BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For the last two years, al-Jazeera, the satellite news channel backed by the kingdom of Qatar, has been synonymous with pan-Arab TV. But the most established broadcast voice in the region has long been MBC, the Middle Eastern Broadcast Company, a Saudi-backed mixture of news, sports and entertainment. As the world prepares for a showdown in Iraq, MBC is spinning off its own 24-hour satellite channel called al-Arabia. But why? In the complicated, Kabuki theater of Arab politics there is more to the story than just business competition. Joining us to discuss the Arab TV landscape is Jihad Fakhreddine, media analyst for the Pan Arab Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Mr. Fakhreddine, welcome to the show!
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: Thank you very much!
BOB GARFIELD: Why do you suppose we seldom hear about MBC here in the West, and al-Jazeera is the focus of all the attention?
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: There are many reasons. Probably one of them was the Bin Laden tapes that have been shown on al-Jazeera. They have played a big role. But MBC is a general programming channel. It has entertainment and, and the news. This may have diluted the image of MBC as a provider of news.
BOB GARFIELD:To what extent will this channel be a propaganda tool for the Saudi king and princes to stay in power and maintain their legitimacy?
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: [LAUGHS] I think your, your question is not relevant here, because MBC is certainly known to be the most moderate Arab station that an Arab could watch. Remember, MBC had its headquarters for the last 10 years in London, and it has learned a lot from the Western style of, of journalism.
BOB GARFIELD:As you look at the media scene - as you look at al-Jazeera and MBC and other broadcast voices throughout the Arab world, do you see something missing or are you satisfied that the television audiences throughout the Arab world are being well-served?
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: I think what is missing is investigative reporting. We have a lot of talk shows and news programs, but less of investigating reporting that deals with social, political, economic and cultural issues that are relevant to our life. Maybe it's missing because once you start touching on these, then you are touching on some rulers that may not make many happy, so they settle for talk shows.
BOB GARFIELD:Is there a structural problem there that these stations and, and networks are subsidized or supported in whole by regimes that themselves are of dubious legitimacy -- that by encouraging investigative reporting the, the owners of the station risk damaging their very masters.
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: Oh, you are using very harsh terms. I'm not sure [LAUGHS]-- they are as appropriate as you are describing them.
BOB GARFIELD: Well there's an expression that "He who pays the piper calls the tune." The owners are part of the Saudi establishment.
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: I mean-- I'd rather stick to general issues rather than questions related to regimes because it doesn't, it doesn't help me; it doesn't help you. I, I understand your perspective, and I understand the, the ways many feel towards the-- Saudi Arabia you know and-- but-- I mean definitely it's not the terminology that we use in this part of the world to describe governments or states or relationships between media and the governments.
BOB GARFIELD: Among the many criticisms of al-Jazeera is--
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: Yes?
BOB GARFIELD:-- the insinuation by some that it is being used by the kingdom of Qatar which, which subsidizes is to deflect attention from Qatar's own arrangements with the West, particularly the United States, and particularly in preparation for the impending war against Iraq, and it's been further suggested that MBC and the Saudis are launching their 24 hour news channel to reflect attention back on Qatar and away from the Saudis' dealings with the West in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. Is that what's happening here? Is that the subtext or are these strictly business propositions, pure and simple?
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: Well there is a deg--a degree of business proposition, especially with the MBC. It has the highest share of ads spent in the region. But I mean trying to snipe at each other in terms of which one is more supportive of the U.S., I think both are. What happens is that the channel itself may not say something about the United States presence in Qatar or MBC might not say something about the American presence in Saudi Arabia but the people on the talk shows definitely are very eloquent and articulate in, in attacking the American presence in the region, regardless in which country it is and regardless on which channel they are talking.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Well, Jihad Fakhreddine, thank you very much.
JIHAD FAKHREDDINE: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jihad Fakhreddine is the research manager for media at the Pan Arab Research Center in Dubai. [MUSIC]