Leader: BBC kudos can soothe Arab anger over Iraq

It emerged this week that the BBC is to add an Arabic-speaking PR agency to its roster.

Dubai-based Asda'a, will be tasked with launching the BBC's first foreign language TV channel, initially in the Middle East, in 2007.

Hiring a local Middle-Eastern agency for the launch of an Arabic-speaking channel makes sense of course. But the move is just part of a wider, more fundamental reputation campaign.

First, the BBC is desperate to re-establish its'voice of the world' credentials. Although the broadcaster is still a highly trusted brand in much of the Arab world, with a 60-year history via BBC World Service, the ten-year-old Al Jazeera has become a serious challenger.

Despite its 'terror TV' moniker among US neo-conservatives, many Arabs see Al Jazeera as having replaced the totalitarian media tradition in the Middle East. Meanwhile the BBC's inability to broadcast in Arabic has become a serious limitation. Not only that but Qatar-funded Al Jazeera will launch an English-speaking international service next March, ironically with BBC stalwart Sir David Frost as a presenter.

Second, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – which is funding the BBC's Arabic initiative through a direct grant worth £239m this year – clearly believes the new channel can help mitigate the damage done to Britain's reputation following the invasion of Iraq.

Indeed, in 2003 a government think-tank study called 'Public Diplomacy in the Middle East' argued that such a channel would help counter suspicions that the Iraq war was motivated by a 'clash of civilisations'.

It should be said that the BBC strongly denies the channel will serve the political or diplomatic aims of the UK government. And one doesn't doubt its honourable intention to enhance the corporation's global heritage and ambitions.

But one can't help thinking the BBC is but a player in an emerging cultural war, where the media battleground is more important than any military engagement.


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