x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sky News Arabia: now for the hard part...

The newly-launched Arabic channel will discover the competition to win over Arab viewers remains fierce.

An image taken from a video feed shows the opening minutes of the launch of Sky News Arabia.
An image taken from a video feed shows the opening minutes of the launch of Sky News Arabia.

Just a few minutes into the first live broadcast of Sky News Arabia, and it already feels like the channel has been on the airwaves for a decade.

True, there were the occasional glitches of the "I'm not getting a signal from the studio" type in the first hours. But these are part of life, even in stations that have been around from the days when the first satellites were launched into orbit.

So assuming that apparent effortlessness in any business is often a result of solid foundational work, then the managers and staff of the world's youngest 24-hour, free-to-air Arabic-language news station would be justified in calling its launch on Sunday evening a success.

It was exactly 8pm, the hour when prime-time TV kicks off in the UAE and the wider Gulf, when the face of a refreshingly young female presenter welcomed Arab viewers to a news bulletin broadcast from new studios in Abu Dhabi. Rita Malouf, like many of the other journalists who appeared during the launch, had that distinctive sparkle of people whose careers are still ahead of them.

She was on the line with a correspondent reporting from Paris on the climax of the French presidential election; another correspondent was covering developments on the Turkish-Syrian border after a visit by the Turkish prime minister to the refugee camps there; a third was in Cairo reporting on parliament's abolition of an old piece of legislation; and yet a fourth reporter was covering the fuel crisis in Juba, South Sudan. A nice selection, a good scope.

The reporting and the context were – and never underrate this adjective – sufficient. But will this be enough to carve out a niche in the cut-throat, recession-bedevilled world of media and advertising? The challenges are numerous.

A smart look, a misprint-free crawler, a catchy jingle, a larger-than-life studio screen, a dynamic online and mobile presence, an exclusive interview with the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, and even a night ride with Free Syrian Army rebels – the station did it all. But all that remains pretty commonplace in the current market.

So the channel had a few other things up its sleeve to throw in that crucial first hour of existence: a measured tone (even when reporting on Syria) in an otherwise shrill Arabic-language media environment; an abaya-clad sports presenter breaking barriers in a male-dominated field; and a correspondent based in the Arab world's forbidden city – Damascus. These are the small assets that could make the big difference.

Since the launch of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera in 1996 and the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya in 2003, the mass of Arab viewers have grown accustomed to a reasonable level of quality in television journalism.

Generously subsidised, those two channels managed to recruit talent and conquer the homes of about 300 million people. These are the real big two: in the mainstream, Al Arabiya is thought of as more moderate and Al Jazeera as more populist.

But monopoly breeds excess. For years now, and particularly since the Arab Spring started, the big two have been plagued with accusations – by regimes and laypeople alike – of serving "special agendas" and being too soft on their sponsoring governments.

Sky News Arabia, as far as the average Arab viewer is concerned, is a blank slate. The station is 50 per cent owned by the UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has a share and which owns the Sky News brand, and 50 per cent by Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation. It has no enemies, and nobody can accuse it yet of being biased in favour of this or against that. This is one of its main strengths as it engages an audience weary of Arab Spring-related conspiracy theories.

That blank slate, in fact, is what earned it a licence to station a reporter in Damascus. And this simple fact carries the promise of changing one or two things about how Arabs and, perhaps, the world perceive the lingering Syrian uprising, which has tested the objectivity of media outlets across the board.

Less than an hour into the launch of Sky News Arabia, the Syrian deputy foreign minister came on. It is hard to remember the last time a high-ranking Syrian government official appeared on a pan-Arab news channel. As he wished the station good luck and quickly admonished it for quoting "misleading" sources in an earlier report, Damascene cars were casually making a roundabout in the background – just smooth traffic, no plumes of smoke or wounded men rushed in stretchers, a scene that Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya would rarely show these days.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the ensuing US-led Nato campaign in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, communicating with the Arab-Muslim world through mass media seemed the proper soft-power tool to give context to what many Arabs saw as the modern crusades.

The Washington-sponsored Al Hurra was launched in 2004. It mostly kept a low profile after enjoying the brief newcomer's benefit-of-doubt period and, later, suffering budget cuts. Moscow launched its Russia Al Youm, Tehran its Al Alam, Paris its own France 24 Arabic, Beijing its CCTV Arabic and Turkey its TRT, all vying for ideological influence – not necessarily just a slice of the advertising market – in this increasingly strategic Middle East and North Africa region.

Backed by decades of experience, a reputation for reliability and UK taxpayer money, BBC Arabic is still holding its own, offering a nice alternative to the big two.

So this is the general landscape, and with Sky News Arabia coming on board, it is coming closer to saturation. The new channel is not in it just for the influence, it is in it for the money too. It describes itself as a private venture and has two advertisers already buying airtime: the Canada-based Nova Chemicals and Abu Dhabi's Dolphin Energy.

Note that another 24-hour Arabic-language private news channel, Alarab, is expected to launch from Bahrain by the end of the year, a venture unveiled last year by the Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

A few hours of viewing cannot make a full judgment. But, for what those hours were worth, Sky News Arabia showed potential, especially since the need for "an icon of objective news reporting" – the station's promise – is still missing in the Arab world.

aelbahi@thenational.ae