London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Six months ago, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced the appointment of Egyptian media expert, Salah Najm, as the news director of its Arabic television news channel to be launched next year. Najm faces many challenges including competition from Aljazeera and Al Arabiya news channels, both for which he had worked, and promoting the BBC for which he has also worked in the past. The following is the full text of the interview:
Q) What will the BBC Arabic news channel offer particularly to the Arab world?
A) BBC television is well known in the Arab world and Arab people trust it. The BBC has one of the oldest radio stations in the region and a website that is one of the most visited by Arab citizens. The new channel will present an Arabic service that is nonexistent in the Arab world; namely, the multimedia service, which includes radio, television, and the internet. The BBC is considered a pioneer in this field. Every news channel distinguishes itself by the way it treats the news, its competence in selecting journalistic material, and the way it treats this material, therefore levels differ. The BBC television channel endeavours to reach the highest level possible and aims to present only accurate news to Arab viewers.
Q) What will distinguish the new channel? Is there a specific approach or certain programs on which the BBC will rely? Will it be free to criticize Arab governments?
A) The approach and general features are based on the fact that the Arab viewers are familiar with the BBC. It will be a channel that deals with breaking news. It will respect the viewers and safeguard its credibility. We have not yet selected a logo for the channel and we still have time [to do so], however, I cannot disclose any details. It is not the aim of news channels to criticise governments. Those who adopt this approach commit mistakes in their media mission because the primary goal is to broadcast the news and various opinions, honestly and accurately.
Q) Are you apprehensive about competing with Aljazeera and Al Arabiya?
A) Aljazeera and Al Arabiya are considered major channels now but I believe that the BBC is also very important. The name itself conjures up many images. When Aljazeera began broadcasting, it faced the challenge of making its mark on the media map. The same applied to Al Arabiya. However, the BBC made its mark a long time ago and it enjoys large scale popularity and great credibility. Any executive editor would be thinking about how to keep viewers and maintain the channel’s credibility.
Q) Is there enough room in the Arab world for three news channels?
A) When we talk about the Arab world, we are talking about 22 Arab states and a market of over 300 million people. I do not think that three channels are enough to cover the region’s needs. Nobody can specify a suitable number of channels for the region. Think about the number of television channels in the United States in comparison to its size and population. The same applies to Europe.
Q) How do Arab viewers differ from their non-Arab counterparts?
A) The Arab viewer is more aware of events and is more able to separate and appreciate the message that is being conveyed to him. The Arab viewer watches various forms of media and compares them. He can distinguish between accurate and false news and can recognize a good opinion when he hears it. The Arab viewer is alert and follows the news carefully. He must be treated with great respect because of his ability and understanding.
Non-Arab viewers are different. In the Arab world, there are many political events that make viewers aware of political developments. The non-Arab viewer is not exposed to many media outlets and is more loyal to a certain outlet. However, the Arab viewer jumps from one channel to another to obtain accurate and correct information and news until he learns the truth. Conveying the wrong information can lead to losing the trust of the Arab viewer in the credibility of the media outlets.
Q) Have you begun recruiting for the new channel?
A) Advertising has begun for executive editors. As for other posts, they will be advertised soon.
Q) The BBC Arabic service is accused of employing Egyptian nationals to the exclusion of other Arabs. What is your opinion of this?
A) Any executive editor or director of a media outlet, whether he is responsible for the Arabic section, the Middle East, or for television news cares only about having a news team and does not think about the nationalities of the team members or where they come from. A strong team, despite its background, ensures the success of the channel. If the director is concerned with nationalities, this will be at the expense of journalistic skill and efficiency.
Q) How many members of staff will there be? Will you open bureaus in all Arab countries?
A) This is yet to be decided. We have a preliminary idea of having a 150-member team but the figures have not been finalized yet. As for the correspondents, initially, the bureaus will be opened particularly in Arab countries where there are important events or developments. I am not supposed to limit the bureaus to certain states but the process of news gathering must be flexible and open to developments and we must have sufficient flexibility to change and transform in accordance with the development of events.
Q) Will the new channel be independent from the BBC’s flagship channel or will it carry its news?
A) The new television channel is part of the BBC, which is a vast organization that includes dozens of radio stations and television channels. The question of independence or subordination does not arise in this case. The channel will be part of the organization which has its well-known and open editorial policy. The practice within the BBC demonstrates partnership in news between the various BBC channels. If a correspondent of the new television channel has a good news item, it would certainly be translated in the central news room and distributed to all channels. This depends on the value and volume of the news that the channel will transmit and which are not available to other services. To have a scoop is not the sole aim of a good executive editor, rather the aim is to acquire news with the greatest amount of accuracy, substance, and speed.
Q) Many have criticised you for allegedly transforming Al Arabiya at the beginning into another Aljazeera by providing a platform for Islamists. Will this be the case for the new channel?
A) I have never heard of this criticism before. I am not known for paying more attention to one trend over others. I rely on the principle that all political trends must be represented in the news according to the value of the news. This is the only criterion. It was evident from the various establishments where I worked that each one had its own method of dealing with the news.
Q) There have been rumours that you left Al Arabiya due to disputes between yourself and the new director, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed. How do you respond to such claims?
A) This is not true and there were no disputes between Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed and myself. The only reason that I left the channel was that I had found a new job that presented a way for me to realise my own ambitions. When the BBC announced that it was looking for a news director, I applied and was successful in the tests and interviews. There were many applicants and these procedures were carried out with transparency.
Q) Do you feel that your position at the BBC is better to the position you held at Al Arabiya?
A) It is a new challenge. To be appointed as news director for the BBC is an ambition for many Arab media workers.
Q) What have you brought to the channels for which you have worked before?
A) Good work in television speaks for itself. It is the result of teamwork and not the effort of an individual.
Q) Which channel had the most influence on your expertise?
A) This is a continuous process. My first experience at the BBC was very useful in shifting from radio to television. I learnt all I know about television work. At Radio Netherlands, I learnt the main editorial principles of western media and these have been further enhanced by my experience at Al Arabiya and Aljazeera.
Q) Can you tell us about when Aljazeera was first established? Was there a political aim behind its establishment?
A) To establish a news channel from scratch and to outline its principles when there were no other Arabic news channels was challenging. The aim was to establish a channel in the Arab world, and as a working team, we tried to make it comparable to CNN and the BBC, especially considering that when Aljazeera began transmission, the methods of news gathering and news sources in the Arab world were not the same as those for international networks. In other words, the knowledge that a foreign journalist, employed by international media, acquires regarding the Arab reality and how he can reach the news sources would not be the same as that of the Arab journalist who resides in Arab countries. At Aljazeera, I worked as news director and this means purely journalistic work; that is, presenting the news as it is. I had no connection to political aims or agendas.
Q) How would you evaluate Aljazeera now? Do you believe that it adheres to the principles upon which it was established?
I would rather not talk about this because I am now working for another channel. In general, each network relies on the mission that it is set to accomplish and the way in which this mission is completed, and leaves it to the viewers to determine their position on the channel in accordance with what they see on screen.