Sunday, December 27, 2009

Al Hurra - The Failed US-funded Arabic TV channel

America has been struggling with its image in the Middle East for decades but, after Iraq, Arab opinion plummeted. The Bush administration felt it had to act fast to explain America to the Arab world. So it began spending about $100 million a year on a U.S. government news channel in Arabic. It's called "Al Hurra," meaning "The Free One."
How will it be free when the station is funded by the USA! The Americans want their interests to be achieved. They will direct the kind of shows or ideas they want the Arabs to believe.

"Results from the largest public opinion poll in the Arab world indicate that Alhurra [1], the U.S.-funded Arab satellite station that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than half a billion dollars, is the least-watched station in the region and is losing viewers. The annual poll [2], by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, was conducted in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Residents there were polled on a wide range of issues including their views of U.S. foreign policy, the American presidency and their media habits. The 2008 poll showed Alhurra with about a 2 percent audience share across the Muslim world's largest and most-influential countries. That share fell in this year's poll to 0.5 percent. Shibley Telhami [3], a leading Middle East expert at the University of Maryland and The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said Alhurra's rating was so low that for the first time, it fell below the poll's margin of error."

A $100m bad idea then, a $650m bad idea now

James Zogby

The US government-funded TV network Al Hurra was intended to be an important component of American efforts to win hearts and minds in the Arab world. It was a bad idea when it was launched in 2004. It has failed, and yet it won’t die.

This month the US Congress approved another $112 million to fund al Hurra in 2010, making the “bad idea’s” cost to date for American taxpayers more than $650 million.

A year before the network was launched, its founder came to see me to convince me of the value of his idea. I listened, but was not convinced.

While it was clear that the gentleman knew US media, it was equally clear that he did not know the Arab scene. The Arab world was not behind an “Iron Curtain” that denied people access to information from the outside world. While one could always point to the shortcomings of the hundreds of competing land-based and satellite networks and the subscription packages available to Arab viewers, what could not be denied was the wide diversity of programming they provided and their openness to a wide range of American news, sports and entertainment.

I had worked with three different Arab networks (MBC, ART, and now Abu Dhabi). All of them bought rights to programmes produced by US networks, and all frequently sought partnerships with US networks. Given this diversity and openness, setting up a competing US government effort was, I believed, an unnecessary expense to the American taxpayer.

I had two other concerns. The first was that there was no US version of the BBC, a respected international brand with a seasoned staff of professionals. The BBC would have an easier time launching an Arabic channel and having it accepted as a serious news operation: that is what it is known for and what it does well. The US, on the other hand, has no such organisation and would therefore be creating one “out of whole cloth”. And it would no doubt be seen as a propaganda effort – since that, quite simply, was what it was intended to be.

And then there was the problem of the brand. With the US government’s popularity ratings at all-time lows across the region, it should have been clear that a government propaganda arm would have trouble being respected as a legitimate news source. At the same time, with polling showing that “American television” and “the American people” were being viewed very favourably across the Arab world (as much as five times higher than “the US government”), it made no sense to establish a government-run network to compete with some of America’s own best products.

At one point I was called by staffers from the Senate committee that was holding hearings on launching and funding this “bad idea”. I said I would be delighted to give my views. A few days later I was contacted again to provide a preview of my take on this venture. I stated my case (the same arguments I have presented here) and suggested that instead of wasting $100 million a year, it might be better to create a fund to encourage public/private co-production arrangements between Arab and US networks and other opportunities for Arab network journalists to work with American counterparts; this would cost less and be of greater benefit. But the committee had already made up its mind to go forward with Al Hurra, and I was not asked to give evidence.

Six years later, the “bad idea” has been a failure and is widely recognised as such. And yet, because of the inertia that is so characteristic of government, it continues to be funded, with ever increasing appropriations each year and a staff that has grown from an initial 167 to more than 650.

While Al Hurra advocates claim that its viewership is as high as 9 per cent, polling shows it more likely to be a 2 per cent across the region. Its reputation has not improved, largely because the quality of its programming is not on a par with either US or Arab networks and Al Hurra has made poor personnel decisions: the head its of news operations is the former leader of a partisan right-wing Lebanese group and one of its featured weekly shows is hosted by a leading official in a pro-Israel think tank.

Bottom line: al Hurra remains a “bad idea” that failed, but it will be around for at least another year.

Dr James J Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington

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