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(First published in The Independent, London, and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, April 1997)

THE ARABIC TV "MONSTER"

BBC Arabic TV studio, 1996

The BBC loves celebrating an anniversary. But there are exceptions, and one of these is the anniversary of the closure of the corporation's ill-fated Arabic TV channel - a project that the corporation would dearly love to forget. Ian Richardson, who was charged with setting up the channel's news department, only to have to closed it down less than two years later, looks back at what happened....

Sunday, April 21, 1996. 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 United States; indeed any country that had a substantial Arab community.

BBC Arabic Television, launched by the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide Television, 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 television channel beamed across the Middle East, North Africa and ultimately to Europe and the United States, was either brave or foolhardy - depending on your point of view.

The question - one that I have never been able to answer to my own total satisfaction - is this: was the Mawarid Group's backing for the project also brave or foolhardy, or just naive?

The negotiations for this channel had gone on between the BBC and Mawarid's subsidiary, the Rome-based Orbit Communications Corporation, for several months from the latter part of 1993, finally being signed on March 24, 1994.

There were elements of panic on both sides.

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, Hong Kong and China.

There was also the fact that months before the contract had even been signed, the BBC had already begun committing itself to substantial spending on an expensive recruiting campaign and on the development of the operational side of the project in Television Centre.

As for Orbit, its French-born Chief Executive Officer, Alexander B. Zilo, convinced the company that it should include the BBC in its choice of channels.

Zilo had been a key player in the establish of Star-TV in its pre-Murdoch days, and as such, was well experienced in the ways of the BBC's commercial arm.

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

World Service Television's Chief Executive, Chris Irwin, later to fall victim to a classic BBC re-structuring, had sought the views of his former World Service Radio colleagues at Bush House about the project.

There were a number of senior people at Bush House who'd had bruising encounters with the Saudi Arabians and they all urged great caution with the project.

They were particularly sceptical about assurances from Irwin that Orbit was prepared to sign an agreement guaranteeing 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.

Equally clear was the confirmation that this was chiefly a political consideration with commercial concerns coming a very poor second.

At one Orbit/BBC liaison meeting, Zilo had presented the BBC side with a long list of complaints, and at the end of this, I asked him with some expasperation if there was anything he liked about the channel - to which he replied: "Yes, it's ours!"

This could, of course, have been no more than a simple declaration of pride, but in the context of the barrage of complaints and threats that we'd had to endure, the message I took away from that exchange was quite clear: "We own you, so behave!"

But having failed to tame the BBC, Orbit was clearly going to make sure no-one else had it either.

And Orbit was able to do this in several ways:

First of all, its agreement to work with the BBC for an "orderly wind-down" of the service was shown to be worthless when it simply switched off the BBC channel at the close of the transmissions on the night of Saturday, April 20.

There was no warning from Orbit; indeed the first the BBC knew of this precipitous action was when one of our correspondents phoned me with the news at seven the next morning.

Then there was a unique and central 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 re-launch the channel with new financial backers.

The Arabic Television 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.

But 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 preliminary negotiations got under way in an atmosphere of great secrecy.

There were several clandestine meetings, here and abroad, but all came to nothing.

There were two prime reasons: 1) 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, and 2) None of the potential backers appeared to have any better concept of BBC editorial freedom than Orbit.

Then, of course, there was the attitude of the British Government and British business interests.

Neither much cared for BBC Arabic Television; indeed the word "hostile" would be more appropriate.

The Saudis were furious when, during the early days of BBC Arabic Television, it broke a Saudi taboo by mentioning King Fahd's poor health and broadcast a discussion about the succession.

And in this and other rows in later days, the anger from the British Embassy in Riyadh was unmistakable.

The failure of the BBC Arabic Television is a sad story, not just because of the death of a dream and the loss of so many jobs.

There have been many losers, not least the tens of millions of Arabs who have been deprived of the opportunity to have an unbiased, modern television service tailored to their own cultures and in their own language.

And there's Orbit itself.

Three years on from its launch, it has lost the only channel that was both unique and prestigious, and the audience continues to be counted in thousands rather than millions.

Having started off charging $US10,000 for a decoder and a "free" year's subscription, the fee is now down to around $US1,000.

So, Orbit limps along, propped up by Mawarid, with no obvious signs of it being a truly viable business.

The BBC most certainly was not a winner.

The closure of the service was a huge embarrassment, laced with furious arguments over the financial settlement.

The corporation's God-like image in the Arab world was seriously tarnished by getting into bed with the Saudis to produce what many in the Arab press sneeringly called "the BBC's Petrodollar Channel".

The abrupt closure provoked widespread jeers of "we told you so" and seriously damaged the BBC's ability - and its will - to introduce other foreign language channels, broadly emulating BBC World Service Radio.

But there have been winners, not least the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) which transmits a free-to-air satellite service from Battersea in London to a huge audience across the Middle East, North Africa and a fair slab of Europe.

It is owned by a branch of the Saudi Royal Family and it is, to say the least, a well-behaved operation when it comes to observing the Saudi view of media freedom.

With the end of the challenge from BBC Arabic Television, MBC no longer has to ponder the problem of explaining why certain sensitive stories are judged to be of no interest to its viewers.

But this situation may not last for long.

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. [BBC Arabic Television was revived in 2008]

Al Jazeera (the Peninsula) Satellite Television went on air at the beginning of last November, staffed chiefly by ex-members of BBC Arabic Television, and headed by Chief Editor, Sami Haddad, a skilled broadcaster and former Current Affairs Editor with BBC Arabic Radio at Bush House for many years.

The fledging service is already causing shock-waves in the Gulf in particular.

While the audience for Al Jazeera Television is still modest, its programme subjects are controversial, its interviewing techniques robust and, most importantly, it is remarkably free of editorial interference.

The question now yet to be answered: Will a wider success bring with it the need to trim its editorial sails?

But then, who can say the same question hasn't had to be asked from time to time of the BBC?

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