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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)
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.”