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Sky News drawn into Saudi propaganda battle over murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Christopher Williams
Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on October 2 by Saudi government operatives including bodyguards to Crown Prince MBS - Bloomberg

Sky News Arabia, a joint venture between Sky and the royal family of Abu Dhabi, has been drawn into the propaganda battle in the Middle East over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government operatives.

The rolling news channel, which carries Sky News branding to audiences across the Middle East and North Africa, has closely followed the shifting line from Riyadh since Mr Khashoggi disappeared on a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

The Saudi government initially claimed the Washington Post columnist left the consulate alive and well. Sky News Arabia reported that Riyadh was facing a “systematic attack” from regional rival Qatar with false information that aimed to “harm the Kingdom and undermine its high status in the Arab, Islamic and international communities”.

“Since the disappearance of the Saudi journalist in Istanbul earlier this month, Qatari and Doha-funded media outlets have published dozens of reports containing false and contradictory information about the case,” Sky News Arabia reported last week.

The channel’s presenters have also taken up the Saudi cause on screen. In a piece to camera last week, Saudi commentator Abdullah al-Bander said reports from Turkey that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered had "no proof and it is all from one source". He branded them "lies" and said  that "all this information was broadcast by the media belonging to Qatar in recent days, but has no proof".

"This proves that the goal was only to attack [Saudi Arabia], and not to discuss the real issue," he said.

Al-Bander's views were not challenged on air and packaged as a tweet to Sky News Arabia’s 4.2 million followers on Twitter.

As overwhelming evidence has emerged that Mr Khashoggi was killed in the consulate by a team of Saudi government operatives, including several bodyguards to the de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Sky News Arabia’s reporting focused on praise for the official response.

On Sunday it began a report: “The welcome of Saudi Arabia's actions on the issue of Jamal Khashoggi continues.”

In a review of Sky News Arabia coverage of the killing of Mr Khashoggi, The Daily Telegraph was unable to find any reporting that questioned or challenged the various versions of events offered by Saudi Arabia.

Sky News Arabia began broadcasting in 2012 as an equal joint venture with the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, a vehicle controlled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan. He is deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, owner of Manchester City and son of the the Emir of Abu Dhabi, a close ally of the regime in Riyadh.

The channel, which is governed by a joint board including John Ryley, the head of Sky News, and Andrew Griffith, Sky’s chief operating officer, was designed as a rival to al-Jazeera, the rolling news network funded by the Qatari state. At launch Sky News Arabia promised to set itself apart in the the region with “independent and impartial” journalism.

Sky News Arabia’s coverage of the killing of Mr Khashoggi has not gone unnoticed by Sky News journalists in London, who have reported the full details of the Saudi operation and the resulting international outrage. The project has long been controversial in the Sky News newsroom, where journalists were assured at launch that Sky News Arabia was part of a “relentless quest to challenge the status quo".

Sky News Arabia is a joint venture with a vehicle controlled by Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour

Its coverage of the murder of Mr Khashoggi highlights the close ties between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, its neighbour on the Arabian peninsula. Abu Dhabi, the most powerful of the seven constituents of the UAE, is united with Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Qatar, and has supported the Kingdom in its war in Yemen and its recent diplomatic row with Canada over human rights abuses.

Sky News Arabia’s support for the Saudi government is in the spotlight as Comcast, the new owner of Sky following its victory in a blind auction against the combination of 21st Century Fox and Disney, gets to grips with its £30bn purchase. 

The news channel was set up at at time when Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, then Sky's dominant shareholder, were forging links with the UAE in hope of opening up a new market for television and other ventures. A planned 20th Century Fox World theme park in Dubai was scrapped earlier this year, however, amid what the developer said was an issue of oversupply and as Mr Murdoch prepared to sell most of Fox to Disney.

The media mogul also had a longstanding business relationship with the Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who helped him consolidate his power over News Corp. Prince Al-Waleed sold down his stake last year and was then among dozens of royals, ministers and senior officials locked up by MBS in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in a purported crackdown on corruption. He was released after reportedly agreeing to hand over $6bn (£4.6bn).

Some Sky News journalists in London believe the shifting sands of power in the region and the new owner at Sky should raise questions over the future use of the Sky News brand in the Middle East. Comcast has committed to continue to run Sky News, which currently costs about £40m annually, for at least 10 years. The undertakings also include a pledge to fund international activities.

A Sky spokesman said: "Sky News Arabia is completely editorially independent of Sky News and makes its own decisions on coverage and reporting based upon its local audiences.  It would be completely inappropriate for anyone at Sky to interfere with its editorial position.

“Sky News Arabia has its own editorial advisory committee which is tasked with scrutinising and reviewing editorial choices and coverage.”

Sky declined to identify members of the editorial advisory committee.

Sky News is not alone in facing renewed scrutiny of its activities in collaboration with Middle East powers.

The Independent is now part-owned by a Saudi investor and is preparing for the launch of websites in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. The websites will carry its brand but be staffed by journalists working for the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a publisher controlled by the government in Riyadh.

A string of London public relations agencies have sought to distance themselves from the Saudi government. Milltown Partners, Freuds and Consulum have all carried out work to promote MBS and his policies on the global stage.

The Future Investment Initiative begins in Riyadh tomorrow

McKinsey, the management consultancy, said at the weekend it was “horrified” by a New York Times report that its research for Saudi Arabia on social media commentary about MBS policies may have been used as the basis of a crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile major international business and political figures including the chief executives of Blackrock, HSBC and JP Morgan, and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh this week amid the diplomatic crisis over Mr Khashoggi’s fate. The conference will be held at the Ritz-Carlton, which last year served as a makeshift prison for MBS enemies.

The Sky News Arabia website has not reported on the withdrawals from what has been promoted as a "Davos in the desert", but did report that Mr Mnuchin will attend another conference in Riyadh this week on combating terrorist finance.

Additional reporting by Joseph Haboush.