London, Asharq Al-Awsat- When the BBC Arabic satellite channel started its activities in March 2008, a number of questions emerged regarding the channel’s ability to compete with other established Arabic satellite news organizations and what would its editorial policy towards the Arab region be?
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Liliane Landor, head of the BBC World Service’s Middle East Region talks about comparisons and competing with other prominent Arab news channels and BBC’s World Service’s identity and mission:
The Following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you comment on the changes in management that have been recently introduced to the BBC Arabic Service?
[Landor] It is difficult to answer this question, because no change as such has been introduced into the management. But, what has happened is that Jerry Timmins, who was in charge of the Africa and Middle East Region and Africa, has become responsible for the BBC Africa Region, while I was handed the management of the Arab World and North Africa. After Salah Najm left the BBC to work exclusively for Al-Jazeera English, Faris Khuri assumed Najm’s position. As for Husam al-Sukkari, he still is head of the Arabic Internet network at the BBC, and he also presents the Greenwich 710 program.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there changes to the actual programming and its content?
[Landor] It is very important to improve the quality of the programs of all kinds, and to also to work on their contents. Therefore, currently we pursue working on programs that throw light on the human interest aspect, because the BBC Arabic Service should present to the Arab viewer, wherever he is, everything that takes place around the world, and not only in the Arab world.
One of the programs on which we are working now is Al-Muhim wa al-Ahham by Sam Farah. It is a 30-minute program in which a prominent, but not famous, Arab personality is interviewed. There are many personalities outside the world of fame who can make attractive media material that interests every viewer. Among the guests of the program are Karlus Ghusn, Ala al-Aswani, and an American woman of Palestinian origins, who is paralyzed, and who works as a stand-up comedian. In one episode, Sam observes a complete day in the life of the stand-up comedian; the episode is more than marvelous, because what is more important in the issue is focusing on the human interest aspect, conveying realistic stories, and discussing thorny subjects known as taboos in our Arab world. It is difficult to discuss these taboos, even if we know that they exist, and are deep-rooted in our societies, such as the issue of virginity of girls, the issue of homosexuals, the issue of conversion to another religion, and other sensitive subjects in the region that extends from the Gulf to North Africa and Greater Syria. Here, we have to stress an important point, namely that we have not selected these issues in order to achieve a scoop, but to present issues that no one dares to talk about publicly. The channel is responsible for its work, and it is not interested in achieving a scoop at the expense of the security and protection of the individual participating in the program. Here I would like to tell you that we will blur the face of the participant in the program if we consider that his appearance would expose his life to danger. I would like to add that we currently are working on a complete program about the Jews in Lebanon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your thoughts on buying ready-made foreign programs and then dubbing them?
[Landor] No, I think that it is now time to rely on our minds to produce our own programs. I am not in favor of buying ready-made programs, because in many cases we find them unsuitable for our culture. Moreover, in the Arab world we have many creative media minds, and hence we should do very well in creating new ideas that interest our audience.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some have described the beginning of the BBC Arabic Channel as the incomplete step, because the transmission hours were only 12 compared to other Arabic channels?
[Landor] As I said before, I do not like the comparison at all, because it is inadmissible. We are talking about something that took place two years ago; at that time the channel was not qualified to broadcast round the clock. It was the first BBC channel to broadcast in any language other than English. I consider that the short broadcasting hours have not affected the progress of the channel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The criticisms also includes that BBC Arabic Service, unlike the BBC World Service, is not distinguished by its own coverage and news of troubled regional areas?
[Landor] What I can say is that two years after its launch, the Arabic Service still is at the beginning of its career. It still is young compared to the BBC institution, which has many correspondents. I agree with the opinion of the critics. It is necessary to present special news. Today we are pursuing the presentation of the best in order to satisfy the viewers. The Arabic Service has huge responsibilities, because it carries the name of an old institution, the BBC. Therefore, I reiterate and I agree that the Arabic Service ought to present special news continuously.
Today, we are on the verge of preparing very important programs about Iraq that will be concurrent with the elections period. What is important here is the human interest aspect, such as talking about women in the election, the religious minorities, and other programs away from the traditional statements by the leaders.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were there obstacles because the Arabic Service belongs to a British channel?
[Landor] No, on the contrary, the BBC Arabic Service can benefit from being owned by the British Government. Let me give you an example; a week ago, Musab Hassan Yusuf, the son of one of the founders of Hamas, refused to speak to any Arabic media organization, because he decided to make statements only in English to foreign channels; the CNN television channel, and the BBC radio were able to get statements from him, and immediately we – at the Arabic Service – translated the interview into Arabic, and relayed it via television and the Internet.
BBC is well known because it is British, the Arabic Service is known to employ Arabs, and hence it is not CNN, Al-Hurrah, or French F4; everybody knows the unbiased policy and course of the BBC.
Recently, I visited Lebanon, and I did not hear from anyone that he watches the Arabic Service because it is British; it is an Arabic channel that is interested in Arab affairs, but it has the characteristics of the mother institution, namely it is unbiased, and it calls things by their names.
At the editorial meetings, we spend most of our time in considering the issue of terminology. This is an important issue, which I place among my priorities, as it preoccupies me; for instance, it is not allowed to call those who fall victims in Palestine “martyrs.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any restrictions enforced on the Arabic Service?
[Landor] There are no restrictions, because no one interferes in the editorial policy, and no one dictates any ideas to us. This is the policy of the BBC in general, which is applied in all the 33-language services of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has your Saudi Arabian bureau resumed its activities? Was the cause of suspension political?
[Landor] The bureau is open and is working relentlessly. We have elite of correspondents and journalists working in our bureau in Saudi Arabia. The cause of the suspension of work for a period was details related to the rent contract, and there was no political cause behind this suspension.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you keep pace with the world of technology in conveying the news as soon as possible?
[Landor] I am pursuing the relay of the BBC Arabic Service broadcast to a largest possible number of Arabs around the world. However, the problem is that there is an obstacle to the spread of the channel as we wish; in Lebanon or Cairo, the distribution of the Arabic channels takes place through distributors in exchange for sums that do not exceed 10 dollars through piracy, and it is not possible to ascertain that the channel reaches the subscribers. What interests me is the spread of the channel in order to convey our ideas and programs that interest every Arab wherever he might be across the world. Despite the fact that the Arabic Service is widespread on the Internet and through the conveying of news very quickly through cellular telephones, in my opinion the channel ought to have a wider popular base through placing it on the chart of the channels that reach every Arab.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are a western-trained media specialist. How can you balance your western background with the presentation of what is suitable for the Arab viewer?
[Landor] This is a very important question. It is true that all my life I have worked in Europe, and I am the daughter of the BBC, because I have worked for it for more than 20 years. Journalism and media are advanced in the west, and we ought to think about what we present to the Arab viewer. However, I reject the idea that the Arab viewer is not attracted except to the Arab news, and is not interested except in politics and news bulletins. The Arab viewer is the same as any viewer from any other nationality; he is inquisitive, and likes to learn new information. I do not think that the Arab viewer is interested in hearing the news that an Arab president has met another head of government, but what interests him is a short footage of the meeting. The ordinary individual, and not necessarily the politician, is the one who makes the news; the skillful journalist is the one whose eye can pick an idea, and knows how to present it and offer it to the viewer.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What makes worthy media content out of a news item?
[Landor] I think that the way of presenting the idea and the way it is conveyed to the viewer are an art in itself. The journalist ought to know how to quench the thirst for knowledge and the inquisitiveness of the viewer. The human interest stories are very important, and attract every viewer. It is not enough to write and publish the photographs of the earthquakes, as for instance the ones that took place in Chile and Haiti, but we ought to monitor human pain. Here, I reiterate that the Arab viewer is not interested only in the Arab news; he is interested in keeping pace with the events everywhere.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the Arabic Service be affected by the plan to downsize the BBC?
[Landor] The downsize plan will only apply to the domestic services of the BBC in Britain. The close down of some stations does not mean that the BBC is in a financial dilemma, even if Britain still suffers from the economic crisis. The plan aspires to circulate the budgets and to employ them in different departments. The close down will not be in the sense of a shutdown, but it is reinvestment of the budgets in other places. The Arabic Service is outside this.