Interview with Hosam El Sukkary, Head of the BBC Arabic Service

Over a decade ago, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) launched a short-lived Arabic-language television channel in partnership with Orbit TV. It soon became clear that the BBC and Orbit's Saudi owners had different notions of media independence and the BBC dropped the project. But most of the BBC-trained Arab staff went on to play key roles in the launch of Al Jazeera and the Arab world's other pioneer satellite TV networks. Now the BBC is reentering the fray. The British government has funded a revived BBC Arabic TV project, with plans to launch a new channel in 2007. But this BBC offering enters into competition with a well-developed Arab satellite television market that was nonexistent the first time around. How will it compete with Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other networks? And will it be dismissed as the British Alhurra? TBS senior editor Lawrence Pintak recently caught up with Hosam El Sokkary, head of the BBC Arabic Service, to find out what makes the BBC confident its Arabic TV channel will be welcomed in the Middle East.

TBS: BBC Arabic Television. It's almost the BBC coming full circle in the Middle East, isn't it?

HS: In a way, yes. We realized back in 1994 that this will be the medium of choice in the Middle East, and we wanted to be able to offer television for our audiences there. However, that experience was, for some commercial reasons, not sustainable, and since the closure of the first BBC Arabic Television, we have been trying to go back to the market. We didn't have the money, now we have the money, and we'll go ahead with it in 2007.

TBS: Where did the money come from?

HS: Restructuring. The BBC has been trying, since the closure of the Arabic project, to come back on television again. The problem was that this commercial experiment didn't seem to be the model the BBC would be happy with. The fact that it didn't last beyond two years made the BBC decide that it has to be funded from public money. We couldn't get any extra funding, and the decision was to do some restructuring, to reprioritize the BBC World Service resources and Nigel Chapman decided that there were some parts of the world that probably wouldn't need the BBC presence and investing in the future of the organization by investing in television is the way to go.

TBS: This is a crowded landscape out here. Is there room?

HS: I'm not sure it's crowded. You have quite a number of TV channels, but most of them are music video channels and entertainment channels. The number of news and information channels is very limited. 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. Our early research indicates that at least 80-85 percent of the sample of the people we asked the question in seven different capitals would watch a BBC television channel. My own anecdotal evidence tells me that people are so interested in BBC Arabic. I've been at so many different functions throughout the Middle East, from announcements and partnerships, and all sorts of functions, and one of the first questions has always been when are you going to have Arabic TV, when are you going to have BBC Arabic Television back? So we do believe that there's a need, we do believe the market's not so crowded as some people may suggest it is. We do believe our offer's radically different from what's been there. We do believe that for some strange reason, if you follow the critique that journalists write, especially media commentators, we always put the BBC Arabic radio side by side with TV stations, so there's some kind of a perception that the kind of audience that we're addressing is the audience that is already watching some of these news and information satellite channels. We are different, I think, and we will be coming to the Middle East with a unique offer, because it's not going to be just a TV station. We're talking about a multimedia platform in Arabic that we serve our audiences there, whatever they do, wherever we are.

TBS: Aren't some of the Arabic satellite channels going that direction already? What is unique? What is radically different?

HS: What is radically different is that we are doing this as an integrated multimedia offer. We have a radio station, we will have a TV operation, we have an Internet operation with compelling interactive content, and I don't think there's anyone in the Middle East who is doing that.

TBS: Let's talk content. How will that be different?

HS: The content is different because our angle is different, our flavor is very different. We do not take sides in debates. It is true that some of the Arabic satellite TV channels introduced views that are not common in the market, but the way these views are introduced is what makes us different. I think that the number of perspectives or the plurality of views and perspectives that we introduce is far more than anything you can see in the Middle East. And the way we handle these perspectives is very different. Our presenters do not join guests to attack other guests. We do not have a political message. Lots of channels—and they don't hide it—they feel that they are there to address what they feel is their audience's causes. And that in itself is a position. We do not take positions. We are there to cover the issue, we are there to make it possible for people to contribute, we want to make them comfortable, to feel that their views have been understood the way they want them to be understood, not even the way they have expressed them, and we train our journalists to help people express their views properly, so not only aren't they misrepresented, but their views came across as they wanted them to be represented. So these are what I think are the radical differences. It's not something that I think you find very often across the TV or media offers in the Middle East.

TBS: You say you don't have a political message. BBC is using public funds. Why does the British public want to spend its money on a channel in the Arab world?

HS: Back in the year 2000, Kofi Annan said the BBC is Britain's gift to the world in the 20th century. He didn't say that because the BBC is disseminating the British government's views across the world. The BBC has evolved as a unique media experience that uses public money to inform, educate and entertain. It is not an unusual concept, because there is a benefit that comes back to the British public from having this operation operating from London. And that's as far as it gets, I'm afraid. There have been numerous occasions when the British government itself was not very comfortable with what we do in the BBC, and I think the recent history can clearly demonstrate that the BBC does not follow any political line, or at least attempts not to do that. So we are there to serve the public, that funding is available to serve the public. The message will go from the BBC in the most professional way, but it doesn't have any political nuances or shades to it.

TBS: Does it fall within the public diplomacy umbrella?

HS: The public diplomacy umbrella extends to encompass it, but you know, it depends what you mean by public diplomacy. We believe that further understanding will help people make up their own minds about different issues. We do not believe that we have to get people reacting to or responding to certain issues in a certain way. So if that is considered public diplomacy, maybe. But we are not there to disseminate a particular message, positive or negative; we are there to let people have a chance to understand the multifaceted angles, the different perspectives of any particular issues. But our message is professional. It's not political.

TBS: Not Britain's Alhurra?

HS: Well, we're not existing in a vacuum. We have an experience covering the Middle East and covering the world for the Middle East, actually, since 1938. If people want to have a sense of what the TV station would be like, they should listen to the BBC Arabic radio station. They should go to www.bbcarabic.com. Our editorial values are going to be kept and we are going to depend on our editorial values. There are going to be lots of questions as to how we are going to format and package our information, but there is no question as to whether we are going to adhere to the BBC values that our audience in the Middle East have known since 1938.

TBS: Talk to me about the practicalities. Who, what, when, where?

HS: 2007, probably not the first two quarters. We will be operating from London. Initially we were looking into different buildings from which we were going to operate. It doesn't look likely that we are going to be doing that from Bush House or TV Centre. We are likely to start it in Broadcasting House, where the whole World Service is going to be located. We will expand on our existence in the region in different places, in Cairo, Baghdad, maybe Beirut. We are looking into our newsgathering strategy and plan for the next few years.

TBS: How many staff?

HS: Not less than 100.

TBS: Total staff?

HS: Well, total staff at large will probably be something like 250, 300, but that's radio, online, interactive, television.

TBS: How interactive? I mean are your television reporters going to be reporting for the Web, going to be reporting for radio, or are they still reporting for separate platforms?

HS: We are still discussing the issue and trying to come up with solutions. There are still practical difficulties in trying to get the same person to do everything and it's practically impossible for someone to do everything. They might be able to do different things for different platforms at different times, but we're still looking into how practical and how possible it would be to get people to contribute to different platforms.

TBS: There is a relatively small pool of qualified Arab journalists who know how to do television. There's been a bit of moving of chairs, of people moving from this channel to that channel. For example, Ibrahim Halal going from the BBC back to Al Jazeera International.

HS: And Salah Negm coming back from MBC to the BBC. I mean, it's a healthy equilibrium in a way. But I'm not so sure we are really desperate for a mass of people who understand how to do television. When we launched in 1994, there was almost none. We had a very limited number of journalists who had experienced television, and those who had, had been working in state television and it was incomparable to what we wanted to do. So if you provide people with the right training in the right environment and within the lines of a reasonable system, I think they will be able to expand their experience and work with it. We will need a core group of people who have had experience with satellite television, but it doesn't have to be a large number of people.

TBS: My point though is if you have folks moving between these various channels—and of course, your original BBC TV team became the core Al Jazeera team—how much difference at the end of the day is there between the channels?

HS: Well, if you compare BBC Arabic Television—which I think was the mother of all channels, because from that channel you had all the experienced staff that built Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and all the channels afterwards—so if you compare Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya to what our BBC Television channel was, it's not the same thing. They added their experience, they added their flavor, they added their message to it. And definitely having people who have been trained and had experience on those channels would be an asset to our channel, but that doesn't mean their experience would translate to copying the practices they had at these TV stations and bringing it to the BBC. The BBC has a lot to offer them in terms of the expertise across the whole organization, and that's what we're going to build on when we have these experienced staff coming back from other stations, if they come back.

TBS: Is it a matter of them being able to report without red lines?

HS: It's not just that. I think the core issue of professional journalism at the BBC is our editorial guidelines, and I think most people respect that. And I do believe that it is something that becomes an attraction for them. And not only that, but also the system within which we work and the kind of respect we have for everyone who works with us, the consultative approach we have when it comes to going about our editorial issues. We take decisions, but we give people a chance to contribute, to express their views, to offer alternative treatments for stories within the boundaries of our editorial guidelines, and I think this is an attraction. People can say when they work in the BBC, they find that they are dismissed or something like that. You know, there is a certain degree of stability that relates to the kind of system we work within and I think this is an attraction for lots of people. We have been flooded with applications even before we started shooting and even before we announced that it's really happening. So I do believe that lots of people would like to join the BBC Arabic and I'm sure it's going to be a unique experience.

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