The Independent's interview with BBC Arabic head Tarik Kafala reminds us that BBC Arabic "is now fully funded by, and accountable to, the UK licence-fee payer."
And what are Arabic audiences getting from us licence-fee payers?
Well, besides BBC Arabic's radio service, begun in 1938, there's a 24-hour BBC Arabic Television news channel, launched in 2008. BBC Arabic's global audience (on TV, radio and social media) is now 36.2 million. It has studios in London, Cairo and Lebanon. Mr Kafala, a British-Libyan, heads a team of about 200 staff at BBC Arabic’s base in New Broadcasting House.
According to the Indie's Adam Sherwin,
BBC Arabic is tasked with providing “impartial, balanced and accurate news and information” across a region where reports on the Gaza war provoke cries of bias from all sides and one viewer’s “terrorist” can be another’s “freedom fighter”.
Did BBC Arabic show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammad?
Although BBC Arabic would not show Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, which its audience would find deeply insulting, an exception was made for the post-massacre edition of the magazine. “The cover has appeared … on a banner or on a newsstand, on our screens. We haven’t shown it in full frame or real detail,” Kafala said.
“We’re trying to minimise the insult while telling the story. We considered in great detail the risks to staff. We have people in Somalia, Yemen, Beirut and Libya. There were very strong editorial reasons for the BBC to show the cover because it was right at the centre of a huge international story.”
What does Mr Kafala think of the BBC's coverage of the so-called Arab Spring?
“Sometimes we can be quite conservative and not as fast or close to stories as our competitors,” Kafala admitted. Viewing figures fell when the Arab Spring began, as rival channels took sides, but its Egyptian audience has since increased by 6.5 million.
“For good or ill, we had to stand back at the BBC,” Kafala said. “But I think we have been vindicated editorially because our audience began to grow strongly when the story turned into something more nuanced than it had appeared.”
I have to say that my experience of experiencing the Arab Spring on the UK version of the BBC didn't strike me as "standing back" and "not taking sides", especially in its early, heady days when the BBC seemed very slow to spot the wintry possibilities of their happy-clappy, 'Bliss it was to be alive!' revolutions.
And what of the BBC's reporting of conflicts like Gaza?
BBC Arabic houses journalists whose families may be at the sharp end of conflicts in Syria or Egypt, and sometimes they have to rein in their emotions. “How do you keep your distance from a story? In some individuals, it becomes an issue. They’re journalists, they have to keep the professional line,” said Kafala.
During the Gaza conflict, he was insistent that BBC Arabic must “reflect the outrage and the suffering, but to adopt it would be wrong”, a distinction that frustrated some staff.
"A distinction that frustrated some staff"?...
Well, that pretty much tells you all you need to know about the views of many of the BBC Arabic Services employees. (Not that we couldn't have guessed that).
That frustration obviously went well beyond the confines of BBC Arabic. Many a non-BBC Arabic Service BBC reporter blatantly chafed against this injunction not to "adopt" "the outrage and the suffering". Jon Donnision has never stopped doing so.