First published in Press Gazette, London, April 11, 2003:

THE FAILED DREAM THAT LED TO AL-JAZEERA
Ian Richardson
on Britain's role in the birth of the Arabic channel...

(click here for PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION)

Sunday, 21 April, 1996, is a date that will forever be burnt into my
memory and the memories of the 150 or so former staff of BBC Arabic
Television. It was the day that I killed off, at just over an hour's
notice, my baby: a television service launched with high hopes and, given
a fair wind, one that could have brought about sweeping changes in the
media in the Arab world - not just in the Middle East and North Africa,
but also in Europe and the US; indeed any country that had a substantial
Arab community.

But who could have forecast back then that out of the ashes of BBC Arabic
Television would rise Al-Jazeera? And who could have forecast that its
astonishing impact would reverberate not just around the Middle East but
across the Western world?

BBC Arabic Television, launched by the corporation's commercial arm, BBC
Worldwide, and funded by the giant Saudi Arabian Mawarid Group, was always
going to be a problem child with an uncertain and fraught future. The
project to establish a BBC Arabic-language TV channel, beamed across the
Middle East, North Africa and ultimately to Europe and the US, was either
brave or foolhardy depending on your viewpoint.

The negotiations for this channel had gone on between the BBC and
Mawarid's subsidiary, Orbit Communications Corporation, for several months
before finally being signed on 24 March, 1994. BBC World Service
Television, as it was then known, desperately needed a big new contract to
cover itself financially in the wake of Rupert Murdoch's surprise purchase
of Star-TV, from which he had unceremoniously dumped the BBC's signal to
the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

The idea of the Arabic channel was conceived, sold and purchased on the
foundations and ethos of the BBC World Service Arabic radio service, which
is widely heard and hugely admired in the Middle East.

But there were many senior people at Bush House who'd had bruising
encounters with the Saudis and they all urged great caution with the
project. They were particularly sceptical about assurances that Orbit was
prepared to guarantee BBC editorial independence.

During the short life of BBC Arabic Television, there were several angry
"liaison meetings" with Orbit and the guarantees of editorial independence
proved to be a sour joke, only barely obscured by a thin smokescreen about
the BBC's alleged failure to observe "cultural sensitivities" - Saudi code
for anything not to the royal family's liking.

When it became clear to Orbit and Mawarid that it had, in their terms,
created a monster not prepared to toe the Saudi line, it was only a matter
of time before there would be a final parting of the ways. Having failed
to tame the BBC, Orbit was clearly going to make sure no one else had it
either.

First, its agreement to work with the BBC for an "orderly wind-down" of
the service was shown to be worthless when it switched off the BBC channel
without warning at the close of the transmissions on the night of
Saturday, 20 April, 1996. Then there was a unique aspect of the deal Orbit
had negotiated with the BBC. It had won the BBC's agreement to own all the
computer, editing and studio equipment to be installed at the BBC for
Arabic Television. The reason, we were told, was this was more "tax
efficient". Whether this stands up to close scrutiny is now relatively
immaterial because it did ultimately help Orbit to obstruct plans to
relaunch the channel with new financial backers.

The newsroom, the Arabic-language computer terminals, a purpose-built
digital studio, the editing rooms and the presentation suites had to be
mothballed while Orbit exercised its ownership of the equipment, refusing
to allow it to be used by anyone else and failing at the same time to
remove it. In the end, the nails in the BBC Arabic Television coffin were
driven into it with vigour by the Saudi royal family and its supporters,
aided by the BBC's difficulty in finding suitable alternative backers.

Within days of Arabic Television being switched off by Orbit, several
potential alternative backers had emerged and secret preliminary
discussions got under way. There were many clandestine meetings but all
came to nothing, for two prime reasons. First, the Saudis let it be known
that they would make life difficult for alternative backers, who
inevitably needed Saudi goodwill to maintain their other commercial
interests in good health. Second, none of the potential backers appeared
to have any better concept of BBC editorial freedom than Orbit. Then, of
course, there was the hostile attitude of the British Government and
British business interests, angered that BBC Arabic Television was rocking
the Saudi boat.

The failure of BBC Arabic Television is a sad story because of the death
of a dream. At the time, the greatest loss was thought to be the fact that
tens of millions of Arabs were being deprived of an unbiased, modern
television service tailored to their own cultures and in their own
language.

But it is an ill wind that blows no good.

Al-Jazeera Satellite Television went on air at the beginning of November
1996, staffed chiefly by former members of BBC Arabic Television, all of
them fervent believers in the BBC ethos of balance and fairness.

The BBC lost a channel that was both unique and prestigious, but there are
times when I have to confess to myself that maybe the baton that was
accidentally handed to Al-Jazeera should now be left with it.

While BBC Arabic Television itself may be dead, its editorial spirit, its
style and even its programmes, albeit under different names, live on --
transmitted from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.

Ian Richardson is the former managing editor of BBC Arabic Television and is currently managing director of Richardson Media

An associated article from the same issue:

UNCOMFORTABLE VIEWING
Julie Tomlin

The terrified and cowed faces of prisoners of war as they are interviewed
by a television reporter, the mangled bodies of adults and children killed
by missiles while they were shopping in a busy market, the bloodied
corpses of British soldiers killed in action. These have become some of
the abiding images in a conflict where the level of media coverage has
been unprecedented.

The contribution of Arabic satellite television news channel Al-Jazeera's
to the continuous churn of war images has confirmed what many predicted -
that it would be one of the most significant media stories of the war.

The decision of the Qatar-based channel, which is part-financed by that
country's Government, to broadcast those images has earned it the
opprobrium of the West where it has been maligned as little more than a
propaganda channel for Saddam Hussein's regime.

It is a charge that is strenuously denied by Al-Jazeera, whose journalists
have been asked not to talk to the media without consulting the central
press office operating out of Doha, such has been the media interest in
the channel.

"Our critics seem only to look at our coverage with one eye," says
recently appointed spokesman Jihad Ballout. "When the Pentagon said that
the media should refrain from using the pictures to allow time for the
families to be informed, we happily obliged. We carried Donald Rumsfeld's
press conference when we were singled out and subsequent criticism of us.
And we went further than that and carried an interview with one of the
mothers of the US prisoners of war."

The main problem Al-Jazeera faces in its coverage of the war is access,
adds Ballout. Only one of its journalists was given permission to be
"embedded" with the US troops.

Two events last week characterise how difficult it is to easily
compartmentalise the channel, which was created by BBC-trained staff who
had worked on the corporation's Arabic Television channel. In the early
hours of Wednesday morning the Basra Sherataon hotel, where Al-Jazeera's
crew was based, came under heavy shelling, leading the channel to write to
the Pentagon calling on it to ensure its teams' safety.

Less than 24 hours later, Al-Jazeera announced it was indefinitely
suspending broadcasts from Baghdad after one of its reporters, Tayseer
Allouni, was expelled and another banned from working by the Iraqi
authorities.

This week cameraman Tareq Ayoub died after the company's office in Baghdad
was hit by a missile. The station is convinced that this was a US strike
and called Ayoub a "martyr of duty".

Sami Haddad, Al-Jazeera's former chief editor and now main anchor, says
that the channel, which is banned in Jordan and Kuwait, has been accused
of being Zionist, as well as being the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden
during the Afghan war.

"We set out to reflect the story accurately, but there will always be
someone who says you are supporting the views of the opposition."

But while debate about the role Al-Jazeera has played in this conflict
looks set to continue, it is clear that because it is broadcast to around
50 million people and is received in around 87 per cent of the 100,000
Arab households in the UK, the channel has become increasingly important
to the US and British Governments as they battle to win over the Iraqi
people.

Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's director of communications, in an
interview he gave to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said the
Government had had to adapt its media strategy to deal with the Arabic
media. A dedicated Islamic media unit has been set up within the Foreign
Office and ministers have been asked to set aside an hour in their diaries
"to do Arabic media" because "it is important, it matters that they hear
what we are genuinely saying, as opposed to what is being mediated to
them", Campbell added.

The challenges thrown up by a commercial news channel broadcasting to the
Arab world, without the regulatory constraints imposed on Western media,
will increase when two new English-language services are launched by
Al-Jazeera. One, which will be a simultaneous translation service, is due
to launch this year, and a new, entirely English service is under
discussion - although it would take a year to set up.

Ian Richardson, a former World Service editor who was charged with setting
up the BBC Arabic Television channel, believes "things will be changed
forever" by the ascendancy of Al-Jazeera and channels such as Abu Dhabi
TV.

"The networks have been covering war head to head, as it were, and
suddenly we have an Arab TV service which is extremely competent. We're
now being confronted with things that were never really given genuine
thought before."

Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news, agrees: "The West is having to
adapt to a strong pan-national Arab media. They are not going to go away -
indeed, there will be more 'Al-Jazeeras' in future," he says.

Although it was not clear that the shelling was directed at the hotel in
Basra, where Al-Jazeera was the only TV outfit present, it echoes the
strike on the channel's offices in Afghanistan by US forces, which some
saw as a deliberate attempt to disable the broadcaster before the fighting
moved into Kabul.

"Many TV news organisations, even before talk of war in Iraq, have been
concerned that the US military, despite firm denials, might at some stage
in the war want to shut down uncomfortable media communications from
inside the war zone," says Nik Gowing, a BBC World presenter who spent
several months investigating the 2001 strike that also damaged the BBC's
offices. Gowing does, however, warn against making hasty conclusions about
whether the hotel was deliberately targeted.

But whatever emerges about the shelling incident, Ballout is in no doubt
that the "propaganda war" is being fought as hard as the military
campaign.

"From the outset, this war has not only been fought on the battleground,
but also on the airwaves and in the newspapers," he says.

Attacks on the channel because of its decision to show pictures of what
were believed to be dead British soldiers are "hypocritical", Richardson
believes.

"For all these years the global networks have been putting stuff out and
not giving a thought to showing some fairly graphic pictures from
Jerusalem, the Middle East and certainly when they showed pictures of
Iraqi prisoners of war they did not block out their faces," he argues.
"For years nobody gave a thought to fact that the images were being seen
by people where the event was taking place, and now that the situation is
reversed, everyone is saying it's shocking."

Haddad insists that the channel is experiencing the same kind of treatment
as colleagues working for British and US newspapers and broadcasters when
their Governments consider they are not helping their war aims.

"I feel sorry for the likes of Andrew Marr and Peter Arnett, who have been
criticised, and I hope that people feel sorry for us," says Haddad, who
adds that editorial policy still adheres to producer guidelines laid down
by the BBC.

"We don't show footage just for the hell of it. Any decision we make has
to conform to three basic principles: newsworthiness; relevance to the
wider context and whether there are verified sources," says Ballout. "If
those three things are satisfied then we go ahead." But Al-Jazeera, as
Sambrook points out, is "producing TV news for an Arab audience which
reflects Arab values, both in content, style and tone".

Factors unique to the Arab world also shape the channel's decision-making,
explains Ballout, who says that when the channel was created one of the
main premises was that it would not "succumb" to censorship. "For decades
the censors played havoc and everything was doctored, censored or tamed,"
he claims. "Our commitment was to give as complete coverage as we possibly
could."

Ballout rejects claims that showing pictures of prisoners of war
contravened the Geneva Convention. "We have it on good authority that the
Convention applies to states at war, not to news organisations." He
emphasises that the footage was carried with a warning that viewers might
find it distressing.

But he concedes that "people have said, with good reason, that the Arab
world has a higher threshold of tolerance because for five or six decades
now they have been living with death, carnage and destruction".

Operating in a fiercely competitive market, the channel is setting out to
attract more Arab viewers and, unconstrained by the broadcast regulations
encountered by the British media, it can adopt an approach that has
popular appeal.

While channels such as BBC World and CNN tread a difficult line when it
comes to covering the Middle East, Al-Jazeera chooses to refer to
Palestinians who are killed as "martyrs".

And while the roots of Al-Jazeera's journalism are firmly in the BBC World
Service, former journalists reserve some criticism for what was perceived
as an Anglo-centric operation. "When I joined the corporation in the
Seventies we were told we were broadcasting news as seen from London,"
says one source. "We are trying to cover the news as seen from the
battlefield."

Ballout rejects any suggestions that, by showing in graphic detail the
realities of war, the channel has set out to turn the tide of public
opinion against the conflict. "That's not what we are here to do. Our job
is to have a professional attitude towards news." Richardson believes that
the channel has made some "misjudgements and mistakes", largely as a
result of inexperience but "the occasional error of judgement should not
obscure the fact that they are doing their best to be a truly independent
news service".

He adds: "No broadcaster working in a situation like this has got entirely
clean hands. If we are going to talk about biased broadcasting then go no
further than Fox TV in the US, which makes no attempt to see the war from
any other perspective. It's pretty rich that the US can accuse Al-Jazeera
of bias and lacking in judgement and taste when there is a channel with
reporters saying they will use guns against the likes of Osama bin Laden."

Related link:
Extract from book Al Jazeera: How Arab TV challenged the world 

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