Before delving into why the most famous Arabic-speaking foreign radio station shut down, let us look at why the British government established it in the first place back in 1938. Why did the network choose to install BBC Arabic as its first foreign-language station instead of one that speaks the language of India (the Crown’s largest colony), or maybe its rivals France and Germany?
At the time, the radio was still a new invention. The world was one year away from the beginning of WWII and the quests for power, resources, and colonies that accompanied it. It is said that the British launched their first foreign-language stations in Arabic because they realised the impact that propaganda had on their colonies.
The only radio station that Arabs listened to at the time was Radio Bari, a station launched by Italy’s fascist regime that broadcast in spoken Arabic and is said to have succeeded in inciting Arabs against British influence. Three years later, the British launched their Arabic-speaking station. With the onset of WWII, Germany followed suit, launching a rival station called the Arabic Radio of Berlin.
The Arabs now listened to London and Berlin’s accounts of the fighting between the Allies and the Axis: the first narrated by Ahmad Sourour on BBC Arabic and the other by Younes Bahri on Radio Berlin. Undoubtedly, the target audience at the time was the elite, as radios were still a rarity. Egypt had only 55,000 devices, while Syria and Iraq had 9,000.
Today, the financial crunch is undoubtedly one of the possible reasons why the prestigious radio station is shutting down, but there are other, more important reasons. After all, the cost of running BBC Arabic is a drop in the ocean of the media giant’s operational budget, which surpasses $5 billion a year, not to mention that the Foreign Office funded foreign-language stations like BBC Arabic.
Britain was the British Empire in the past, and it needed a media empire. Today, despite being one of the world’s major states, Britain’s objectives and resources are limited; it no longer seeks to change or dominate the world.
Radio stations increasingly fade into oblivion in a media market crowded with many mediums and platforms.
Over eight decades, BBC Arabic played a vital role in the Arab world. It was the only radio station which told Arabs that they lost the 1967 war while all Arab stations celebrated victory and broadcast fake news to millions of listeners. However, it must be said that the station did not always retain its accuracy and neutrality, despite claiming otherwise. Soon after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, I was a guest on one of the station’s programs. I understood how a few individuals could control an entire prestigious station like BBC Arabic. Still, I was able to raise the issue to management.
I once refused to participate in a program being broadcast on the station. The producer chased after me, brought me back to the studio, and agreed to remedy the bias that marked the program, like the number of speakers, the time allocated to them, and the presenter’s language.
Claims of extremist influences in Arabic-speaking foreign media are not very far from the truth. It is due to the rarity of moderate voices versus an abundance of unconvincing official propaganda. And as a British enterprise, the BBC is a politically charged battlefield for the never-ending conflict between leftists and conservatives.
The BBC is an octopus, and its many arms represent the state’s Ministry of Media, not the government. Its approach to connecting with its audience is believed to be among the most intelligent and creative. In fact, unlike in the Arab world, radio stations are still very much alive and influential in the daily lives of the British people, as nearly 90 percent of Brits listen to radio stations online, in their cars, or on their home devices, at a rate of 20 hours per week.
We may no longer hear the famous “Huna London” (“This is London”), but this is not the end of BBC Arabic. The legacy left behind will live on, even if it goes silent on the waves.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.