in Press Gazette, London,
April 11, 2003:
FAILED DREAM THAT LED TO AL-JAZEERA
on Britain's role in the birth of the Arabic channel...
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,
a fair wind, one that could have brought about sweeping changes
media in the Arab world - not just in the Middle East and North
but also in Europe and the US; indeed any country that had a substantial
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
astonishing impact would reverberate not just around the Middle
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,
going to be a problem child with an uncertain and fraught future.
project to establish a BBC Arabic-language TV channel, beamed across
Middle East, North Africa and ultimately to Europe and the US, was
brave or foolhardy depending on your viewpoint.
for this channel had gone on between the BBC and
Mawarid's subsidiary, Orbit Communications Corporation, for several
before finally being signed on 24 March, 1994. BBC World Service
Television, as it was then known, desperately needed a big new contract
cover itself financially in the wake of Rupert Murdoch's surprise
of Star-TV, from which he had unceremoniously dumped the BBC's signal
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,
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
project. They were particularly sceptical about assurances that
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
proved to be a sour joke, only barely obscured by a thin smokescreen
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
of time before there would be a final parting of the ways. Having
to tame the BBC, Orbit was clearly going to make sure no one else
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
without warning at the close of the transmissions on the night of
Saturday, 20 April, 1996. Then there was a unique aspect of the
had negotiated with the BBC. It had won the BBC's agreement to own
computer, editing and studio equipment to be installed at the BBC
Arabic Television. The reason, we were told, was this was more "tax
efficient". Whether this stands up to close scrutiny is now
immaterial because it did ultimately help Orbit to obstruct plans
relaunch the channel with new financial backers.
the Arabic-language computer terminals, a purpose-built
digital studio, the editing rooms and the presentation suites had
mothballed while Orbit exercised its ownership of the equipment,
to allow it to be used by anyone else and failing at the same time
remove it. In the end, the nails in the BBC Arabic Television coffin
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
came to nothing, for two prime reasons. First, the Saudis let it
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
to have any better concept of BBC editorial freedom than Orbit.
course, there was the hostile attitude of the British Government
British business interests, angered that BBC Arabic Television was
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
tens of millions of Arabs were being deprived of an unbiased, modern
television service tailored to their own cultures and in their own
But it is an ill
wind that blows no good.
Television went on air at the beginning of November
1996, staffed chiefly by former members of BBC Arabic Television,
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
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
transmitted from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.
is the former managing editor of BBC Arabic Television and is currently
managing director of Richardson Media
article from the same issue:
and cowed faces of prisoners of war as they are interviewed
by a television reporter, the mangled bodies of adults and children
by missiles while they were shopping in a busy market, the bloodied
corpses of British soldiers killed in action. These have become
the abiding images in a conflict where the level of media coverage
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
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
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
press office operating out of Doha, such has been the media interest
seem only to look at our coverage with one eye," says
recently appointed spokesman Jihad Ballout. "When the Pentagon
the media should refrain from using the pictures to allow time for
families to be informed, we happily obliged. We carried Donald Rumsfeld's
press conference when we were singled out and subsequent criticism
And we went further than that and carried an interview with one
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
"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
had worked on the corporation's Arabic Television channel. In the
hours of Wednesday morning the Basra Sherataon hotel, where Al-Jazeera's
crew was based, came under heavy shelling, leading the channel 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
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
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
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
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
the prime minister's director of communications, in an
interview he gave to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said
Government had had to adapt its media strategy to deal with the
media. A dedicated Islamic media unit has been set up within the
Office and ministers have been asked to set aside an hour in their
"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
them", Campbell added.
thrown up by a commercial news channel broadcasting to the
Arab world, without the regulatory constraints imposed on Western
will increase when two new English-language services are launched
Al-Jazeera. One, which will be a simultaneous translation service,
to launch this year, and a new, entirely English service is under
discussion - although it would take a year to set up.
a former World Service editor who was charged with setting
up the BBC Arabic Television channel, believes "things will
forever" by the ascendancy of Al-Jazeera and channels such
as Abu Dhabi
have been covering war head to head, as it were, and
suddenly we have an Arab TV service which is extremely competent.
now being confronted with things that were never really given genuine
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
strike on the channel's offices in Afghanistan by US forces, which
saw as a deliberate attempt to disable the broadcaster before the
moved into Kabul.
news organisations, even before talk of war in Iraq, have been
concerned that the US military, despite firm denials, might at some
in the war want to shut down uncomfortable media communications
inside the war zone," says Nik Gowing, a BBC World presenter
several months investigating the 2001 strike that also damaged the
offices. Gowing does, however, warn against making hasty conclusions
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
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",
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
Iraqi prisoners of war they did not block out their faces,"
"For years nobody gave a thought to fact that the images were
by people where the event was taking place, and now that the situation
reversed, everyone is saying it's shocking."
that the channel is experiencing the same kind of treatment
as colleagues working for British and US newspapers and broadcasters
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
adds that editorial policy still adheres to producer guidelines
by the BBC.
show footage just for the hell of it. Any decision we make has
to conform to three basic principles: newsworthiness; relevance
wider context and whether there are verified sources," says
those three things are satisfied then we go ahead." But Al-Jazeera,
Sambrook points out, is "producing TV news for an Arab audience
reflects Arab values, both in content, style and tone".
to the Arab world also shape the channel's decision-making,
explains Ballout, who says that when the channel was created one
main premises was that it would not "succumb" to censorship.
the censors played havoc and everything was doctored, censored or
he claims. "Our commitment was to give as complete coverage
as we possibly
claims that showing pictures of prisoners of war
contravened the Geneva Convention. "We have it on good authority
Convention applies to states at war, not to news organisations."
emphasises that the footage was carried with a warning that viewers
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
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
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
as an Anglo-centric operation. "When I joined the corporation
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
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
the channel has made some "misjudgements and mistakes",
largely as a
result of inexperience but "the occasional error of judgement
obscure the fact that they are doing their best to be a truly independent
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
further than Fox TV in the US, which makes no attempt to see the
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
reporters saying they will use guns against the likes of Osama bin
Extract from book
Al Jazeera: How Arab TV
challenged the world