Examination of Witnesses (Questions 960
WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005
Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian
Q960 Lord Maxton:
When you talk about your viewing figures, is it all of those?
Mr Souag: No, I am talking just about Al-Jazeera
news and programmes.
Let us move to Mr Chebarro. Mr Chebarro, would you tell us, first
of all, in the same way as the other two witnesses have done,
about the Middle East Broadcasting Centre and how that was formed?
Mr Chebarro: It emerged here in London in 1992.
We started airing as the first independent satellite channel beaming
free-to-air to the Middle East region. It was a variety channel,
maybe tailored similar to BBC One, for example, or Two, some three
or four news bulletins a day, a lot of emphasis on news because
the Arab world likes news, so the research, if we trust it, had
shown. That was in 1992. It was a response to the fact that until
that time government was the only vehicle of information. Then
we were broadcasting out of London, free of Information Ministry's
control, here in London, yet you are not totally free of controls
if you are broadcasting in Arabic and to 22 Arabic-speaking countries
and reporting from the Middle East region. Whoever does news is
not totally objective nor totally balanced and not always managing
to reach and seek and give the truth plainly and objectively.
MBC in 1994, at the beginning of the floating by the other plan
of a BBC Arabic Channel, through Orbit, started to do a feasibility
study about the possibility of a 24-hour news channel. At that
time market research, again, showed that there was no need for
such a channel. They moved on, they kept the service as a single
channel with news emphasis until the BBC came up and then left
the market briefly afterwards and then Al-Jazeera started to gain
audience, and not until February 2003 did our group see the necessity
of launching an Arabic 24-hour news channel, called Al-Arabiya,
the Arab One. Again, ethos, we can speak about the opinion and
other opinion of Al-Jazeera, we have truth, courage and objectivity,
basically, as our ethos. In a brief period of time, again, working
in the Arab states, as both my colleagues know, is very difficult,
we established a presence in approximately all 22 Arab states,
apart from one, which is Qatar. Behind my group there is some
Saudi money, funding, i.e. it is a business group.
A private group?
Mr Chebarro: A private group, yes. We have a
business which has some revenue from advertising. We do not have
an office in Qatar. At some point in time our offices even there
have been closed or were subject to certain attacks.
Mr Chebarro: In Iraq, for example, in September
2004 we got bombed. We have lost five reporters so far in Iraq,
some by American `friendly' fire, or unfriendly fire, and some
others by insurgent car bombs, assassination attempt and abduction.
One of our colleagues is still in American custody with no chance
of getting a lawyer to him. Another one is undergoing spinal injury
rehabilitation in a Buckinghamshire hospital. All part and parcel
of doing and trying to do news in the Middle East or in a hot
area like Iraq.
In Iraq, you stand in the middle and you are fired at from both
Mr Chebarro: We are fired at from both sides
yet we still have a presence. We are still trying to work in Baghdad,
around Baghdad and in other hot spots in Iraq as well as other
parts of the world.
Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to report, is it not,
from Iraq and that area? You started this new service in 2003,
we have just been told not to trust any figures, how do you estimate
your audience figures?
Mr Chebarro: Again, we have commercial revenue
of a certain level, we have, basically, commercial entities that
are trying really to gauge the mood and understand what our viewership
level is. They bore us with lots of graphs and stuff at various
times of the day but, as my colleague said, it is anything between
30 million and 70, 80 million, depending on which part of the
spectrum you are whether you believe them or not, but estimates
say, observers say, that the viewership is split in the middle
between us and Al-Jazeera at certain, various different hours
of the day. We are seen widely in Iraq but maybe less widely in
Saudi, and vice versa.
In two years you have managed to establish this figure?
Mr Chebarro: We benefited from the infrastructure
of MBC, which was the Arabic independent channel, established
in 1992, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Therefore having a footprint
was much easier than starting from zero.
Chairman: With all this background, can we now
apply this knowledge and experience to the BBC.
Q967 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
I am very interested in what you said about the size of your audiences,
and it invites the question is there room in the market, first
of all, for a new BBC Arabic service and I would like to ask this
question of all three of you? A supplementary to that is whether
there is a market space for it, is there an editorial space for
it and is there a set of values that the BBC represents which
are needed, which are superior? We have already heard that perhaps
Al-Jazeera thinks their independence and impartiality are superior
to that of the BBC, nevertheless is there a space for the BBC
in the market and in terms of an editorial need which is unmet
particularly for independent news coverage? The third question
is, in your personal opinion, as it can be only a personal opinion,
what would be seen to be the reputation and strength and credibility
of the BBC as an objective bringer of independent, balanced news
and current affairs to the Middle East and the Arab world? I would
be very interested in the reactions of all of you to that.
Mr Richardson: I suppose you might expect me
to say this but the experience with World Service over 27 years
was that the BBC did help a great deal in many areas by being
a benchmark for quality journalism and for production values and
I think that should not be underestimated. The first time round
with Arabic Television, I am happy to admit that it was not all
that brilliant to start with, it was a bit ragged around the edges,
but it was better than anything else that was available, far,
far better. I think, without BBC Arabic Television, television
media across the Middle East would be very different today. I
accept what Mostefa says, that there were already plans for Al-Jazeera
towards the end of BBC Arabic Television but I have no doubt that
if we had not set a standard which others wished to follow then
it would be different.
Q968 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
Of course, that is history, and whether it is cause and effect,
as you described, or whether it is just the development of competition,
we do have now two substantial broadcasting presences, both of
which represent that they have some of the values and editorial
quality and standards of the BBC. Looking at it today, I would
be interested in your opinion of whether there is a market and
editorial space for what is being suggested?
Mr Richardson: I think there is a market for
a good quality product, and this is where we come back to the
funding of it, because my view is that if it is not done well
it should not be done at all. I do have in the back of my mind,
with respect, that, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, their editorial
independence is pretty fragile. It may appear to be strong but
if the Emir of Qatar felt the need to change the editorial policy
of it, it is his company at the moment and so I think, in that
respect, it is a little fragile, whereas I would hope that the
BBC's editorial independence is not.
Mr Souag: If I start where Ian ended, probably
personally and I think the Al-Jazeera people, I was in Qatar when
the news about the plan to start this BBC Arabic Television came
out, people were actually quite welcoming, they want a station
that might be good competition to start maybe to activate the
media environment a little bit more, because everybody respects
the BBC. Moreover, if there is BBC Arabic Television and the Emir
decides to change the editorial stance, at least we will have
a place to go to, to be a little bit blunt. We have no reason
to believe that the Emir of Qatar would change his mind about
Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera's editorial stance. There is every indication
that probably we will get even more support from the Emir of Qatar,
rather than less, in terms of what we are doing. Is there a need?
I think the more we have of objective reporting, of good programmes,
the better for the Arab countries to enhance the extent towards
objective reporting, towards the freedom of expression, the freedom
of the media, certainly. With different stations in the Middle
East, let us say, for example, a lot of people in the Middle East
would think Al-Jazeera, regardless of how objective it looked,
"it must work for the Qatari's, it must do some propaganda
for the Qatari's, even if you don't see it," they say there
must be something there. The same thing would be said about Al-Arabiya,
because it comes from different countries with some competition,
with some problems in-between, but when it comes from the BBC,
"At least, one thing, the British Government support it but
it is still the BBC, we know they have standards." It might
actually help to show that these are the right standards, that
they are followed by Al-Jazeera or by Al-Arabiya because they
are also followed by the BBC. I assume there is space for them.
There is always a need for better reportage, for enhancing that
kind of track.
Q969 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
Would the Arab person on the street think that, because it is
the BBC and they have from radio some knowledge of and experience
of the BBC, let alone the recent experiment, the BBC would represent
independence, or would they think that this was a propaganda tool
of the British Government whose policies from time to time are
unpopular in the Arab world? Which would it be? Would they see
the BBC the way we like to see it, as independent of Government,
or would they see it as somehow an instrument of British Government
Mr Souag: I would say yes for both. There are
people who will see it this way and people who will see it that
way, especially, for example, governments. If BBC Arabic Television
would really respect its standards and be what the BBC should
be then a lot of people would believe that this was real journalism,
etc., but a lot of people would follow mostly the official propaganda
against anything that they do not like, that "this is coming
from the West so they are just working for the oil interests."
However, if you will allow me, there is one point to make here.
If the BBC is going to start this channel, it has to be sure that
it is going to continue for a little while, that it will not stop
within a year or two, or whatever, that is one thing; secondly,
it is not going to back off when the pressures start. One of the
reasons, in my opinion, that maybe the BBC Arabic Television stopped
was not just that Orbit decided to close it but also I think the
British Government could have said "This is too big and too
important an institution at this point to close down and it's
going to hurt the reputation of the BBC," because people
would see it as a complete influence by Saudi Arabia or the Saudis
on the BBC itself. They should have come in and given them money,
at least for a little while, just to take that perception away
and then they do whatever they want, because there is going to
be a lot of pressure from business groups. In Saudi Arabia, if
the Saudis were to say, "The BBC is reporting this way, I'm
not going to give you the project, we are going to give it to
the Americans or Germans," there might be some pressures
there, and I understand at that time there was that kind of pressure.
It was a time when the (Yemaneh ?) project was negotiated with
the British Government and I think there was a lot of pressure
in that respect. They have to be sure about this.
Mr Chebarro: I returned from the region a couple
of days ago, and definitely the news that everybody was asking
about in the professional field, i.e. the intellectuals, professional
Arab journalists, was "When is this project going to be launched?"
i.e. the BBC. For our station, it is just another welcome competitor,
a respected channel, a respected entity getting into the media.
We have to remember that there are lots of players in the Middle
East, cross-regional, cross-country channels, there are in excess
of 50 channels, all on satellite, free-to-air, competing for the
viewers, and the BBC definitely can stand apart, as far as competition
is concerned, from the rest. Yet I think one sceptical point of
view here, that you would hear in the Middle East, is "Why
Arabic?" because, let us be frank, news is not an innocent
product. As much as we would take the value of the BBC on board,
it is still another, it depends how you can find a use, therefore
the product will determine it. From the previous part, when Mr
Richardson was talking about the standards and the ethos of the
BBC in Arabic in the mid nineties, I do not know, the set standards
of the BBC English were there. Did we reflect that in the Arabic
service, how far was it reflected, this is another question. The
television industry is a new industry in the Middle East and does
not have the long experience and expertise of the national broadcasting
companies such as the BBC, so there was pressure on funding and
finding especially the human asset, of finding independent-minded
reporters who are capable of reporting the story as it is. If
it is translation, as in the first round of the BBC, in the mid
nineties, i.e. the re-package of the BBC material translated into
Arabic and voiced over by an Arabic-speaking journalist, that
is one thing. Then putting a fully-fledged service from A to Z
by bureaus in the region I think is a costly business and I wonder
whether anybody is ready to foot the bill if it is going to stay
without advertising and commercially competitive.
Q970 Lord King of Bridgwater:
What is the image at the moment of the BBC? There is plenty of
radio broadcasting here. The man in the Arab street, does he have
a high respect for the BBC or does he not know much about it?
Mr Chebarro: Every household opens on the BBC
World Service radio in Arabic first thing in the morning, or English
if they are educated, as far as I remember, growing up in a house
in the Middle East. Yet was it always seen as positive, it was
a different source of information in the absence of multi sources
of information in every state, whereby the information industry
was controlled by the state. The situation has been different
from the nineties onwards, there are different outlets, different
sources of information and there were ups and downs in the perception
as well of the BBC from the days of the Suez crisis and a lot
of the information that was published then and after that. Today
we would say that the Iraq expedition, or war, could also cloud
this view, and we are talking about people's perception, it would
cloud their perception, but overall the BBC has a good name whereby
it is another source of information, respected and reputed and
believed to be objective or closer to the truth.
Q971 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
You said that you, the professionals, are happy about the idea
of this BBC television service. Is that true of the Arabic governments,
would you say?
Mr Chebarro: I think that the governments, till
now, are trying to swallow, or get used to, basically, the current
information revolution that the area has witnessed. The professionals
welcome the BBC and I think, the governments, in a global world
they cannot say no to the BBC. The BBC is entering lots of houses
anyway through the excellent service the World English Service
provides. But, it is not reaching the masses. There is a sceptical
question by these governments why now you want to repeat an experiment,
like the Americans did a couple of years ago, Al-Hurra, the free
one, basically to propagate freedom, democracy, and get the message
right. For some reason they think Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and other
national TV stations are not getting the message right and they
are airing lots of propaganda. Let us face it, there is a situation
in the Arab world whereby what is cross-national news could be
aired on a broad channel, there is the Palestinian question and
there is the Iraqi question and these are where there is consensus
about how to report and where to report and when to report them.
With the BBC, I wonder what else could be brought in. It will
bring in better production values and it will bring in better
objective input. If it is not going to report from the region
it is going to be seen as an element importing news from outside
it. Al-Hurra is seen clearly as a vehicle of American hegemony
within the intellectuals and the street switch it off, because
I do not see it saying anything or adding any news value or information
value. This will be the challenge. The BBC has an aim and it is
risking a lot by going on with this.
Q972 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
I think what they say is that they want to bring the world as
regional, maybe, in their news, as you both have been. You have
both talked about having offices closed down and I think neither
of you have offices in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Chebarro: We do have.
Q973 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
You do; I am sorry. Do both of you have full access to all the
countries you broadcast to, from the point of view of the signal
being reached, people being able to watch your programmes, whatever?
Mr Chebarro: Yes, absolutely. I believe that
there is no restriction on the signal. Nobody could jam your signal,
it is free-to-air and it has obviously catered for the tools and
the machines of the state there.
Q974 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
The BBC will be able to reach everywhere it wishes to reach?
Mr Chebarro: I believe that. If they pick up
all the relevant satellites which are picked up free to air there
should not be a problem.
Q975 Lord Maxton:
You buy satellite time, do you? How many satellites do you use?
Mr Souag: The technical part I really do not
know, but I know that, for Al-Jazeera, for example, in Saudi Arabia
we cannot open an office there, we cannot even send somebody to
report from there.
Mr Chebarro: In Qatar, they revoked the nationality
of our reporter in Qatar and kicked him out of the country as
well. They took his passport and citizenship.
Mr Souag: It could be. I do not really know
Mr Chebarro: There is an information war in
Q976 Lord Maxton:
Could I ask also, however, which is quite important, because we
are talking rather glibly about the people in the street across
the Arab world, but presumably that is going to be neither the
BBC's audience or, to some extent, your audience, if you are talking
of 30 million, or 50 million even, out of the 250 million, it
is still a relatively small part of the population and presumably
it is the professional, middle-class audience that is watching
both your services and will watch the BBC services. To what extent
are you or the BBC likely to reach down to, if you like, the man
on the street, the average person living in fairly poor conditions
in parts of the Middle East?
Mr Souag: Talking about Al-Jazeera, I think
actually a portion of our audience is from these poor people,
because the only entertainment, practically, in the Middle East
Mr Chebarro: It is cheap.
Mr Souag: Cheap, and people are very politicised,
people are very aware, even the people who have never gone to
school still can talk to you about the international issues with
quite a lot of knowledge. Actually, this is another issue. I have
noticed that from the beginning you have been concentrating on
the BBC in the Middle East, how it works in the Middle East and
reporting from the Middle East. A television channel of this kind
is not going to be reporting only from the Middle East, the Middle
East is just a small region. In Al-Jazeera, sometimes, if we have
a one-hour bulletin, it might take half an hour in the Middle
East because most of the explosive things are in the Middle East,
but very often you might have 45 minutes of nothing about the
Middle East, about the war, because this is an international channel,
it is not a channel about Arab issues.
To interrupt you, I am not sure that the vision of the BBC would
be much different from what you are saying?
Mr Souag: Exactly, and the audience would look
into not only what is reported about the Middle East or from the
Middle East but also what is reported about the war then how it
is reported. The BBC has to compete for its reputation with what
Q978 Lord Maxton:
The BBC, in order to get down to that audience, will have to spend
quite a lot of money presumably on marketing as well as just on
putting out the service, will they not? Will they not somehow
have to get the message across that this service is now available?
Mr Richardson: I think the message will get
across very quickly, apart from the radio side of it, certainly
they will know about it. One of the things that Orbit was most
concerned about was that once you start broadcasting in Arabic
you do get to the people in the street. They are not worried so
much about CNN or BBC World because that gets to the elite, and
the elite are judged to be smart enough and wise enough to take
this sort of information. When you get into Arabic and it gets
right down into the slums or into just ordinary working-class
areas that is what worries them and when Orbit started off they
charged $10,000 as a subscription, to make sure that it was an
Can we go back a moment to Mr Chebarro. I have got down here a
quote of yours, and I think I quote it accurately: "People
will look with cynicism to the new venture" that is of the
BBC "if it takes off, especially given the British position
as a strong ally to the US and the US and coalition military situation."
There you are equating the BBC with the British Government, and
is that the point that you are making?
Mr Chebarro: That was part of an interview and
only a soundbite was taken out, as usual when one is under pressure