brave or foolhardy - depending on your point
The question - one
that I have never been able to answer to my own total satisfaction -
is this: was Mawarid's funding of the project also brave or foolhardy,
or just naive?
The difficult negotiations
for this channel had gone on between the BBC and Mawarid's subsidiary,
the Rome-based Orbit Communications Corporation, for several months.
World Service Television - as BBC Worldwide Television, the corporation's
commercial arm, was then known - desperately needed a huge injection
of funds 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, Hong Kong and China. The idea
of the Arabic channel was conceived, sold and purchased on the foundations
and ethos of BBC World Service Radio's Arabic Service, which attracts
a regular listenership of 14 million, making it arguably the most powerful
media force in the Arab world.
World Service Television's
chief executive, Chris Irwin, soon to fall victim to a classic BBC restructuring,
had sought the views of his former World Service Radio colleagues at
Bush House about the project. There were a number of senior people at
Bush House who'd had bruising encounters with the Saudi Arabians, and
they all urged great caution. There was particular scepticism about
assurances from Irwin that Orbit was prepared to sign an agreement guaranteeing
BBC editorial independence.
During the short life
of BBC Arabic Television, there were several angry liaison meetings
conversations 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. It was only
a matter of time before there would be a final parting of the ways.
to work with the BBC for an "orderly wind-down" of the service
proved to be worthless when Orbit simply switched off the BBC channel,
at the close of transmissions on the night of Saturday, 20 April. The
newsroom, the Arabic-language computer terminals, a purpose- built digital
studio, the editing rooms and the presentation suites were all mothballed
while Orbit exercised its ownership of the equipment.
Within days of Arabic Television being switched off by Orbit, several
potential alternative backers had emerged and preliminary negotiations
got under way in an atmosphere of great secrecy. These have come to
nothing, and World- wide has turned its attention to other partnerships.
There have been many
losers from the Arabic Television project, not least the tens of millions
of Arabs who have been deprived of the opportunity to have an unbiased,
modern television service tailored to their own cultures and in their
own language. And there's Orbit itself. Three years on from its launch,
it is without the only channel that was both unique and prestigious,
and its subscribers continue to be counted in thousands rather than
image in the Arab world was seriously tarnished by getting into bed
with the Saudis to produce what some sections of the Arab press sneeringly
called "the BBC's Petrodollar Channel". The abrupt closure
provoked widespread jeers of "we told you so" and damaged
the BBC's ability - and its will - to introduce multiple-foreign-language
television channels, broadly emulating BBC World Service Radio.
It could be argued
that it is no business of Britain to bother informing the rest of the
world, but even Lady Thatcher took time off from her Beeb- bashing to
praise and pump additional funds into the World Service, recognising
the unquantifiable but undeniable spin-off for Britain from the corporation's
global status. The additional benefit, as she would surely see it, was
the fact that Arabic Television would have actually earned money for
But there have been
winners, not least the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), which
transmits a free-to-air satellite service from Battersea in London to
a huge audience across the Middle East, North Africa and a fair slab
of Europe. It is owned by a branch of the Saudi Royal Family and it
is, to say the least, a well-behaved operation when it comes to observing
the Saudi view of media freedom.
But there has been
another unexpected, more laudable, winner. While BBC Arabic Television
itself may be dead, its editorial spirit, its style and even some of
its programmes live on - transmitted from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar,
which incidentally is also about to begin FM re-broadcasting of BBC
Al Jazeera (Island)
Satellite Television went on air from Doha at the beginning of last
Al Jazeera (Island) Satellite Television went on air from Doha at the
beginning of last November, staffed chiefly by former members of BBC
Arabic Television. While Al Jazeera Television's audience is still modest,
its programme subjects are controversial, its interviewing techniques
robust, and it is remarkably free of editorial interference.
The question yet to
be answered is: will a wider success, or perhaps a political crisis
in the Gulf, bring with it the need to trim its editorial sails? But
then, who can say the same sort of question hasn't sometimes been asked
of the BBC?
Television resumed broadcasting in March 2008 -- this time independent
of any commercial partnerships. Ian Richardson, who was managing
editor of the original service, left the BBC in August 1996 after
27 years with BBC World Service News and Current Affairs. He now
owns Preddon Lee Limited and concentrates on book publishing and