The BBC and Its Children: Palestinian and Egyptian Broadcasting in the Middle East, 1934-49

By Andrea L. Stanton
Submitted to Session P3193 (Modern Media and Contemporary Culture, 2012 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
From 1934 to 1941, three British-governed radio stations were established in the inter-war Middle East: the Egyptian State Broadcasting service (ESB), which began broadcasting from Cairo in 1934, the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), which began broadcasting from Jerusalem in 1936, and the Near East Broadcasting Service (NEBS) or al-Sharq al-Adna, which began broadcasting from Jaffa in 1941. These three stations shared a common administrative heritage, being modeled on the BBC and run according to British notions of good governance and fiscal responsibility. In some cases, this heritage was transmitted directly from Britain, in the form of seconded BBC personnel, like R.A. (“Tony”) Rendall. In other cases, the stations shared in-country British station administrators like Rex Keating, who served as Assistant Director of both the ESB and the PBS, and Ralph Poston, who served as PBS Controller and NEBS Director.

Examining these three stations in tandem highlights both their shared British heritage and the disjuncture between local administrators’ perceptions of their station and that of British officials. Using one case study for each station – the hiring of Lutfy Bey as Director of Arabic Programming at the ESB, the PBS’ “Jerusalem Direct News Service”, and the broadcasting of khutba-s on the NEBS –, this paper highlights the tension between national and regional broadcasting mandates, as well as the challenge that managing each station raised for British officials in the UK and in-country. Building on earlier work on these stations, this paper engages concepts of soft power, territory, sovereignty and trans-nationality, asking how station administrators, Foreign and Colonial Office bureaucrats, and local elites understood and applied these concepts. Second, it throws into question older models of ‘media imperialism’ and newer models of ‘cultural diplomacy’, by highlighting the role of the private sector, the confusion produced by overlapping governmental initiatives, and by differing degrees of British jurisdiction in each case. In doing so, it reflects on how BBC notions of corporate independence and British notions of good governance could transfer to stations that fell under such diverse jurisdictions and saw themselves so differently. Finally, it extends this reflection to the present, asking whether we might see in the rise of satellite television channels and private sector broadcasting the knitting together of a new sense of regional, if not imperial, connection.