BOB GARFIELD: Back in 1865, in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, Arab journalists were required by law to, quote, "report on the precious health of the Sultan." A century and a half later reporting in the region has only now begun to change. A rush of competition has seen the launch of many new satellite channels, and an acknowledgement that the more unfettered the reporting, the bigger the audience. The newest channel, which went on the air this weekend, is the English language Arab TV or ATV. Completely unknown until last week, ATV scooped the world media when it taped a rare interview with Saddam Hussein. At the time, though, it had no TV channel to broadcast it on. Ron McKay is the mastermind behind ATV, and he joins us now from London. Ron, welcome to On the Media.
RON McKAY: Well, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: So you're a brand new news organization and you have the scoop certainly of the year, if not the decade, and you have [LAUGHS] no TV network to run it on. What an odd situation to be in.
RON McKAY: Well with, you know, we had-- as you do have in these situations, technical problems, and so yes, we had one of the scoops of the decade, and-- nowhere to play it out. So basically we had to make the best deals we could with the international broadcasters, but we're hopeful that we'll get many more such scoops.
BOB GARFIELD:Last week on our show we spoke about the glut of new satellite channels launching in the Middle East. The provenance of the funding of many of these channels is Arab businesspeople who were in various ways connected with various Arab governments. To what extent are the people who are bankrolling you beholden to governments somewhere in the Arab world?
RON McKAY: We, we are not the broadcaster here. We are the, if you like, the content provider. So we-- we have a contract to provide that content, and the number one clause is that we have entire editorial independence, and the funding has no governmental or regime connections whatever. It's largely financed by a Jordanian businessman, somebody I've known for several years. And so I know it's uncontaminated money, and certainly the editorial output will be uncontaminated, although ultimately the sanction is the checkbook, isn't it.
BOB GARFIELD:I saw a piece in The Guardian by one of your producers in which he made many broad accusations about the Western media and struck a, quite a derisive tone toward the Bush administration, and a not especially nuanced one. Is Arab TV anti-West TV?
RON McKAY: Not, not at all. I, I think probably what he was trying to demonstrate to people outside is the arrogance sometimes, you know, from American journalists, from British journalists jetting into war zones for a, for a week or two and then, you know, jetting off to the next war zone. But no-- there's, there's no agenda against the Western media. I mean the Western media serves the West; I think we are doing something different to that.
BOB GARFIELD:Now this week we were treated to another taped message, at least purporting to be from Osama bin Laden. Al Jazeera ran it. You had tape in your hands two days before Al Jazeera; this is different material than what we saw on Wednesday?
RON McKAY: Yeah. Different material, and much longer. It runs for some 50-odd minutes, and it contains some pretty blood-curdling threats. We decided not to run this at the time because of the ethical considerations involved. The person who had the tape wanted quite a lot of money for it, and-- we decided that you know we shouldn't pay that.
BOB GARFIELD:That seems like a - quite a-- an ethical question to get started on as a network --checkbook journalism. When a news organization is buying a tape from a source at least connected with worldwide terrorism, do you fear that you are put in the position of actually sponsoring and funding worldwide terrorism?
RON McKAY: Well that was one of the elements of the decision, and we decided that we weren't going to pay any money for it. We didn't want to be accused of, you know, spin-doctoring or being part of the process. And obviously it was an incredibly difficult decision, because every news organization in the world wants this. But we decided that we weren't going to pay for it, and-- that's the decision that we, we stuck to.
BOB GARFIELD: I, I noticed you do have an accent. I'm trying to figure out which part of the Arab world-- [LAUGHTER] that it's connected to. Help me here. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
RON McKAY: Yes, it's a, a well-known Arab capital called Glasgow. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: What's a Scotsman like you doing in a project like this?
RON McKAY:Well I've been reporting and visiting the Middle East and indeed war zones for 25 years, and my interest has always been in Arab politics, and it was an idea that time seems to have come for, so -- here I am, and "Inshallah" it'll succeed.
BOB GARFIELD: That's Arabic for "God willing?"
RON McKAY: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, all best of luck to you.
RON McKAY: Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Ron McKay is the founder of Arab TV, an English language satellite channel operating out of London and Baghdad. [MUSIC]