Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Article excerpt

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? …

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