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Sky News Arabia is ?a break from stations with slanted coverage

The launch of Sky News Arabia represents another milestone in the rapid growth of Arabic media.

The launch of Sky News Arabia represents another milestone in the rapid growth of Arabic media, while the new channel's low-key introduction into the crowded media landscape is a wise one.

Where rivals Al Jazeera and Al Alam made current affairs an entertaining blood sport, the sheer business-as-usual approach emanating from the channel's shiny UAE studios bred an engaging familiarity.

Sky News Arabia's mix of interactive graphics and its welcome detachment pose an interesting proposition to Arab audiences used to news tapping raw nerves or representing certain political or sectarian viewpoints.

It also ushers a hitherto rare kind of owner into the Arabic media landscape: a commercial enterprise in territory that is largely, although not wholly, the domain of national governments and political parties.

Many hope the commercial aspect could herald a news programming approach that is based on viewers' interests rather than a top-down policy imperative.

While it may be too early to label the channel's arrival as a minor revolution, it points to an evolution of the Middle Eastern news coverage driven by technology and manipulated by politics.

Before the satellite explosion of the 1980s, news in the region was limited to government-run television and radio stations. Those searching for foreign-based Arabic-language news had to invest in good radios to tune in to the likes of the BBC World Service, Voice of America and Radio Monte Carlo.

CNN's coverage of the first Gulf War and the success of the London-based now Dubai-based entertainment satellite channel MBC, spurred Al Jazeera's arrival as the region's first 24-hour news channel at a time when technology was already opening sealed borders.

Al Jazeera's emotive and brash take on news was highly criticised, but that overlooked the channel's bigger impact.

After years of government repression of news and information, Al Jazeera was as much a public forum for pent-up expression as a news broadcaster.

This explains the immediate success of its flagship show The Opposing Direction, a combative current affairs programme in which guests engage in heated duels and audience members called in to voice opinions.

Its continued popularity, despite the shrill style and the guests' sometimes nonsensical diatribes, proves the pent-up steam has not dissipated just yet.

The effect of Al Jazeera's coverage was the launch of several Arab news channels by foreign governments: Al Hurra (the US); Al Alam (Iran), Al Arabiya and Al Ekhbaria (Saudi Arabia), France 24 (France); and Rusiya Al Youm (Russia).

These new players all came with catchy slogans promising objectivity, but at best presented a different viewpoint or at worse were glossy visual presentations of government press releases.

It was the BBC's launch of its Arabic news television service in 2008 that saw a move away from the ideological and sectarian territory of Arabic satellite news channels.

And the fact that it was the only BBC channel last year to escape heavy government cuts proves the that BBC Arabic plays a vital part in British diplomacy in the region.

Hence and as surreal as this sounds Rupert Murdoch's welcome addition to the Arabic media world. Whether Sky News Arabia is viewed as "different" and "balanced" as its director, Nart Bouran, promises, remains to be seen. But its apparent freedom from a diplomatic and sectarian agenda deserves further viewing.

sasaeed@thenational.ae

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