It was an accident of history that the BBC, after seven decades of Arabic-language radio broadcasting, took its Arabic television service full-time just days before giving the region something controversial to talk about. But it was a testament to BBC Arabic's methodical multimedia strategy that, when its listeners, viewers and readers did choose to voice their opinions about the broadcaster's decision not to air a charity appeal for Gaza, it was able to use every form of mobile, online and traditional media at its disposal to make its audiences feel heard.
In the end, BBC Arabic used its newly expanded television schedule and multimedia channels to host a live debate about the decision. "It was an issue that was highly debatable," said Hosam el Sokkari, the head of BBC Arabic. "So we offered our audiences the opportunity to debate it." The BBC sparked protests last month after it refused to broadcast an appeal for Gaza by the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella group made up of 20 of Britain's largest aid charities. The broadcaster claimed airing the appeal would compromise its impartiality.
The BBC covered the outcry over the decision, and BBC Arabic used its multimedia programme Point for Debate to host a live debate. The broadcaster invited Caroline Thomson, the BBC's chief operating officer, to talk to its audiences in the studio, Mr el Sokkari said. "They sent suggestions to an area we called the free area," he said of the audience members. "I think very few [broadcasters] do anything like that. I haven't seen it offered on any other TV channel."
Point for Debate is one of the programmes on BBC Arabic that will air more often since the television service has gone from broadcasting 12 hours to 24 hours a day. Formerly shown three times a week, it will now be featured five days a week with a new theme for each day. The extended television schedule, which was implemented on Jan 19, follows several recent expansions of the service's multimedia offerings. These include new linking agreements with Middle-Eastern telecommunications companies for BBC Arabic's wireless application protocol (WAP) site, which allows mobile phones and hand-held computers to access bbcarabic.com.
During the Gaza conflict, BBC Arabic's WAP site received more than five times as much weekly traffic as during an average week of last year, according to BBC officials. This follows linking deals with mobile phone operators in the region, including Vodafone Live in Egypt, Orange in Jordan and Zain in Bahrain. BBC Arabic also recently began to offer its One Minute video news bulletins in Saudi Arabia via the telecoms operators STC and Mobily. BBC Arabic is also freely available on satellite or cable connections in the region, via the Arabsat, Eutelsat and Nilesat systems.
"The extension will strengthen our position in the region," Mr el Sokkari said. BBC Arabic is based in London, with bureaus in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and the US. It has a staff of about 350. The broadcaster has also been expanding its global distribution network beyond the region. Following an agreement with International Media Distribution, a division of Arab Radio and Television (ART), BBC Arabic television is broadcast for one hour a day in the US on ART American Channel, on the EchoStar platform.
These advances coincide with the BBC's expansion of its Farsi-language television service, BBC Persian, which launched last month, but Mr el Sokkari said the moves did not necessarily mean that the publicly funded British broadcaster was increasing its focus on the Middle East. Rather, he said, it was bringing its long-standing interest into the 21st century by investing in new technologies. "There has been an investment because technologies change," he said. "At some point in time, radio was king. But the world is moving on."