x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

BBC a lone voice down the decades

With the resignation of its director-general on Saturday, the BBC is suffering probably its worst crisis since it was founded 90 years ago. Yet its Arabic language services in the Middle East continue to grow stronger.

22 Jun 1938, London, England, UK --- D. Stephenson, Arabic Sub Editor of the BBC, consults with H.M. Da Souki, relief translator and announcer of the BBC Arabic service. --- Image by © BBC/Corbis
22 Jun 1938, London, England, UK --- D. Stephenson, Arabic Sub Editor of the BBC, consults with H.M. Da Souki, relief translator and announcer of the BBC Arabic service. --- Image by © BBC/Corbis

It was an inauspicious start. Within a few minutes of the launch of its Arabic-language radio service on January 3, 1938, the BBC found itself in trouble, at home and abroad.

"Another Arab of Palestine was executed by hanging at Acre this morning by order of a [British] military court," began the third item on the service's first news bulletin.

"He was arrested during recent riots in the Hebron mountains and was found to possess a rifle and ammunition."

The bulletin, according to research carried out in the BBC archives and published in 2010 in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, "provoked outrage and angry responses from across the Arab world" and the foreign office - which then, as now, funded the service - "was furious with the BBC".

So furious, in fact, that Rex Leeper, the head of the foreign office's news department, wrote to ask: "Is the BBC to broadcast to the Empire the execution of every Arab in Palestine? It seems to me unnecessary, though I suspect it gives its conscience a warm glow."

Seventy-five years on, that "conscience" - the BBC's determination to demonstrate its independence and impartiality - is suffering grievously. The broadcaster is in the midst of a crisis unparalleled since its foundation as a result of the revelations that one of its former stars, Jimmy Savile, was a serial paedophile. On Saturday, its recently appointed director-general, George Entwistle, was forced to resign.

The timing could not be worse. At precisely 5.33pm GMT on Wednesday, the BBC will celebrate its 90th birthday with a simultaneous three-minute broadcast of Radio United, a programme comprising messages from listeners to 60 BBC stations - chiefly domestic, but including the Arabic service, its oldest foreign-language station.

The BBC began its Arabic-language service - its first excursion into non-English broadcasting - just 15 years after the corporation itself was founded.

The twin birthdays - 90 years and 75 years - will be celebrated by many in the Arabic-speaking world, including the millions of new listeners and viewers who have flocked to the now multi-platform BBC Arabic service since the start of the Arab Spring.

The BBC's radio penetration alone is actually in decline, partly as a result of a policy to reduce expensive and poor-quality short-wave and medium-wave transmissions in favour of FM, which requires the permission of host countries to install the necessary equipment on their soil, but also as a product of the changing media landscape.

This year the BBC's Arabic radio service has had 7.6 million listeners, down from 10.1m last year and 11.5m in 2010.

But TV, increasingly, is king, and this is where the BBC has been putting on the numbers.

Latest figures show that the audience for BBC Arabic as a whole - an online service was added in 1998, and television in 2008 - have risen by more than 17 per cent to a record high of 25.3 million adults since the start of the Arab Spring.

Between the launch of the TV service in 2008 and the start of the uprisings, "we'd been gaining pace but not as fast as we wished", says Faris Couri, editor of the BBC's Arabic service. The Arab Spring, he says, "was a turning point. It started with the Tunisian movement and then it picked up really fast with events in Egypt".

Several factors played a role. "The most important of which is that we are an independent and impartial provider of news," Couri says. "The events themselves took all media outlets by surprise. But because of our impartiality and objectivity, people took notice of our output."

Objectivity has always been the touchstone of the BBC's Arabic service - and achieving it has required a deft performance on a tightrope.

According to Fatima El Issawi, of the London School of Economics, and her colleague, Gerd Baumann, writing in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication in 2010, the incident on day one in 1938 was the first indication of the "enduring issues and themes that [have] run through the history of the BBC Arabic services".

From the Second World War, "through the Suez crisis and the 1967 war to the present day, the BBC Arabic services have had to negotiate a delicate balance between two rival missions: respecting the values of the BBC by reflecting a supposedly impartial view of the world, but also serving the aims of British foreign policies and strategic needs toward the Middle East".

And, by and large, it has succeeded - often in the face of considerable pressure on the home front.

In the early years, reported El Issawi, "pressure by the foreign office on the BBC not to report unwelcome facts that might harm the reputation of Britain in the Middle East persisted, but the BBC stood firm and resisted". Even as a world war loomed, the head of the Empire Service, as the World Service was then known, issued the following guidance to sub-editors working on the Arabic broadcasts: "The omission of unwelcome facts of news and the consequent suppression of truth runs counter to the corporation's policy."

It is, says El Issawi, a policy that has, by and large, paid off. "With people I have met in the region when I'm doing my research, the BBC World Service and the BBC itself is always given as a good example of how public service can work," she says. "So is this helping the agenda or foreign policy of the British government? Of course, indirectly. But people take the BBC as a model of how they can evolve with their own public sector and state media, which for a long time have been used as a mouthpiece, into a professional media."

One person's "impartial", of course, can be another's "biased".

In 2007, on the eve of the introduction of the BBC's Arabic TV service, western news media carried the claims of a Jerusalem-based American academic, writing in the New York Times, that the BBC's Arabic service was "anti-western and anti-democratic".

It was, wrote Frank Stewart, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "strange" that the British government paid for the service.

The BBC told the Daily Telegraph that the Arabic service "pulled no punches" in its efforts to "test arguments on all sides".

There have been some rough moments in the relationship with the region. During the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the BBC service was accused of aiding Israel, although the BBC won friends when it transmitted hundreds of appeals for missing relatives of Arabs caught up in the fighting.

"Such humanitarian commitment in a zone devastated by war gave the BBC a new, and this time perhaps less politicised credibility," wrote El Issawi and Baumann.

Just how important it is to Britain to have a voice in the Arab world can be judged by the annual budget of £25m pumped into the station - 10 per cent of the entire World Service funding - by the foreign and commonwealth office.

And throughout the Arab Spring, the World Service has managed to ruffle governments from Bahrain to Algeria with its brand of tough questioning and public debate with opposition figures.

In a spending review in 2010, the British government cut the entire World Service budget by 16 per cent. But while five of the BBC's remaining 32 foreign-language stations were taken off-air, the government found an extra £2.2m a year to maintain the Arabic service's "valuable work in the region", in the words of William Hague, the foreign secretary.

The cornerstone of that valuable work, says Couri, is impartiality. "We never have an issue with the foreign office about our editorial independence. Everybody knows that BBC standards speak for themselves, and the public in general in our area do recognise that fact."

Listeners and viewers, he says, "don't look at the BBC as a British organisation. There is no mixing between the BBC as an institution and Britain as a country. They look at it as an independent and objective provider of news".

For him, "the most important achievement since BBC Arabic was established in 1938 is trust".

"People do trust what we put on air and believe it is true, because we go to great pains to verify the information we gather," he says. "People gain this habit, if they see something on their local outlets or some pan-Arab channel, they will come back to us to check whether that was true or not."

Couri, who left his native Iraq in 1992 and joined the BBC in London in 1994, says he was an "avid listener" to the Arabic radio service in his home country.

"I can still remember, during the conflicts in the region, especially the Iran-Iraq war, I used to listen to the Iraqi radio and TV, and also tried to listen to some of the Iranian output. But to make sure of what was happening I would listen to the BBC," he says. "There was a saying in the Arab world, around the cafes. People would ask 'have you heard this?'. If the answer was 'no' they would reply, 'then you have to, because London has said it'."

Although BBC Arabic's popularity has risen with the tide of the Arab Spring, Couri is confident it will maintain or even raise its high-watermark when the troubles subside into less violent, political change.

"The events in the Arab world exposed a reality that the Arab media is polarised to a certain degree, and that we at BBC Arabic are a lone voice," he says.

"This is a reality I witnessed myself when I attended the 11th Arab Media Forum in Dubai in March this year.

"You could see from the discussions in the various meetings that this was an issue, whether the Arab media should take sides or not. I said, 'we are the BBC, we have to be impartial, otherwise we would be lost'."

Which leaves only the saddest question remaining: is the BBC itself now lost? There are more than 30 million Arabic listeners and viewers no doubt be hoping that the current crisis in London quickly subsides.

 

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