At 11pm on 31 January 2023 the Arabic radio service of the BBC will present its last news bulletin before signing off permanently, bringing an end to eight decades of radio broadcasts in Arabic.
Earlier this week, in a statement that came as a surprise to both staff and audience, the BBC said that the 84-year-old Arabic service would be removed from the airwaves as part of a package intended to save the corporation £500 million. It also said the move reflects changes in audience behaviour as listeners move away from radio and move more to online services.
For the Arab audience the news came as a bit of a shock, especially for older generations who would regularly tune to the BBC to access news that was ignored by national radio and television services or to check on the accuracy of the news they did broadcast.
On social media there was a flurry of tweets and posts as people shared their memories of the BBC Arabic radio service when, before the advent of satellite TV and the IT revolution, they would turn the dials of their shortwave radios to keep abreast of the big news events of the day. The stream of nostalgia included references to recordings of interviews with political and cultural figures from across the Arab world, with many lamenting that halting the service marked the end of an era.
In Egypt, many listeners over 40 years old shared their recollections of rushing to the BBC Arabic radio service find out what had actually happened. The widest shared memory of listeners over 60 years old was of the 1967 military defeat when the Egyptian radio service was broadcasting news of Egyptian successes rather than the sad reality of what was happening on the battlefields. Younger listeners spoke of tuning to the BBC to double-check news of the crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973, the 1977 food riots, the clampdown on the opposition in Egypt in the autumn of 1981, the anti-riot police protests in 1986 and the attempt on Hosni Mubarak’s life while in Ethiopia for an African Union summit in 1995.
On her Facebook page, Egyptian radio and TV anchor Rasha Qandil, shared recollections of her early days at BBC Radio’s regional bureau in Cairo while Azza Mohieddin, a former senior correspondent at the Cairo bureau, underlined that it was the central role Egypt played in the making of Arab foreign policy that was instrumental in persuading the BBC to turn its Cairo operation to a regional hub.
“There was so much going on in Egypt in terms of foreign affairs, with Arab-Israeli meetings and Arab League meetings, that we had to cover, as well as home news,” she said.
Sherif Albert, a reporter for BBC Arabic TV and online services between 2013 and 2014, said that whatever the political hiccups the service faced, the guiding principle was always one of “neutral but fairly conservative coverage”.
According to staff who spoke on condition of anonymity, at the Cairo bureau today there is a lot of uncertainty. “The news came as a surprise. We were not forewarned. In fact we had launched a new plan earlier this year,” said one.
“Nobody knows what is coming next, who will go and who will stay, what kind of production is now expected for the TV service and what kind of production is expected for the online service,” said another.
Ashraf Al-Barbari, senior foreign affairs commentator at the independent daily Al-Shorouk, says the sense of dismay that greeted the announcement of the cessation of BBC Arabic radio broadcasts across the Arab world is a result of long years of association the audience had with both the BBC Arabic Radio Service and the Arabic Service of the Monte Carlo Radio as two news outlets “beyond censorship lines of Arab governments”. This, Al-Barbari said, was particularly the case post the Suez Crisis “when the UK ceased to be an influential player in regional politics”.
“Ultimately, every single media outlet has its editorial policy and its editorial biases and once the BBC was liberated from the UK’s regional influence it gained a lot of attention from Arab listeners,” he said.
According to media sources, in addition to a new news TV channel Al-Qahera, set to start broadcasting in the run-up to COP27, two TV channels will be operating offices in Cairo before the end of the year, the Saudi financed Al-Shark TV and the Qatari financed Al-Araby TV. Both have rented space at the same building, 160 Al-Nil Street, overlooking the Nile in Agouza. Al-Jazeera is also scheduled to come back with a relatively large office before the end of the year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.