“BBC Arabic is balanced and that is why I watch it now”. This is something I’ve heard several times in the past few months from Arabs who suffer from fatigue of watching well-established media brands such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya go down a scary path. The argument goes that those two giant news channels have disappointed many viewers in their glaring biases on the Middle East.
While Al Jazeera is accused of showing too much sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby channelling Qatari foreign policy, Al Arabiya has adopted the Saudi point of view — right from the start.
Both channels remain popular without a doubt, but there has been a change of attitude among some viewers who feel they need to get news that is unbiased and accurate when it comes to numbers and figures.
The unexpected advent of the “Arab Spring” brought those biases to the surface. Suddenly, it became apparent that the ousting of Syria’s Bashar Al Assad was a priority for Al Jazeera, for example, but reporting on the shortcomings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the extent of the protests against the group was not.
This has created a vacuum or a yearning in the market for an objective source of news. And there have been several new players: Sky News Arabia, which was launched last year; France 24, which has been on the scene since 2007; and of course BBC Arabic, a service that was relaunched in 2008 and has enjoyed a growing audience thanks to the “Arab Spring”. But has it been able to replace Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya as a primary source of news?
According to Adel Iskandar, media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University, since 2012 audiences in the Middle East have developed a renewed interest in the BBC on the grounds that it is seen as less determined to push one agenda or another.
“With the region’s media becoming increasingly embroiled in political conflict and with many stations favouring partisan programming over impartial reporting, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia are seeing a decline in audience trust and viewership numbers” he says.
BBC’s website references a survey conducted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ International Audience Research Program (IARP) which shows in December 2011, audiences to the BBC’s Arabic services rose by more than 50 per cent to a record high of 33.4 million adults weekly — up from 21.6 million before the “Arab Spring”. According to BBC Multimedia Editor Mohammad Yehia, the latest figures reveal the total audience on BBC Arabic is 32.5 million, of which 28 million is uniquely for TV, 10 million for radio and 1-1.5 unique users per week for their website.
But these numbers should be viewed with caution. Will Youmans, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, says such surveys in audience studies are often phrased to find out only if people watched recently, rather than if they rely on it or find it credible. He reckons audience estimates would be easier to interpret if the exact questions were publicised with the numbers.
“Studies that ask about primary source of news still show Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya to be in leading positions, with challengers increasingly coming from national TV rather than international broadcasters such as BBC Arabic”, he says.
So rather than being central to audiences’ news consumption, “such channels [such as BBC Arabic] play a supplementary role”, he argues. Moreover, the media expert says Arabs strongly interested in news will turn to BBC Arabic to learn about conflicts as well as their own countries when they question the reliability from other channels.
There are a few things that BBC Arabic must grapple with when it comes to its reputation in the Arab world: chief among them is the perception that it is a tool for Britain to carry out its foreign policy and that it is biased towards Israel — the latter based on their reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 2009 Israeli war on Gaza brought those feelings to the surface when BBC was accused of taking sides by refusing to highlight in depth the level of Israeli criminality and intransigence. It also didn’t help that they refused to air a fundraising appeal for Gaza, a common gesture during times of conflict, saying it wanted to avoid compromising public confidence in its impartiality.
Shedding some light on the “independence” of BBC, Iskandar says, “While funded largely through the UK Foreign Office and arguably a tool of British public diplomacy, the subtlety with which this is done through comparatively balanced news coverage contrasts starkly with some of region’s stations which have become dramatically polemical.”
So unless Arab television journalism finds a way of avoiding outright bias, the BBC is destined for another ascent in the eyes of Arab audiences, he says.
According to Youmans, BBC Arabic is guided by both a commitment to journalistic professionalism as well as a mission of improving the perception of the British in the region. Its source of funding [the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)] seems to suggest it could reflect the UK’s foreign policy agenda (From April of next year, BBC will be funded by the UK television license fee which is paid directly to the BBC by the public). However, “outside of wartime, the standards of the BBC World Service tend to determine the channel’s editorial scope”, he says, adding, “while every channel depicts some degree of bias, BBC does not generally demonstrate an overt agenda”.
Add to this the fact that claims of bias generally require deeper research, identifying patterns, to be credible themselves and this has yet to be done for BBC Arabic, Youmans says.
Filling that void
BBC Arabic has succeeded in filling some of the void in the Arab media scene. Since the start of Arab uprisings, it has quietly gathered momentum through its news-gathering methods and policy of verification and re-verification. BBC Arabic has been a much-needed addition to the Arab media network sector. After all, the brand BBC has always had an appeal, having been on the scene for decades; BBC Arabic radio is one of the oldest services in BBC’s history, having launched in 1938. It has acquired a reputation of being a trusted source of news the world over, even during times of conflict involving Britain, and that helps explain why its audience is growing.
And like most successful media companies, BBC Arabic has capitalised on the social media trends. They have a dedicated social media team and they put a strong emphasis on their Facebook page, which has a following of about 1.2 million.
Iskandar puts the credibility of the BBC as an institution in the eyes of most Arabs down to two basic conditions. The first is the network’s ability to focus on accuracy and factuality in reporting. “Categorically false information will rarely find its way to the public via the BBC compared with many other networks,” he says, which comes down to the station’s stringent rules surrounding verification and corroboration at the news station.
The second is the state of regional media. Iskandar argues throughout the Arab world, and during much of the past 60 years, national broadcasters have often been seen as tightly controlled by their respective governments and with little commitment to basic principles of journalism. This, he says, has been one of the greatest assets for the BBC which, compared with its regional competitors, has often appeared more accurate despite its underlying political agenda.
I was invited to visit the BBC Arabic to get an insight into their grand daily operation. During my short trip, I sat in on their editorial meetings and noticed a great deal of time was spent on discussing small details of big events. This was around the time the news story of “possible” use of chemical weapons in Syria broke, and a big chunk of the conversation centred on whether or not to say “chemical weapons” were used in Syria in the aftermath of the explosive footage which emerged showing hundreds of people killed as a result of what could have been a gas or chemical attack. The emphasis was to take care not to use language that confirms an unconfirmed news item (ie, whether or not the attack was a chemical attack). The discussion also focused on the need to bring expert opinion to explain the various kinds of chemical attacks and the signs that could indicate use of such weapons.
Similarly for Egypt, I am told a lot of time was spent discussing whether the events of Rabaa Al Adawiya amounted to a massacre (in the end, the decision was made not to use that word). Undoubtedly, there was a sense that there were no interferences in the editorial policy of the channel and nobody outside the group of editors and journalists dictated an agenda.
Given the state of Arabic media coverage today, BBC Arabic looks set to continue to enjoy a growing audience from the region and beyond whereby viewers are more and more choosing to tune in for news and facts and not emotional, exhausting coverage of events.
It says something about the viewers themselves that they are choosing less politicised language and less emotion at a time when daily life in this part of the world has been overwhelmed with bad news without an end in sight.