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BBC plans to take on Al Jazeera with Arabic TV station

LONDON - The BBC is working on plans to launch a 24-hour non-commercial Arabic television service broadcasting across the Middle East, which would directly compete with the controversial Al Jazeera.

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The plan has been developed in partnership with the Foreign Office to provide balance against the anti-Western bias of Al Jazeera, which is best known for its regular Al Qaeda scoops.

Last year, the Arabic news network licensed 1,000 hours of BBC factual programming for a new documentary channel it is planning to launch. This was not the first tie-up between the BBC and the Qatar-based station. The two broadcasters have also agreed a deal to share news and on-the-ground facilities.

The new station would be modelled on the BBC's international channel BBC World, which broadcasts a mix of news and entertainment programming and is run out of London using BBC offices in and around the Middle East.

In a statement the BBC said: "After discussions about the changing media scene in the Middle East, and in the light of the growing impact of regional satellite TV services in Arabic, the FCO asked the BBC World Service to develop a proposition for a BBC Arabic television service of news, information, discussion programmes and documentaries, to be broadcast 24x7 across the Arab world, and also to be made available in Europe and in the UK for Arabic speakers."

If the plan is successful it would follow in the footsteps of a previous BBC Arabic TV station. Launched in 1994 this was a commercial venture, which broadcast for eight hours a day until April 1996. The station came off the air when financial backers Orbit Communications withdrew support following editorial disagreements, and an alternative backer could not be found.

The move would see the BBC capitalising on its huge international brand recognition, where many millions know it through the BBC World Service.

Earlier this week, new figures showed that BBC World Service is the most popular radio station in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more than 3.3m Iraqis tuning in to hear news from the BBC.

The survey that showed the BBC World Service remains the world's leading international radio broadcaster.

Details of the proposal for what the BBC has said would be a non-commercial service costing around £28m a year are currently under discussion with the FCO and the Treasury as part of the Spending Review process.

"BBC World Service has made it clear that this proposition needs to be seen as a discrete proposal, in addition to the other emerging needs of the World Service and its audiences, for 2005-8," the BBC said.

If approved it would form part of a BBC tri-media strategy, with the proposed television service complementing the World Service's existing radio and online offer, which continues to make major impact in the region.

Details of the plan were revealed by Nigel Chapman, acting director of the World Service, earlier this week when he told MPs that the channel would address "the dramatically changed media landscape in the Middle East".

"We know from our research that people trust the BBC brand, and if more people could access it in their own language it would have a major impact," Chapman said.

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