London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Observers of the Arab media impatiently await the launch of the British Broadcast Corporation’s (BBC) promised Arabic Service. However, the BBC has yet to decide on the exact date for the launch of the channel only revealing that it will be sometime in autumn of this year.
At a time when some people thought that the new channel would bring a qualitative leap in the world of Arab satellite news, others have been voicing their doubts since the announcement of the project. Recently more skeptical figures started to question the validity of the aforementioned channel’s launch. The latest of these doubts was expressed in an article written by American Professor Frank H. Stewart in the New York Times (NYT), and was also quoted by the affiliated International Herald Tribune, and the British Daily Telegraph newspaper.
A professor in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stewart’s article was titled “The Biased Broadcasting Corporation”, a pun on the acronym BBC. He started off the article by quoting the Archbishop of Algeria’s statement, which he had made earlier to the NYT and in which he said, “If you watch Western television, you live in one universe and if you watch Middle Eastern television, you live in another altogether.” The Archbishop also stated that the Middle Eastern broadcasts tended to depict the West in a negative light.
Stewart added, “Washington is well aware of this problem and has tried to address it. In 2004, the United States established its own Arabic-language satellite television station, Al Hurra. But Al Hurra has not been a success, and stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyah, based in the Gulf States, continue to dominate the region.” From this standpoint, Stewart touches upon BBC’s intention to launch an Arabic Service BBC channel referring to the fact that the BBC has been broadcasting in Arabic on the radio for over 60 years and that it has a huge audience. However he said, “This new television station might sound like good news for America. Many of us pick up BBC broadcasts in English, and we respect their quality. But the World Service in English is one thing, and the World Service in Arabic is another entirely.”
His view is that, “if the BBC’s Arabic TV programs resemble its radio programs, then they will be just as anti-Western as anything that comes out of the Gulf, if not more so.” Furthermore, he accused the BBC Arabic Service radio by saying, “The Arabic Service not only shields Arab leaders from criticism but also tends to avoid topics they might find embarrassing: human rights, the role of military and security forces, corruption, discrimination against minorities, censorship, poverty and unemployment. When, from time to time, such topics do arise, they are usually dealt with in the most general terms: there may, for instance, be guarded references to ‘certain Arab countries.’”
For its part and expressing its opinion through a statement that it sent to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper via e-mail, the BBC responded to Stewart’s article by saying, “Due impartiality is at the heart of the BBC’s programs and services. It applies equally to all parts of the BBC, including the BBC Arabic Service radio, online and future television services. There is no difference in the stringency with which we apply our editorial guidelines across the services.” The statement added, “Middle Eastern politics is extremely complex, populated by widely divergent but sincerely and strongly held views. It is important to the lives of millions in the region. Therefore we go to great lengths to ensure that as many views of any situation are reflected in our output. This means balancing the story, supplying views from all sides of any issue and testing arguments on all sides with equal rigor – pulling no punches.” It concluded with, “The article also asserts that we shy away from topics like human rights, corruption, and the role of security forces. This is not true as any regular listener to BBC Arabic would know.
Independent research consistently shows we are popular in the region precisely because audiences can hear a wider range of views on these issues on the BBC than with other stations in the region.”
According to Peter Connors, the Press Officer at BBC World Service, BBC Arabic TV will be BBC’s first publicly funded international television and that, “The channel will initially broadcast 12 hours daily throughout the Middle East at a cost of £19 million per annum, although the ambition is to extend this to 24 hours.”