How will the new network fare in a region where independence is so bitterly contested?
Once a barren media landscape, now awash with ways to receive news, as of Sunday the Middle East boasts another pan-Arab news network, after Sky News Arabia switched on its transmitters.
Co-owned by BSkyB, the new arrival in the regional market will have the same pacy 24/7 approach as Sky News. It has spent the past year hiring and getting established in the heartland of its other shareholder, the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, owned by Manchester City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Like its competitors – al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera and Alarab – Sky News Arabia claims a commitment to independence and reporting without fear or favour. “They are going to see that we are different,” says its head, Nart Bouran. “The issue of balance is going to distinguish us.”
The newcomer faces a sceptical reception. Regional rivals who have risen and prospered over the past decade have constantly touted the same virtues. Just as vehement has been the retort from those on the wrong end of the established networks’ coverage; viewers and broadcasters alike say true independence remains elusive in this part of the world.
Bouran says he’s determined to avoid partisanship and has made programming choices that set the network apart. “We won’t have political programming, long discussions about issues. If we have analysis it will be about what’s happening at the time. We won’t get two guys [in a discussion] who just want to kill each other.”
One key point of difference, he adds, is that Sky News Arabia will have an editorial advisory committee. “That’s the agreement between the two shareholders and the board and that’s how everyone wants it to be. It’s not just going to be left to me and my team.”
BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch’s troubled News Corporation has a 39% stake, had no objection to the oversight, and Roger Alton, the executive editor of the Times, and Chris Birkett, the executive editor of Sky News, will sit on the six-person board.
Sky News was a driving force in beginning the process just over 53 weeks ago with the Arab spring in full swing. By then, Tunis and Cairo had fallen and Tripoli, Manama, Sana’a and Damascus were wobbling.
But the most extraordinary geopolitical story since the fall of the Berlin Wall had left Sky stretched. It was clear to the company that the forces unleashed by the Arab world’s popular revolts were going to take years, if not decades, to play out, far outstripping its capacity in manpower and expertise.
A network that catered directly to the Arab world, but that hired bilingual reporters who could report for the parent broadcaster should the need arise, was thought to be the best way to try to dominate coverage from the Middle East. Sky News Arabia can also tap into BSkyB’s existing bureaux, meaning both broadcasters have a pool of around 20 worldwide to call on.
Of the established networks, al-Jazeera can go close to matching it for reach and probably has far deeper pockets, as well as a proven track record. But Sky News Arabia is confident that its content – and features such as high definition and an iPad app – will make inroads into al-Jazeera’s audience, which covers a vast swath of the Sunni Arab world.
In an email to staff, Sky News called the project “a sign of the strength of our brand, the scale of our ambition and our relentless quest to challenge the status quo”.
Whether it can achieve the last goal will be a measure of the network’s success. The current players’ struggles reflect how fraught such a quest can be in the Arab world, where many of broadcasting’s best traditions, such as speaking truth to power, have yet to take root.
Ownership of Sky Arabia’s rivals is dominated by powerful figures. And the networks are often open to criticism that they are activist stakeholders in regional affairs, using their reporting to shape a reality that reflects their masters’ worldviews.
Al-Jazeera is owned by a distant cousin of the Emir of Qatar. It has been repeatedly challenged by Syria and Iran for alleged hostility towards their respective Shia Muslim regimes in its coverage of the revolts in each country.
Muammar Gaddafi and the rulers of post-revolutionary Egypt also accused the network of subversive acts that aimed to topple them. Gaddafi banned al-Jazeera correspondents from Libya during the uprising that ousted him. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has also forbidden entry to al-Jazeera reporters.
Al-Jazeera’s main rival, al-Arabiya, was opened in the late 90s as a Saudi buffer to the station, which Saudi Arabia’s ruling family had accused of insulting them. Now Dubai-based but Saudi-owned, it too has been criticised by the Shia Islamic world, where it also struggles for access amid an atmosphere of deep distrust.
In Lebanon and Iraq, there is no shortage of news channels – each of them claiming to have a mandate on truth. However, their coverage is heavily skewed towards the stances of their owners, in most cases feudal lords or heads of political factions.
The war for influence and truth in the Middle East is bitterly contested and has perhaps become even more so as the stakes in the post-revolutionary region continue to rise.
“It is very important to be critical,” says Entifadh Qanbar, who runs a new Beirut-based network, Asia TV. “But it’s close to impossible.” Qanbar, who has been a long-term adviser of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who helped topple Saddam Hussein, singles out the Gulf states as a corrosive factor in regional media coverage.
“Oil produced so much money and money produced so much funding for super studios, gorgeous women hosts and coverage that is nothing like what a free press should offer,” he argues. “There is no investigative reporting, no such thing as constructive criticism.”
The Iran-backed broadcasters are guilty of the same sorts of shortcomings, with no network yet able to claim the moral high ground of independence.
Will Sky Arabia’s editorial charter and approach truly distinguish it from its rivals? “There are cultural issues in the region, which will stop broadcasting here from ever becoming the open rigorous debate that is in Europe or the US,” one regional television executive says. “Powerful figures don’t like being criticised and often won’t stand for it. There are punitive measures for those who dare to break social norms of deference and paying homage to patrons.
“What will happen when Sky News Arabia have to criticise the Emirati rulers?” he asks. “Will they go for it or look the other way? We will wait and see.”