BBC's mission to take on al-Jazeera with free Arabic TV channel

THE BBC's £19-million-a-year Arabic TV service will launch next autumn with a mission to challenge the dominance of al-Jazeera.

The corporation has begun recruiting senior staff for the operation which will broadcast free 12 hours a day to anyone with satellite or cable TV connection.

Salah Negm, news editor for BBC Arabic Television, said: "We're aiming to be fast, modern in style and outlook; strong on analysis with a wide international perspective.

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"It will maintain the BBC values of accuracy, editorial independence, impartiality, while balancing a wide diversity of views."

The BBC yesterday said its new television service would be "free from commercial, political and religious affiliations or pressures". That remark was seen last night as a thinly veiled jibe at al-Jazeera, which has routinely caused controversy over its willingness to carry messages from al-Qaeda leaders.

BBC Arabic Television, which will have a staff of 200, will be based in London but use the BBC's bureaux across the Middle East for newsgathering and transmission across 21 countries. When the television service is off-air, it will run the 24-hour BBC Arabic radio service and is also designed to work with the BBC's native-language website for the region.

The operating costs will come from existing grant-in-aid funding from the government, which is 246 million for 2006-7.

The BBC was criticised last year when it cut back on some radio services in eastern Europe to subsidise the new TV launch. That led to claims the corporation was being dazzled by the success of emerging broadcasters such as al-Jazeera.

CNN has run an Arabic language website since 2002 but does not provide an Arabic television service in the region.

Charles Fletcher, the head of Edinburgh-based consultancy Caledonia Media, a company that has worked in the Middle East, predicted potential trouble for the BBC.

He said: "The Middle East is tricky territory unless you have good and solid local knowledge. Unfortunately, the BBC has done itself no favours in some of its recent coverage in the region. I fundamentally have a difficulty with this because the cost of setting up BBC Arabic TV has come at the expense of cutting eight language services from the BBC World Service, most of them across Europe."

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The world of Middle Eastern broadcasting will be further shaken up later this year when al-Jazeera launches its English-language service for the region and beyond.

Called al-Jazeera International (AJI), it has recruited a number of star British broadcasting names including Sir David Frost and the ITN news presenter Shiulie Ghosh.

The al-Jazeera network is funded by the Emir of Qatar and business investors and it claims to be independent of any political or religious pressure.

Last night Lamis Andoni, spokeswoman for al-Jazeera, said: "Al-Jazeera welcomes competition. The BBC service will not affect our own coverage in any adverse manner, we have established our own journalistic tradition and we will continue doing what we're doing."