Last weekend BBC Arabic celebrated 77 years since John Reith (as he then was) launched the first foreign-language service of the fledgling BBC Empire Service with an announcement (in English) in which he declared that the programmes would always be ‘reliable, accurate and interesting’, values that have become virtually cast in stone as the Reithian model of broadcasting.
‘You have to remember the BBC was very, very young at this time, but there was no limit to its ambition,’ says Tarik Kafala, the current head of BBC Arabic, which now broadcasts on radio and (since 2008) on TV also, 24 hours each and every day. Reith’s statement was ‘a fabulous declaration of intent’, an intention which has meant 77 years later that BBC Arabic reaches 36.2 million listeners and viewers throughout the Arab-speaking world in places as far distant, and as different, as Juba in south Sudan and Bahrain, via Benghazi, Casablanca and Oman. As Kofi Annan once said of what in 1965 was renamed the World Service, ‘It’s Britain’s greatest export.’
Kafala recalls, ‘We grew up listening to the BBC in Arabic,’ not just for its news but also for the music and the programmes devoted to medieval Arabic poetry and science. When he first came to work at Bush House, the iconic building on the Aldwych in London that for 70 years was home to the BBC World Service, he was involved in recording classic dramas by Shakespeare, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, a version of Look Back in Anger, all in Arabic. Much of this broad range of programming has been steadily sliced off the schedules, culminating in the brutal transitions of the past four years, which have seen several language services cut (no more broadcasts in Serbian, Albanian or Mandarin Chinese), drama virtually abolished, and the move out of Bush House (‘a mini United Nations’) and into New Broadcasting House.
These, though, are also the years in which the Arabic service has never been more important because of the political changes in the region. There is a demand not just for news and current affairs but for documentaries which address topics that have formerly not been discussed on air, such as Forbidden Love, an award-winning programme about interfaith marriages in Egypt. The palette of programmes on the Arabic service is widening, in response to these new demands. ‘Our values,’ says Kafala, ‘allow us to touch stories that no one else is reporting on.’
What are those values? How has the BBC held on to them in a post-imperial world and one in which listeners are more likely to be tuning in online rather than listening via a short-wave transmitter? You need only look at the changes in listening figures since the start of the Arab Spring, says Kafala. At first, BBC Arabic lost listeners (and viewers) to its rivals, such as Al Jazeera, who reported on events in ‘a more vivid and attractive way’. Their programming was very close to the street, more responsive. BBC Arabic, in contrast, stood back a little. ‘We reflected the joy and excitement, but we didn’t adopt it,’ says Kafala.
Now that lost audience is beginning to realise the Arab Spring is a lot more complex than they wanted at first to believe and BBC Arabic’s ‘more nuanced approach’ is more in tune with what they want to hear. They are beginning to come back to the service, with an astonishing 15 per cent increase year on year. Egypt has become the biggest single market for BBC Arabic’s programming, with north Africa, the Gulf and Iraq not far behind.
But how can the Arabic-language service survive the most recent upheaval when funding of the World Service by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was withdrawn last year so that it’s now funded by the licence fee just like the rest of the huge news and entertainment corporation? How can British taxpayers be convinced that programmes in Arabic are worth paying for? Will the Trust end up having to decide between the survival of 6 Music or BBC Arabic?
The future is uncertain, Kafala admits. But he has no doubt that BBC Arabic will reach its 80th birthday if not its centenary in spite of the competition from rivals and the changing world of digital. A couple of years ago he arrived at Tripoli airport in the company of a Jordanian newsreader who has worked for the Arabic service for more than 25 years (they had been asked to provide training for Libyan journalists ahead of the election). ‘It was extraordinary,’ says Kafala. ‘As soon as they saw Ali Asad’s name in his passport, ripples went through the terminal. Everyone wanted to meet him.’
Asad is a reader, not a presenter, and you might think just a voice behind the microphone, by no means a celebrity. ‘He wasn’t high-profile. He wasn’t Jeremy Paxman. He would simply give his name at the end of the bulletin.’ Yet so many people in Tripoli ‘felt as if they knew him’. He had become part of their lives. ‘I never realised before, the impact,’ says Kafala. ‘It was very moving for me.’