Al Hurra, the US government-funded television network was intended to be a major component of our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Arab World. It was a bad idea when it was launched in 2004. It has failed, and yet it won't die any time soon.
Two weeks ago, the US Senate and House of Representative appropriated another $112,000,000 to fund al Hurra operations for 2010, making the "bad idea's" cost, to date, to American taxpayer over $650,000,000.
A year before the network was launched, its founder came to see me to convince me of the value of his idea. I listened, but was not convinced for several reasons.
While it was clear that the gentleman knew US media, it was equally clear he did not know the Arab scene. The Arab World was not behind an "Iron Curtain" where people were denied access to information from the outside world. While one could always point to the shortcomings of the hundreds of competing land-based and satellite networks and the subscription "packages" available to Arab viewers - what could not be denied, was the wide diversity of programming they provided and their openness to including a wide range of American news, sports and entertainment shows among their offerings.
I had worked with three different Arab networks (MBC, ART, and now Abu Dhabi). All of them bought rights to programs produced by US networks. And all frequently sought (sometimes successfully) partnerships and/or cooperation with US networks. Given this diversity and openness, setting up a competing US government effort was, I believed, an unnecessary expense to the American taxpayer.
I had two other concerns, as well. The first was that there was no US version of British Broadcasting Company. The BBC is a respected international brand with a seasoned staff of professionals. Given this, the BBC would have an easier time launching an Arabic channel and having it accepted as a serious news operation - that is what the BBC is known for and what it does well. The US, on the other hand, has no such organization and would therefore be creating one "out of whole cloth". And it would, no doubt be seen as a propaganda effort - since that, quite simply, was what it was intended to be.
And then there was the problem of the brand. With US government favorable ratings at all time lows across the region, it should have been clear that a government propaganda arm would have trouble being respected as a legitimate news source. At the same time, with our polling showing that "American television" and "the American people" were being viewed very favorably across the Arab world (as much as five times higher than "the US government"), it made no sense to establish a government run network to compete with some of our own best products!
At one point I was called by staffers from the Senate committee that was holding hearings on launching and funding this "bad idea". I said that I would be delighted to give my views. And so a few days later, I was contacted again to provide a preview of my take on this venture. I stated my case (making the same arguments I have presented here) and suggested that instead of wasting $100,000,000 annually, it might be better to create a fund to encourage public/private co-production arrangements between Arab and US networks and other opportunities for Arab network journalists to work with American counterparts. It would, I noted, cost less and be of greater benefit, to all involved. Because, the Committee had already made up its mind to go forward with al Hurra, I was not asked to testify.
Six year's later, the "bad idea" has been a failure and is widely recognized as such. And yet, because of the inertia that is so characteristic of government, it continues to be funded, with ever increasing appropriations each year and a staff that has grown from an initial 167 to now over 650.
While al Hurra advocates claim that their viewership is as high as 9% (a ridiculously inflated number), our polling shows it more likely to be a scant 2% across the region. And its reputation has not improved, largely because the quality of its own programming is not on a par either with US networks or Arab networks and al Hurra has made poor personnel decisions. For example, the head its of news operations was a former leader of a partisan right wing Lebanese group and one of its featured weekly shows is hosted by a leading official in a pro-Israel think tank.
Bottom line, al Hurra remains a "bad idea" that failed, but it will be around for at least another year.