BBC Arabic countdown generates heat

Rivals are already grumbling about BBC Arabic’s launch across the Mid-East on Tuesday March 11.

Joining more than 20 channels already in place, BBC Arabic will launch a 12-hour service initially. Arabic-language internet forums – and some broadcasters and publishers – are seemingly talking about little else. Some predict its early failure while others express their impatience to see its transmissions, while others are curious as to how the famously impartial broadcaster will treat the current serious conflict between rival Palestinian organisations, and Israel.

CNN, not helped by its Jerusalem news bureaux, has always been seen as somewhat biased towards the powerful Israeli lobby, although CNN’s Atlanta and London transmissions bend over backwards to be fair to both sides.

BBC Monitoring in a report says that many forum contributors are talking about what “line” the BBC’s new channel will take. Most comments recognise that the BBC’s news coverage will be as impartial as possible, but the stumbling block with any news channel comes not in how it reports the news but what it permits during the endless chat and current affairs talk shows, and perhaps phone-in segments that are popular amongst many of the BBC’s established rivals. It is frequently comments made during these sessions that gets the like of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya into hot water.

The BBC will be presenting similar opportunities for on-air debate in its thrice-weekly Nuqtat Hewar (Point of Debate) show, which it describes as being “passionate, lively, free-flowing debate where the audience shares its thoughts across the whole of the Arab world”.

There are also anxieties that BBC World is Egypt-heavy in its on-air talent and reporters. "Since the Egyptian brothers have got control of the [BBC] Arabic service, it does not have objectivity, correct language or identity," Marqiz wrote on the Nadi al-Fikr Al-Arabi forum, reported BBC Monitoring. Other shows (Open Agenda, The Commission, To the Point) will also generate plenty of heat and the potential for problems.

There are other grumbles, which seem always to occur with this sort of launch. In the BBC’s case comes an accusation that the broadcaster has “kidnapped” existing high-profile presenters from established channels in the words of MBC’s Al Arabiya news channel, and in particular their Lina Musharbash.

Time will tell how the new operation settles in once the initial honeymoon period is over. While few doubt the BBC’s name will help, it is still a huge mountain that they are attempting to climb.