TV Turf War

The BBC has plans for an Arabic channel. Should Al-Jazeera be worried?

| Fri Jun. 25, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Al-Jazeera, the independent -- and controversial -- Arabic satellite network may soon be facing some stiff competition from the BBC. Under a plan announced this week, the British Foreign Service will fork over 50 million dollars to launch a 24-hour television network modeled on BBC's World News Service.

Competing with Al-Jazeera will be no small task. Since its launch in 1996, the Qatar-based operation has become the most popular broadcaster in the Middle East, with around 40 million viewers worldwide. Al-Jazeera has also been a major irritant for Western governments, (because of its criticism of their Middle Eastern policies) and for Arab governments (because of its calls for political reforms in the region).

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Wadah Khanfar, the director of Al-Jazeera, insisted in an interview with Islam Online that the BBC network in the works is no match for Al-Jazeera:

"Any competition by the BBC channel will be a source of no threats for us, given the status we had secured in Arab-speaking households [since launch] all along the past eight years. We are immersed deep in the region, portray news through Arab eyes and to Arab eyes, a case which does not work with other western Arab-language channels."

But there are several reasons why Al-Jazeera should be worried about the BBC. On the whole, the BBC -- like much of the British media -- is regarded as less pro-Israeli than U.S. media outlets in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which makes it more palatable in the Middle East. The sort of cheerleading for the Iraq invasion that has been CNN's staple is alien to the BBC. Indeed, the BBC has had a tense relationship with the British government, which it accused of "sexing up" intelligence reports in run-up to the war in Iraq. The row over BBC's Iraqi coverage resulted in scientist's suicide, a court inquiry, and several high-profile resignations at the network, including that of BBC chairman Gavyn Davies.

Also giving Al-Jazeera pause, last January, its editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Helal, handed in his resignation after receiving a "tempting offer" from the BBC and the prospect of further defections is yet one reason why Al-Jazeera may be much more worried about the BBC than it lets on.

But Al-Jazeera is in a pretty strong position. Its scathing criticism of U.S. foreign policy; its graphic coverage of war zones, including the broadcast of dead U.S. and British solders; its airing of exclusive tapes from Al-Qaeda; and the ability -- and willingness -- of its reporters go beyond the Green Zone in Iraq make it unique. Moreover, many in the region feel that the BBC, which has taken a beating in its Saudi Arabia ratings recently, has lost ground by virtue of being British. As Fabian Hamilton, a member of Britain's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told the Financial Times :

"I would be absolutely amazed if the BBC's audience in the Middle East had not collapsed because the Arab world is now absolutely distrustful of the BBC. People no longer see the BBC as utterly impartial but as the voice of the United States -- albeit a rather more civilized voice."

Anyone who watched Prime Minister Tony Blair get crucified by the BBC - among other British media organizations - for his decision to invade Iraq, would find it hard to credit the idea of its being a mouthpiece -- civilized or otherwise -- of the U.S. government. But perceptions being what they are, the BBC's supporters must be concerned the venture will go the way of the U.S. government funded Al-Hurra, which richly deserves its reputation as the White House's mouthpiece in the Middle East.

In fact, of course, the BBC is no Al-Hurra. The BBC's World News Service, reaches 45 million people and its 1.8 million Iraqi listeners make it the country's most popular international broadcaster. As Nigel Chapman, acting director of the World Service argues: "We know from our research that people trust the BBC brand and if more people could access it in their own language it would have a major impact."

With both the BBC Arabic and Al-Jazeera English channels in the works, let the clash of the networks in the Middle East -- and beyond -- begin.