The Independent London
and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London,
ARABIC TV "MONSTER"
for PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION)
The BBC loves
celebrating an anniversary. But there are exceptions, and one
of these is the anniversary of the closure of the corporation's
original 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...
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
BBC Arabic Television,
launched by the corporation's commercial arm, 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
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?
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?