Copyright: Ian D. Richardson Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(First published in the Press Gazette, London, November 4, 2005)
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 let's face it. 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 - both inside and outside the BBC - that the corporation has "missed the boat" on Arabic television.
Agreed, the BBC revived channel will be very late on the scene. But too late? I'm not convinced of that. 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 from now, audiences will not be choosing their source of news simply on the basic of who was there first.
But this is entirely dependant 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 Saudi Arabians. 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 a conspiracy theory 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.
Things have changed, though. 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, to name just three of 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 per year - for a round-the-clock service. That seemed to me to be an acceptable estimate, though by the time the channel gets on air in a year or so from now, £30m+ would be a more realistic figure. 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 away audiences from Al Jazeera and the other established television broadcasters.
There is another very important issue that should be addressed, and that is the future of the under-publicised and under-funded 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 BBC 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, with the launching of 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 United Kingdom.
So, much as I would
love to see BBC Arabic Television revived, unless it can be done with
heads held high, I support the view that the money would be much better
invested in BBC World. [BBC Arabic Television was revived in 2008]