BBC warned Arabic TV channel will be derided as propaganda

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The Independent Online

The BBC was warned last night that its plans to launch an Arabic television station would be met with suspicion by many in the Arab world.

The BBC was warned last night that its plans to launch an Arabic television station would be met with suspicion by many in the Arab world.

The corporation confirmed yesterday it was in talks to set up a channel backed by £28m a year in Foreign Office funding. The station would be based in London with correspondents throughout the Middle East.

But Ahmad Asfahani, executive editor of Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper, said that the political climate in the Arab world could undermine the venture. "After the British stand in the Gulf war and the invasion [of Iraq], Arabs will not look at this favourably. They will think it's another propaganda tool, like any other part of the Western media," he said.

"The BBC Arabic radio service used to be trustworthy but the political atmosphere in the Arab world has changed and people do not take kindly to British interests."

Mr Asfahani, who is based in London, said the Iraq war had ensured politics affected all areas of Arab life, even football. "Our sports editor in Saudi Arabia was covering Euro 2004 and was surprised by people's attitudes against the England team. He found they were based on political spite."

The 24-hour channel would be broadcast across the Middle East, also being available in the UK and Europe. The project is still at the planning stage but it is thought that the station would offer a mix of news, information, discussion programmes and documentaries.

The venture would be a rival to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera channel, as well as other Arab satellite stations, both backed by Saudi interests.

"After discussions about the changing media scene in the Middle East, and in the light of the growing impact of regional satellite TV services in Arabic, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office asked the BBC World Service to develop a proposition for a BBC Arabic television service," a BBC spokeswoman said.

Other Middle East commentators were more confident of the BBC's chances of success. Hosny Emam, of the Kuwait news agency, said that the venture would benefit from the long-standing credibility of the BBC World Service, "a tradition established for more than 50 years".

Mr Emam said that he hoped that a BBC channel would encourage more dignified political debate than has become the norm on some of the Arab satellite channels, where programmes have been described as "political versions of Jerry Springer".

The BBC venture follows the recent launch of the US government-funded al-Hurra television station. Its output has been denounced as "propaganda" by a number of Muslim clerics.

Adel Darwish, a Middle East writer who often provides expert commentary for the BBC, said that the corporation was in a stronger position than American-backed stations. "Growing up in Alexandria, people would say: 'This is true, I heard it on the BBC'," he said. "Columnists in Arab newspapers would say that CNN would be first but the BBC would be more accurate."

In the 1990s the BBC ran an Arabic channel, but it closed after two years when backers pulled out.