(News Today) - WikiLeaks cables reveal the American celebrities wielding more influence over the Middle East than US-funded propaganda.
Satellite broadcasts of the US TV shows Desperate Housewives and Late Show With David Letterman are doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than hundreds of millions of dollars of US government propaganda, informants have told the American embassy in cables published by WikiLeaks.
Broadcast uncensored and with Arabic subtitles alongside sitcoms such as Friends on Saudi Arabia's MBC 4 channel, the shows are being allowed as part of the kingdom's "war of ideas" against extremist elements. According to a secret cable titled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence", they have been proving more effective than Washington's main propaganda tool, the US-funded al-Hurra TV news channel.
Al-Hurra has shown lengthy interviews with US politicians, including George Bush, but has run into problems with locally hired journalists. On one occasion it broadcast a call to arms against Israel by Hezbollah, which was not the plan when the channel was launched across the Middle East in 2004 after the Iraq invasion.
Diplomats said they believed the allure of actors such as Eva Longoria, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer meant commercial TV had a far greater impact than al-Hurra which, according to one report, has cost US taxpayers up to $500m.
"It's still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana [a channel part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other US propaganda never could," two Saudi media executives told a US official in a meeting at a Jeddah branch of Starbucks.
"Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before," the May 2009 cable says.
The popularity of the channels is particularly surprising given Rotana broadcasts Fox News, the rightwing News Corp channel that takes a hard line against Islamic radicalism and has strongly supported US military intervention in the Middle East.
A senior al-Arabiya news channel director said US programming on MBC 4 and MBC 5 had become the most popular in Saudi Arabia and "told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said 'you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress' who are now interested in the outside world".
The diplomats told Washington that certain themes in American movies seemed to appeal to the Saudi audience: heroic honesty in the face of corruption (George Clooney in Michael Clayton), supportive behaviour in relationships (an unspecified drama that was repeated during an Eid holiday featuring an American husband dealing with a drunk wife who smashed cars and crockery when she wasn't assaulting him and their child), and respect for the law over self-interest (Al Pacino and Robin Williams in Insomnia).
In further evidence of the advance of US media in Saudi Arabia, the same cable revealed that one of Rupert Murdoch's sons held talks with the board of al-Eqtisadiah, a Saudi Arabian daily newspaper, about a deal to publish an Arabic version of the Wall Street Journal. The meeting was said to have been called at the behest of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman and shareholder in News Corporation.
The 35 per cent Bin Talal-owned SRMG media group, which owns al-Eqtisadiah, was also trying to win a contract to publish the International Herald Tribune uncensored in Saudi Arabia, the cable reveals.
Source : kompas