Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence



  On 25 October, 2005, the BBC World Service announced its intention to launch a 12-hour Arabic TV news channel.

  The channel proposition—initially 12 hours of linear television, supported by audio and text, and moving to 24 hours over time, depending on funding—will be based around BBC strengths in the region. It will consist of world class news and current affairs programming covering international and major regional issues.

  Discussion programmes and debates mounted in conjunction with BBC Arabic radio and online services will offer a uniquely well-moderated space for sharing views and perspectives across the region and with the wider world. Great care will be taken to combine a modern look to the channel with strong information content, and a broader agenda than regionally-based channels.

  There is a clear opportunity to occupy a genuine "middle ground" in the market, away from the perceived pro-US offers of Al Hurra and Radio Sawa and with a different perspective to the Arabic regional channels—both the more moderate, regionally focused channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, that play to the Arab street, and the more extremist offers from channels like Al Manar.

  The channel will play to the strength of the BBC's reputation in the Middle East for impartial and accurate reporting. Audiences are sensitive to the existing TV channels' perceived bias and there is strong demand for an addition that is free of regional affiliations and free to provide independent and fair information—free of commercial and political pressures. It will not replace other sources of information but it will be a favoured addition. It will be seen—as is BBC Arabic radio—as a "gold standard" of objectivity against which to judge other more partisan offers.

  The potential commercial impact on BBC World has been considered. The BBC believe it will be minimal, mainly due to the low overlap of the Arabic channel's intended audience.

  The BBC will maximise synergies between a linear TV offer and emerging on-demand opportunities on broadband, mobile and other platforms.


  Reprioritisation from within the existing budget will enable BBC World Service to fund the 12 hour option from 2007, with a total cost of £19.1 million per annum. Capital costs would be met from within the current £31 million annual World Service capital budget.


  The BBC Arabic TV channel is on time and on budget for launch in Autumn 2007.

  The announcement of the channel was well received in the Arab world. Public reaction continues to indicate a growing appetite for an offer from the BBC. The fact that the BBC attracted very high calibre applicants from across its competitor channels to the senior post of News Editor also shows that professionals believe the BBC will be very competitive in this market.

  Saleh Negm, the News Editor, is a very experienced Arab TV professional who has held senior positions in the BBC Arabic Service and major satellite TV channels. His appointment has been well received in the Middle East. Other lead Editorial appointments have been made and the Project Manager is Elwyn Evans, who is a former Editor of the BBC's 6 and 9 o'clock News and has played a leading role in numerous channel launches including Sky News and BBC News 24.

  The recruitment process for the main body of the staff started in Autumn of 2006.

  A final decision about the site of the multi-media BBC Arabic Service including TV has now been taken. The BBC's Director General has approved a move to the newly refurbished Broadcasting House, which will ultimately be the site for the whole of World Service and BBC News when the rest of the building work has been completed.

  A full editorial prospectus of "live" news and current affairs has been developed, which strengthens the BBC's competitive advantage—its brand, and a reliable and accurate news service in the Middle East—whilst ensuring an innovative look and feel for the channel, and a clear structure to the schedule.

  A full training programme and immersion into the BBC's journalistic standards is being prepared for all recruits, including online modules on editorial standards, and special training on Israeli/Palestinian issues.

  The Project team, led by the Head of Region, Jerry Timmins, has begun a process which draws on the talent within BBC Arabic, new market research and carefully selected focus groups to identify the potential for a multimedia Arabic Service to bring a very significantly enhanced offer to existing and new audiences.

  While the BBC's priority is to launch a successful TV channel, the larger goal is turning BBC Arabic into a fully multimedia provider, capable of meeting growing audience demands for impartial and accurate information delivered in the most convenient way whether someone is in their car, at home or at work. The BBC is uniquely placed to be a significant provider of choice in an Arab world which spans the most developed and least developed of markets. So it needs to position itself to meet very diverse demands from, on the one hand, Sudan—where BBC World Service has a measured radio audience of over 4 million—through to the Gulf, where competition is high and people expect to be served with news and information on demand and via an increasingly large number of devices, with a bias towards television.


  Closing the gap to fund a full 24/7 on-air presence will be the number one priority, in the Spending Review bid in 2007. It will cost a further £6 million revenue per annum to increase to 24/7 from 12/7.

  Closing this gap is essential.

  The BBC will initially launch the channel to cover most of the peak viewing times across the region in the evenings. To cover the four Middle Eastern time zones and ensure the channel reaches most potential viewers at peak times will effectively mean being on air approximately from midday to midnight GMT.

  However, many major events and breaking stories in the Arab world, or relevant to it, occur in the early morning GMT. For example, the raid that killed Al Quaeda's Zaqahry was announced at 06.00 London time; the Egyptian ferry disaster killing 1,000 people broke in the early morning; and the London bombings took place at 08.45 London time.

  In the long-term it is not credible for a news channel to be off air when news is breaking. Peak viewing times are broadly speaking in the evening but at times of breaking news audiences obviously expect news to be covered and will switch on. If they do not get the news when they demand it they will go elsewhere and will probably not return.

  In times of heightened crisis, the demand for news never stops. During the current crisis in Israel and Lebanon, viewers in those countries need 24-hour coverage. When they get up in the morning they want a summary of what happened overnight; when there is a dawn ground attack, they want information as the situation unfolds. Traditional evening viewing patterns no longer apply. Demand for news rises staggeringly at times of war or crisis and news channels make or break their reputations by how they respond.

  With the current funding, the Arabic TV channel will not be on air when these kinds of stories break. From the beginning of its discussions with the Foreign Office, BBC World Service has made it clear that a news channel's credibility rests in part on its ability to be able to respond to breaking news whenever it happens. That means being on air 24 hours a day.

  As yet the FCO has provided no new funding; World Service has managed to reprioritise £19 million of its existing funding at the expense of closing 10 language services. BBC World Service is unable to do any more without doing irreparable damage to its existing services and reducing its impact worldwide very significantly.

  BBC World Service is arguing in the strongest terms for the £6 million of extra funding to close the gap for Arabic television to ensure its long term success. The next three-year funding round, the 2007 Spending Review, provides World Service with the opportunity to win the argument and secure the funding. A failure to do so will have very serious consequences for the longer-term success and will potentially do enormous damage to what promises to be a very successful news service from the BBC.

  BBC World Service believes this is a key opportunity for Britain. BBC Arabic can make an enormous contribution to the quality of news coverage about and for the Middle East. It can play an important part in fostering greater understanding of the issues which confront both the Arab world and the international community. However, ultimately it can only do this if it is properly funded.

26 February 2007

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