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.
BBC Arabic Television. It's almost the BBC coming full circle
in the Middle East, isn't it?
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.
did the money come from?
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.
This is a crowded landscape out here. Is there room?
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.
some of the Arabic satellite channels going that direction already?
What is unique? What is radically different?
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.
Let's talk content. How will that be different?
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.
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?
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.
Does it fall within the public diplomacy umbrella?
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.
Not Britain's Alhurra?
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.
to me about the practicalities. Who, what, when, where?
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.
less than 100.
total staff at large will probably be something like 250, 300,
but that's radio, online, interactive, television.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Is it a matter of them being able to report without red lines?
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