How the BBC found its voice in the Arab world

Samir Farah heads up BBC Arabic, which broadcasts in 22 countries. (AN Photo/James Hanna)
Updated 27 February 2018

How the BBC found its voice in the Arab world

LONDON: In these days of quick-hit, “use it fast and ditch it even faster” consumerism, anything that has been around for 80 years and is still popular must be considered a mold-breaker.
Which was exactly what the founders of the BBC had in mind when the corporation launched its Arabic service, the first — and still the biggest — non-English language service in the corporation’s stable.
Initially, the service came about partly in response to an Arabic radio broadcast run by the Italians, which, under the rule of the fascist Mussolini in the years before World War II, transmitted increasingly anti-British propaganda to the Middle East.
But from its inception, the BBC insisted the Arabic service would not be a platform for propaganda. BBC Arabic would uphold the same exacting principles as the rest of the corporation: To educate, inform and entertain.
“The decision was taken very early on to broadcast straight, fair, unbiased news. The listeners would get the truth,” said Samir Farah, head of BBC Arabic since 2016. “And the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) of the day agreed.”
Then there was the matter of deciding which form of Arabic to use. The target audience stretched from Morocco to Iraq, each speaking their own vernacular. Many of the first recruits — journalists, diplomats and students — were poached from the Egyptian state broadcasting service, so should the service broadcast in Egyptian Arabic or another variant of colloquial Arabic? And if so, which one?
In the end, BBC Arabic fashioned its own language: A softer, modernized version of classical Arabic.
“It became and is still recognized as the highest standard of modern spoken Arabic and, in effect, the BBC invented it,” said Farah.
However, finding people who are proficient in it is no mean feat, and Farah is proud to continue the founding tradition of having editors who are sticklers for accuracy in the language.
“We don’t speak modern classical Arabic, we only hear it. Some recruits were probably surprised at how fussy the editors were, but you can’t expect people to fully trust you if you deliver the news in language that’s full of errors.”
And so, on Jan. 3, 1938, the now-immortal words “huna London” (“this is London”) announced the first BBC broadcast in Arabic from Bush House.
The first broadcasts lasted only an hour. In 1940, they were expanded to an hour and 25 minutes, and by the end of World War II, the BBC was broadcasting three hours of Arabic news daily.
Today it offers programs around the clock on radio, television and online, and reaches an astonishing 44 million people across all platforms throughout the Arab world and the global Arab diaspora.
And the numbers are increasing, despite the arrival of competitors such as Al Jazeera and CNN, says Farah. “In the old days, people had little choice. Now they have a lot of choice, but people still turn to BBC Arabic. We may not have the biggest facilities and we certainly don’t have the biggest budgets, but we have something far more precious: The trust of our audience, which we have earned over 80 years.”
BBC Arabic broadcasts to 22 countries, many of which may share an Arab identity but have little else in common in terms of social customs. How countries access BBC Arabic also varies. Radio is still a hugely popular medium in Somalia. In South Sudan, 936,000 people a week listen to the broadcast, but only 52,000 use the online service, while in the highly digitized societies of the Gulf, online is king.
“The difference is not necessarily to do with affluence. Lebanon is affluent, but the digital penetration is less than in the Gulf,” said Farah. “We have to cater to them all. It’s a challenge, without a doubt, but a good challenge.”
As well as BBC Arabic radio’s 80th year, 2018 also marks 20 years of the online service and 10 years since the birth of BBC Arabic television. About 250 journalists occupy the third and fourth floors of Peel House (named after the late broadcaster John Peel), a shiny annexe to Broadcasting House, near Oxford Circus in central London.
The service has always been a pioneer in discussing political, social and cultural issues. One of the most popular programs is a televised radio show, “Anha Fi Nosf Sa’a.” Its English title is “Women Today,” but the direct translation from the Arabic is better: “All About Her in Half an Hour.”
Alma Hassoun, 31, specializes in women’s affairs. In December, she launched a program, persuading ordinary women to write blogs that then go out online, on air and across social media. Each month features a different theme, with stories on women who make a perilous living smuggling heavy loads across the Sahara, a Tunisian woman “fat-shamed” for being overweight, and an Egyptian woman who underwent female circumcision when she was 11.
Hassoun finds her bloggers largely through word of mouth. Her enthusiasm is boundless, and she take pride in providing a platform for women who may never have had the chance to truly express themselves.
“I love it because it is about problems,” she said. “Activism can change laws, but social conventions can be even stronger than the law, and so the suffering goes on regardless of what the law says.”
Uniquely among the foreign language branches, BBC Arabic does not have to share studios with other services but has its own. When Arab News visited, one of the service’s oldest employees, Salem Al-Abbadi, 68, was reading the news. Abbadi has been with BBC Arabic for 22 years and, as he puts it, has “done the lot.” He has been a reporter in the field, a news editor and producer as well as presenter.
But even he is a relative new boy compared with Mohamed Saleh El-Said, 67, Algerian by birth and a BBC veteran of almost 40 years. He, too, describes himself as “an all-rounder” who has made documentaries and features, and reported the news. People often recognize El-Said by his voice.
“It happened to me recently in Tunisia when a man I’d never met overheard me talking and called me by my name. I was talking to my mother, so it’s not as if I was using my broadcast voice, but he still recognized me. It’s nice when that happens,” said El-Said.
As well as its London headquarters, BBC Arabic has a bureau in Cairo. But it is also part of the wider BBC World Service network, with access to any BBC facility worldwide should the need arise.
Farah has been at the BBC since arriving in Britain in the 1990s from Lebanon via the US and Cyprus. Now 54, Farah says he is proud to be presiding over the service’s 80th anniversary and a raft of special programs.
“There is a reason for our longevity that shows up in every bit of research. It’s trust,” he said. “There is a great appetite for what BBC Arabic does. We are not a mouthpiece for Britain and never have been. That was evident from the very first broadcast, which included a report on the execution of a Palestinian Arab — on the orders of the British.
“We get criticism at times, but there is a level of respect that transcends it. There is an acceptance that you can’t silence the BBC.”


Is Trump’s love affair with Fox News fading?

Updated 19 August 2019

Is Trump’s love affair with Fox News fading?

  • Trump appears to be tilting his media gaze toward a more right-wing rival, cable outfit OANN
  • Since March Trump has tweeted links to OANN stories or shared his appreciation of the network 13 times

WASHINGTON: Last month after Donald Trump watched Fox News lob what he called “softball questions” at a Democratic lawmaker, the US president delivered a crisp smackdown of his favorite network: “Fox sure ain’t what it used to be.”
After years of often fawning coverage by Fox, particularly from its pro-Trump anchors like Sean Hannity, the commander in chief appears to be tilting his media gaze toward a younger, more right-wing rival, cable outfit One America News Network (OANN).
The small upstart broadcaster was launched only recently, in 2013, by technology millionaire Robert Herring, who sought a more conservative alternative to mainstream media behemoths like CNN.
Today it seeks to outfox Fox by drawing extra attention from Trump, who has been voicing his displeasure with the ratings leader over everything from presidential polling to its hosting of Democratic candidate town halls.
Last week in a tweet to his 63 million followers, the president managed to disparage Fox and his mainstream news foil CNN, while heaping praise on the new object of his media affection.
“Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith, the lowest rated show on @FoxNews. Actually, whenever possible, I turn to @OANN!” Trump posted.
Since March he has tweeted links to OANN stories or shared his appreciation of the network 13 times.
The relationship has been years in the making. In 2015 Trump was interviewed by Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, when she guest-hosted OANN’s show “On Point.”
At his first press conference as president-elect, in January 2017, Trump took a question from an OANN reporter. OANN was then called on dozens of times at the daily briefings in Trump’s first 100 days in office.
During his June 2018 press conference in Singapore, following the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump took a question from OANN White House correspondent Emerald Robinson, but not before gushing about her network.
“Thank you for the nice way you treat us. We appreciate it,” he said. “Really, it’s very good. It’s really beautiful what you do.”
The San Diego-based operation describes itself as “straight news, no opinion.” But the pro-Trump agenda is crystal clear, more than a dozen current and former employees told The Washington Post in 2017.
Herring himself, in his pinned tweet, describes OANN as “the president’s favorite new outlet.”
When Fox cut away from broadcasting a Trump rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, Herring tweeted, “We will never cut away!“

Purveyor of conspiracy theories
OANN has faced accusations of promoting conspiracy theories and peddling Kremlin propaganda.
“Yeah, we like Russia here,” a staffer assigned to brief new OANN producer Ernest Champell told him, according to The Daily Beast. Champell left, disillusioned, four months later.
“The network has a history of race-baiting and presenting anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion reporting,” according to Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit group that says its mission is “analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation.”
While OANN’s influence in the White House may far outweigh its position in the news media landscape, Trump clearly retains an affinity for several people in the Fox organization.
The show “Fox & Friends” remains his go-to morning program; Trump has phoned in on numerous occasions as president.
Perhaps that is why Democratic longshot contender Julian Castro purchased ad time during “Fox & Friends” this week, airing a spot in which he directly addresses Trump and blames him for inspiring the El Paso shooter who massacred 22 people early this month.

Trump jealous
Sean Hannity, the network’s popular anchor, appeared alongside Trump at a campaign rally ahead of the 2018 mid-terms.
But friction emerged this week when Hannity expressed support for CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after a video of Cuomo in a heated argument at a New York bar went viral.
It was a sharp contrast to Trump, who tweeted that Cuomo — the brother of New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo — was “nuts” and showed a “total loss of control” in the incident.
The president expressed frustration when Fox aired multiple town halls in recent months featuring Democrats who are trying to unseat him in 2020, including South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, currently fifth in major polling.
“Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete,” Trump tweeted in May. “Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems.”
Fox News presidential polling is also a concern for Trump, whose job approval rating in the network’s mid-August poll dipped substantially, to 43 percent, while his disapproval rating spiked to 56 percent, its highest since October 2017.
In head-to-head matchups, the poll shows Trump losing to major Democratic candidates, including to frontrunner Joe Biden by 12 percentage points and to liberal Bernie Sanders by nine.
Fox polls “have always been terrible to me,” he tweeted in late July.