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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2008, 01:33 GMT
BBC Arabic TV enters crowded market
As the BBC launches its new Arabic TV station, BBC News media correspondent Sebastian Usher examines some of the challenges the corporation faces in entering the slick, fast-changing world of Arabic satellite television news.

With its bright sets and glossy, poised presenters, the look of BBC Arabic should fit in seamlessly with the hundreds of Arab TV channels that have sprouted up in the past decade.

BBC Arabic TV presenters Tony El-Khoury (left), Lina Musharbash (centre) and Fida Bassil (right), 3 March, 2008
BBC Arabic TV's presenters will have to tackle sensitive topics

The driving force behind the new station is the BBC World Service - whose head is Nigel Chapman.

"The Arabic TV team will have roughly 200 people working for it, both in London and across the world," he says.

"It will have some of its own correspondents in some of the key places like Jerusalem, Cairo, North Africa, Washington, hopefully Moscow in the future - as well as of course drawing on the BBC's extensive newsgathering presence which already exists."

As well as the usual difficulties in setting up such a complex operation, Arabic TV and radio are also the first teams to use the BBC's state-of-the-art broadcasting centre being built in the heart of London.

Extended service

BBC Arabic radio has just celebrated its 70th birthday.

BBC Arabic TV is an extension of a service that has been there since 1938
Hosam El-Sokkari
Head of BBC Arabic service
The head of the Arabic service, Hosam El-Sokkari, says the strength of the TV station is drawn from that tradition.

"We are not new," he says. "BBC Arabic TV is an extension of a service that has been there since 1938.

"What people are expecting to see is an extension of the way we treat content on BBC Arabic radio and"

But there have been dizzying changes in the Arab media in the past few years, spearheaded by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera.

Arab viewers have got used to fast lively, professional TV news.

There are hundreds of channels now - a world away from the tedium of Arab TV in the past.

Red-line issues

The BBC pioneered the new style of channel with an Arab TV station in the mid-90s, but it did not last - many of its staff went on to form al-Jazeera.

World Service sign
The BBC World Service is the driving force behind the new station

Has the BBC left it too late to re-enter the market?

Habib Battah, a media analyst in Beirut, thinks not.

"I think there's a huge opportunity in the Arab news market today and that is to do with reports that you won't see on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya - issues that are not being covered by these two channels - which are seen as the red lines," he says.

"Each channel has its blind spot, its taboo area."

There has also been a move recently by Arab governments to censor TV stations that they believe go too far.

A "charter of principles" was agreed by the Arab League last month to take action against stations that stir up disorder or attack the region's leaders.

In this climate, the veteran journalist Hasan Muawad, who is going to host a big interview programme based on BBC World's HARDTalk, believes the new station will have an important role to play.

"I think others will learn from us probably," he says.

"We'll push the boundaries of press freedom... in the Arab world because we have nothing to hide - we have no agenda."


The other big question hanging over the new channel is how it will be viewed in an increasingly radicalised Arab world.

The BBC is coming into this market as an outsider so people will definitely be a bit sceptical
Habib Battah
Beirut-based media analyst

Will it be welcomed as impartial and objective - the qualities the BBC prides itself on - or will it be dismissed as at least in part a Western propaganda tool, toeing the line of its financial backer, the British Foreign Office, which is footing the bill for the station's annual budget of just less than $40m?

Habib Battah says inevitably people will have suspicions.

"The BBC is coming into this market as an outsider, so people will definitely be a bit sceptical as well about the BBC point of view when it comes to very sensitive topics like Hezbollah and Hamas and Fatah.

"It's difficult to really have a middle ground on these issues. People will always be accusing of bias on either side."

Good appetite

Existing Arab TV stations like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have faced these accusations, too.

World Service director Nigel Chapman
Mr Chapman said the channel would have around 200 staff
But the head of the BBC World Service, Nigel Chapman, believes the BBC's reputation - its commitment to the highest journalistic standards - will allow it to weather such attacks and win over a substantial audience in the Arab world.

"I am confident that there is appetite out there for it," he says.

"There may be lots of other channels but they're not the BBC. They don't have the BBC's reputation, they don't have the BBC's resources.

"And therefore I think we can be confident that provided we do a good job on air and we get the stories right and we are sensitive to the nuances and the complexities of them, then people will turn to the BBC.

"They'll trust it as they've done in the past and they'll use it extensively."

BBC Arabic will begin broadcasting at 1000GMT on Tuesday 11 March.

The history of BBC Arabic TV

World Service confirms Arabic TV
25 Oct 05 |  Entertainment
World Service comes full circle
25 Oct 05 |  Entertainment
BBC to develop Arabic TV station
24 Jun 04 |  Entertainment
BBC scoops Arabic web trophy
16 Oct 01 |  Science/Nature

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