I received many comments regarding my previous piece “On Building Bridges and Winning Hearts”, mostly of readers accusing me of being “Pro-Western Media” and turning a blind eye to the many biases and inaccuracies that occur in American and European media.

To those I say please go back and read what I wrote again, I never said that ‘Western’ media is flawless or argued that biases or mistakes don’t occur.

In fact I am a fierce critic of any mistakes or imbalanced reporting, whereever it happens.

I would also like to invite you to read my opening statement of “The Truth Behind The Myth” which was story I wrote last year for Asharq Al Awsat after visiting a number of media outlets and meeting with top journalists in the US (as part of an International Visitors Programme that coincidentally carries the name of American journalism icon, Edward R. Murrow).  

If you have read that piece ( available on http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=5&id=9052) you would have understood that I am with the school of thought that argues that there is absolutely no such thing as completely unbiased media to start with.  

However, where Western media is at an advantage is that is exists in a democracy, which in theory means that the media is there to serve the public interest and that it is subject to accountability on what it reports; which also means you can ultimately correct an inaccuracy or shame a bias once spotted and proved.  

Of course democracy has its flaws, I agree, especially when mixed with capitalism.

One could argue that this has resulted in many media outlets serving advertisers’ and owners’ interests rather than the public’s, and that spin doctors and pressuare groups will always find ways to sway you away from the truth. (and one should also mention that the West itself realizes these issues and debates them all the time).

Having said that, there are two points to consider here, first: what is the alternative? and the second is the fact that with all the plagues that Western media is infected with, it still is able to produce ‘breakthrough’ journalism.

We have to admit, although I know many might not want to, that  Watergate and Abu Ghraib were not a work of fiction… and that those were real stories written by real journalists (who are still alive) and have achieved real results.

But the issue doesn’t end there, the interesting part is that the reporters who have worked on those stories weren’t later banned from writing, labelled as traitors, arrested or suddenly killed in a car accident (or a car bomb for that matter!) as the case was several times in the Arab World when journalists sought to challenge authority.

Once we have admitted that the above is true, we could discuss Western media’s biases and inaccuracies all you want… and the beauty of it is that in theory; we can actually do something about it… that is the advantage of democracy.  

 

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I really can’t help being skeptical every time a European or American broadcaster announces that it will launch an Arabic channel, mostly because of what I see as the combined failure of most similar projects.

It almost seems to me that many broadcasters forget that the trick is not to simply get the channel on air, but to become an influencial voice in a very cynical region.

Amina Khairy, a fellow journalist working with Al Hayat newspaper in Cairo, summarizes the situation in a very simple and straightforward answer; when asked recently by The Washington Post about her opinion in the American Al-Hurra channel, she answered: “Nobody ever says, ‘Did you see what al-Hurra did yesterday?’ ”, and I could add that the same can be applied to most of these recent ventures, such as Russia Today, France 24 and BBC Arabic Television.

But if you are one of those channels I just mentioned, please don’t be offended with what I said, as a person whose job it is to monitor Arab and international media closely, I can safely add  that the situation is similar with even the Arab owned news channels, such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.

It could be that I’ve become so involved in the news-gathering business that everything I see on screen seems dull to me, but the truth of the matter is I am looking for a channel that reveals another Abu Ghraib or gives us a talk show that ‘grills’ guests for honest answers as the original ‘Hard Talk’ did.

Sometimes, I even dare to dream of our own version of Frost Vs. Nixon or better yet, our own Watergate!

However, if Arab media is excused for not being able to achieve these honors, due to political and ownership issues, what is the Western media’s excuse? I don’t think it should have one.

Please don’t get the impression that I am against European and American governments attempts to  ‘win the hearts and minds’ of Arabs and Muslims through the media, on the contrary I say to them in all honesty: please be my guest!

In fact, the mixing of the two cultures would have tremendous value… Western journalists need to understand the region and its people better, and Arab journalists need to get exposed to Western methods of investigation and reporting… the way I see it everyone is a winner.

Even though the notion “winning hearts and minds” that we keep hearing may blow a channel’s intergrity and claim to unbaised reporting, I still respect the fact that many countries are trying to reach out to my region of the world and try to build bridges, despite the fact that the traffic on these bridges goes one way.

Sometimes, I really think things should be the other way around, we are the ones always complaining about being misunderstood, about the West turning a blind eye to our causes and agonies… thus, we are the ones who should be launching channels and getting spokespeople out there to explain and re-explain over and over again.

Al Jazeera International would have been a great tool and it still could be, if it manages to pull its act together that is. Whereas one of the most praise-worthy attempts to reach out and explain the realities of Arab and Muslim views came as a personal effort from non other than Queen Rania of Jordan.

If you haven’t checked out Her Majesty’s YouTube page http://www.youtube.com/queenrania , I really recommend you do so, simply because it portrays what a true debate should look like: opinions from people living in the West which includes even criticizing and even insulting Islam and Arabs, and postings by others (including vlogs The Queen herself) to clarify and set the facts straight.

All this is happening on YouTube, while a Western broadcaster that recently launched an Arabic channel was hesistant to report on homosexuality , because one of its Arab producers thought that the topic “didn’t fit the culture and traditions of our region”… I really wonder what is next, perhaps not report anything at all? You know, because one could argue that corruption, abuse of power, crime, rasicim and secetrianism for example are not relevant to our culture as well.        

    

 If film experts are to be believed, Hollywood’s relationship with product -placement goes back to the 1930s. This marketing device, whereby a company pays for its products to appear in films and television programs is almost non-existent in the Arab media, while if a certain brand makes it to an Arab film or a TV program, the execution is usually poor.

With audiences increasingly becoming scattered and advertising budgets shrinking, marketers are gradually moving away from classical models and instead using alternative “new tactics”, such as “engagement” and “product placement”. These methods provide a more efficient and cost effective method of promoting a certain commercial product. Among the major industry players which decided to cut down on advertising spending are Unilever and Procter and Gamble, two of the world’s biggest spenders. Even those still in favor of the 30-second advertisement are engaged in cost-cutting; the increasing use of animation instead of real actors in television commercials is one such way.One of the best-known instances of product placements occurred in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. According to the Financial Times, the infamous scene where E.T is shown enjoying Reese’s Pieces from Hershey Foods Corporation doubled the candy’s sales, which eventually reached a billion dollars a year.

 Nowadays, brands compete fiercely with each other to be associated with successful television shows or motion pictures. Aston Martin reportedly paid $35 million dollars to become James Bond’s car of choice and replace BMW. Bond films are one example of successful product placements by major brands such as Omega and Ericsson.

It is therefore no surprise to see major advertising companies choosing to “follow the money” and focusing on product placement. “Grey” and other leading agencies have even established separate departments to develop product placement tactics. Nelson media research has recently launched a new service entitled “place views” in order to monitor when, where, how many times and for how long a product is shown on the screen and by how many viewers it was seen.

Despite not being very common in the Arab world, a number of television shows have successfully used product placement. The reality TV show “Star Academy”, for example, signed an exclusive deal with Lebanon’s “Diet Center” to provide the contestants’ meals. “Diet Center” has since expanded its activities and now has several franchises in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

A more obvious example is the popular Saudi comedy series “Tash Ma Tash”, broadcast daily during primetime throughout the month of Ramadan, since the early 1990s. “Tash Ma Tash” has featured a large number of brands, including dairy products, airlines and fast food chains.

Hatim Ashour, marketing manager of “Al Tazaj”, an international Saudi chicken fast food chain, has told Asharq al Awsat in a recent interview that he tied his brand to the hit comedy to “create awareness”, given the show’s popularity in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab World. 

According to Ashour, “Al Tazaj” has signed a five-year contract with “Tash Ma Tash”, whereby it pays almost 80 thousand dollars annually in return for being featured in the show.

When comparing the added value of this deal versus classic TV adverts, one needs to only look at the considerable viewing figures Tash Ma Tash commands and the fact that many are unlikely to turn away midway through the show. Despite the fact that accurate statistics are still not very common in the Arab media, the show’s continued success makes it a magnet for advertisers. Episodes are also likely to be recorded and viewed again and re-broadcast on satellite channels.

However an element of vital importance must be taken into consideration, for “product placement” to work we must have superb TV shows and accurate statistics to prove their success. Let us imagine we have a series as popular as the American sitcom “Friends”, with a reported 24 million people tuning in to watch the last episode in the US alone (another way of looking at it is that a TV show episode had viewership equivalent to the entire population of Saudi Arabia) . Think of how well-known your brand will become if you placed it there… I think this is “exposure” redefined.

 

 James Bond movies have been known for extensive product-placements, particulary watches, cars and mobile phones

 * From an article I wrote for Asharq Al Awsat in 2006: http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=5&id=4315

On the 6th of June, I revealed through a story written for the leading international Arab daily, Asharq Al Awsat, that EuroNews – the pan European broadcaster, will be re-launching its Arabic channel on July 12th at an event held at The “Institute Du Monde Arabe” in Paris.

http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=5&id=12998

This was confirmed by EuroNews’s Managing Director, Michael Peters, in an interview which followed a recent event the European multilingual broadcaster held in London recently to launch its new look and brand image, which evolves basically around the concept of being “Pure”.

EuroNews doesn’t spend its money on studios, presenters and reporters” but on “being available in various languages” Peters said.

Also, he defended the channels’ unique point of differentiation… which is having no reporters on the ground, explaining that reporters bring a certain bias to a story by default.

Peters also gave me another exclusive piece of information in my interview with him for Asharq Al Awsat:

EuroNews will have a roaming reporter for the whole Middle East based in either Doha or Dubai.

Now, regardless if you think the concept is genius or not… it does provide a different offering to what is currently available in the market, be it the one provided by the well established Arab news channels, namely Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya… or the foreign new-comers such as Al Hurra, France 24, Russia Today and BBC Arabic (as a television channel).

However, the million dollar question (at least for EuroNews which unlike its western counterparts IS in the region for adversities money despite securing funds from the European Commission for the first 5 years), will the so-called “Purity” win over Arab viewers?

The Middle East isn’t your average region, its an area with a lot of “pollution”: wars, division and a population which has complained from being misunderstood for decades.

Michael Peters himself admits to this by saying “most of the time the viewers themselves are part of the story”, however he argues that EuroNews’s approach is that it treats it’s audiences “as adults”, which he says means that the channel doesn’t seek to impose views on them and leaves them to come up with their own opinion.

The other thing Peters explains is that the channel is also targeting Arabs living in Europe.

Two things to say here:

One of my favourite quotes which became almost an automated response that I get whenever I ask a Western news channel about bias and accuracy is “at times of crisis and wars, emotions run high and balance may be seen as bias”.

What this means is despite that EuroNews might think its approach is “Pure”, many Arab viewers might still consider it to be not so.

The other thing is: Arabs in the Middle East and Arabs in Europe are completely different “target markets”; despite many similarities there are huge differences between the two… at least I sometimes think so, when I see a lot of Arabs in their own countries communicating in English or French and talking about the latest trends, while many who have long migrated to the West are still unable to speak in anything except Arabic.