Long after British warships left the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal was handed over, ushering the end of the empire “on which the sun never set”, the BBC’s Arabic service remained as one of the region’s most listened to radio station for many years.
When the war to liberate Kuwait started and the army of Saddam Hussein retreated, the British station lost some of its spark with Arab audiences as satellite channels increased in popularity, starting with CNN. Oddly, despite being one of the richest media corporations in the world, the BBC disregarded the Arab world, with the notable exception of a short-lasting television channel. A decade later, London has finally agreed to turn the clock back and return to the Arab airwaves with, “Hello from London.” Will the new station fare better than its predecessor and other satellite channels?
Launching the proposed station requires a political decision first and foremost, as has been the case with its existing radio and television channels of one of the world’s most important media networks. This is because the BBC is a quasi-independent government institution funded by British viewers who pay a yearly fee for every television set they own. With the increase in public television stations, citizens are increasingly rejecting what they say is an unjustified tax which they cannot opt out from.
If some license payers are unconcerned about politics, the government under Tony Blair sees matters differently. The Middle East, and the Arab world especially, are regarded as the source of many of the world’s ills, including inside the United Kingdom, where terrorists are to be found roaming its streets. Media propaganda is an important part of the war on terror; al Qaeda has its own media machine, online and on air, which broadcasts in English and other languages and incites the world’s Muslims to wage a relentless war.
The BBC has always been renowned for its professionalism, objectivity and the absence of demagogy and propaganda in its programs. If it is to continue on this path, building a following in a turbulent region will not be difficult with such an outstanding reputation for excellence. After all, the BBC has stood against Arab disinformation in the past and was the only source of honest political news.
The Arab world has changed greatly in the last few years but remains in need of a station such as the BBC.