Molotov cocktails, scarred souls, rising death tolls and coups d’état; right now, there seems to be plenty of fodder for the burgeoning pan-Arab news media market.
Flipping through the array of available channels, Doha-based Al Jazeera and Dubai-based Al Arabiya have won the eyes of the Arab world. By keeping up with the demands of the Arab Spring and by breaking the long-held taboo over the criticism of autocrats, both channels, at one point or another, have lost their signal temporarily due to angry governments.
There’s no doubt that it’s a tough world out there, as the channels strive to win an ever larger slice of the pie. And competition is about to get tougher. On May 6, another 24-hour Arabic-language channel is all set to hit the market.
That channel is Sky News Arabia. In one sense, it already has one major advantage. The Sky News brand is already well-known, through the presence of the UK-based Sky News, which has been beaming its coverage worldwide for 23 years.
However, the flipside to that brand recognition is Sky News’ link to Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, a US-based multinational media conglomerate that has been tarnished by the recent UK hacking scandal.
Needless to say, Nart Bouran, the head of Sky News Arabia, disagrees strongly with that assessment. In fact, he is quick to stress the absence of any link between his new channel and NewsCorp.
“We are a 50-50 joint venture between Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation [ADMIC] and British Sky Broadcasting [BSkyB],” he says.
“We do not know anything about NewsCorp and we have nothing to do with them. All I know is who we are. We are Sky News Arabia. We are based in Abu Dhabi and we are an independent organisation; our ownership is very clear. It is ADMIC and BSkyB, no one else.
“We are not a translation of Sky News UK and we are not a copy of it,” Bouran continues, getting into his stride. “Our content is originated in Abu Dhabi and in our bureaus.
“We cooperate, we are sister channels, but in a sense, we complement and we complete each other in terms of news-gathering capabilities. But, in terms of output, we target Arabic viewers in the region as a pan-Arab channel,” he adds.
The troubled brand name aside, Bouran and his team are going to have to be bright enough to shine in a room stuffed to the brim with top-notch competition. Quite apart from the established presence of channels like Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, Sky News Arabia is also going to have to fight off stiff competition from the likes of Saudi Arabia’s HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who is teaming up with financial news service Bloomberg to launch Al Arab, yet another 24-hour Arabic news station.
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However, when questioned over this issue, Bouran declines to comment on his A-list competitors, pointing out that Sky News Arabia is not yet on air.
“But certainly, we cannot deny the effect of the other channels that are established over the last few years on improving and changing the media scene,” he says.
“The satellite revolution that happened in the region in the 1990s was all led by these stations… so, in a sense, none of us would be here if it was not for change and ability of these established channels to be around.”
Besides, Bouran seems to be a strong advocate for thriving competition.
“It is not as if we are only allowed a certain number of channels and that we are not allowed to offer choice,” he points out.
“Other places, and other regions with different languages — they have lots of other choices, and I do not think that we should be bound by a quota or a number of channels that are available to people.”
The Sky News Arabia chief is also keen to highlight the size of the area his channel will attempt to cover.
“We have a huge region — from Mauritania to Bahrain — and I think providing choice for viewers is very important. And, at the end of the day, the viewers know what they like and what they do not like, who is successful and who is not successful,” he says.
So how will Sky News Arabia stand out from the crowd?
“I think it is important to be home-grown, that we recruit Arab journalists,” Bouran says. “We [employ] a lot of our talent from the region, and in that sense, what we are trying to do is slightly different.”
“It is also different in a sense that we will be able to provide news in multi-platforms,” he adds.
The fact is, however, that most channels have already made the jump into multimedia. Especially as a result of the Arab spring, social media has really come into its own as a medium that can complement traditional news-gathering. These days, the Twitter feeds of the world’s most renowned journalists are followed by thousands and a healthy range of news channels — including both Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera — have developed their own apps.
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“I know that people would say to me afterwards, that everybody else does multi-platforms, but the thing about us is the way we gather news. It is going to be a new experience for a lot of the journalists here. We do not hire TV presenters and TV journalists only, we hire journalists who are able to do all sorts of things — including writing for the web, blogging, tweeting from events, as well as creating applications and multimedia platforms,” he says.
In the final analysis then, Bouran’s strategy is to reach as many people as he possibly can. “Anyone who is interested in news, in any way they want, we will be able to provide news for them,” he says.
Another ingredient that adds to Sky News Arabia’s attempt to stand out from the crowd is its editorial advisory committee, a concept that the channel says has not been replicated anywhere else in the region.
“We have an editorial advisory committee that makes sure — like a board of trustees would work for a company — that we maintain our editorial line and our integrity when it comes to covering news,” he says.
In other news organisations, Bouran says, the usual format involves the management of the channel, the editorial staff, which is situated in the newsroom, and, of course, the board of directors. However, Sky News Arabia is planning to operate in a slightly different way.
“The committee has two nominees from each of the shareholders, but there are four independent individuals, very well respected, whose role is to work with me and to assist the team in making sure that we are independent in what we produce,” Bouran says.
Given the storm of criticism that has rained down on news organisations like Al Jazeera — which has been regularly accused of bias — perhaps the promise of editorial independency will ring true with viewers.
“We have actually set the standard for ourselves. We have our code of ethics, we have our own glossary and terminology of what we will use on the broadcasts, on the website and on social media,” he says.
“With the editorial advisory committee, it is very clear to the journalists that work here that we are trying to be as transparent and as objective in covering the news, giving both sides of the story…it turns out to be a matter of coincidence that we are launching at this particular turbulent time… it really does not matter to us,” he continues.
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“But in sense, we cover any events that happen in any of these countries like we cover any other news, and it really does not affect our approach to coverage,” he adds.
From a standing start, Sky News Arabia will need to work hard to establish a strong foundation that can cover the entire world. But with twelve bureaus in the region and access to nine Sky News UK bureaus, it looks like Bouran has that task well in hand. “Apart from the number of bureaus, we also have journalists who will be travelling and covering stories, so it is not a static system,” he says.
“If there are more staff required, we will certainly look into it, but it all depends on the output, what it is that we are trying to achieve and if we have new systems and new platforms that we want to introduce,” he adds.
“We are set up in a way that we can cover the world from the bureaus that we have at the moment, but it certainly does not stop us from expanding, looking at other regions and other bureaus. Part of our DNA is to be very fast, very quick and very agile in going from one place to another and covering these stories — and not just static bureaus that others might have,” he adds.
“It is always about access, being able to access news, being able to be on the ground in all the different places,” he says.
“I think, in the region, it is slightly more tricky and slightly more challenging because there is always someone who does not want you to have access… and [this is] always going to be a challenge.”
But access issues and the learning curve aside, there’s little doubt that Bouran and his team are keen to get going.
“Everybody is really excited. We are really happy that the date has been launched because now we know specifically when we are going to switch the lights on air,” he says.
The Sky News Arabia digital news platform has been active since their website launched in beta format in January and the broadcast platform has been in 24-hour rehearsals ahead of the launch. In anticipation of the launch, social media channels have managed to attract more than 100,000 fans on both Facebook and Twitter. For Sky News Arabia, the hard yards begin here.
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