Sigmar Hillelson — the German Jewish pioneer behind the BBC’s Arabic broadcasts

Sigmar Hillelson, who led the BBC’s Near Eastern Service between 1940 and 1945, played a crucial role in establishing Arabic broadcasting as a source of reliable news and the first BBC service in a language other than English. His legacy continues to shape the tenor of the organisation’s international broadcasting.

BBC Arabic world service.
BBC Arabic world service. Credit: adrian arbib / Alamy Stock Photo

On 27 January 2023, after some 85 years of continuous operation, BBC Arabic broadcast its final programme. To some, the closure of the long-running radio service was a reassuring sign of the BBC’s commitment to digital media – but others voiced concerns that the end of Arabic-language broadcasting could hurt those who needed it most. In an interview with CBC, the former Head of BBC Arabic Hosam El Sokkari argued that the service still functioned as a lifeline for listeners across the Middle East, especially in areas with limited access to the internet. These views were echoed in Westminster, where members of parliament praised the role of the World Service in challenging disinformation and providing accurate news in the face of strict media censorship. Others emphasised the importance of the BBC to Britain’s public diplomacy. In the Telegraph, the international relations scholar Yuan Yi Zhu accused the BBC of ‘institutional vandalism’, pointing to the role of Arabic-language broadcasts in explaining British political perspectives to global audiences and its ‘outsized influence on the opinion of local elites’.

These almost contradictory views of the BBC’s Arabic broadcasting – as a source of balanced reporting, and as a defender of British interests – owe much to the influence of Sigmar Hillelson, the German Jewish Orientalist who led the organisation’s Near Eastern Service between 1940 and 1945. As the world descended into war, Hillelson played a crucial role in establishing Arabic broadcasting as a source of reliable news and the first BBC service in a language other than English. In practice, however, his work was also characterised by close collaboration with colonial governments and the political needs of Britain’s war effort. Throughout Hillelson’s tenure, therefore, the fledgling Near Eastern Service was forced to balance a desire for accurate and factual news with an ongoing pressure to advance British interests – an important tension that would shape the BBC’s international broadcasting for the next eight decades.

Hillelson’s path to the BBC was far from typical. Born in Berlin in 1883, he was educated at the prestigious Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster before reading Classics at the University of Oxford and earning a postgraduate qualification in Oriental Languages from University College London. After graduation, Hillelson’s admiration for Arabic literature and culture pulled him into the orbit of the British Colonial Service. In 1911 he found work as a lecturer at Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum, a so-called ‘Eton of the Sudan’, designed to train the next generation of North African elites. Hillelson got a taste of colonial publicity in 1915, when he was asked to give a lecture on the origins of the conflict between the United Kingdom and his native Germany to curious Sudanese students. For the most part, however, Hillelson used the post to develop his knowledge of Arabic literature, gaining a particular interest in folklore and traditional rhetoric.

In the 1920s, the rise of Sudanese nationalism pushed Hillelson toward more explicitly political work. When the British civil servant John Maffey became Governor-General of the Sudan in 1926, the colonial government immediately set about reforming their security apparatus to pre-empt any threat to British rule. Like many colonial governors of the period, Maffey was particularly interested in social and cultural research that could provide insights into an ‘Arab mind’, which he believed was fundamentally different to that of the European. As a result, Orientalist academics acquired a new importance as interpreters and experts within the Sudan Political Service. Hillelson joined the service in 1926, took up a position as Assistant Director in the Sudanese Department of Intelligence in 1927 and by 1929 was working as the Assistant Civil Secretary in Khartoum.

These efforts did little to contain the growth of Sudanese nationalism, which colonial officials now feared was gaining international allies. In 1934 the Italian Government inaugurated Radio Bari – an international radio service in Arabic designed to build support for fascist policies and mobilise Arabs against British and French rule. On a powerful medium wave signal, Radio Bari combined vitriolic anti-British rhetoric with poems and songs. After the Great Palestinian Revolt broke out in 1936, announcers promised that God would lead the Arabs to ‘restore the glorious past after the collapse of the British Empire’ and dedicated broadcasts to any ‘victim of nationalism who dies for Holy Jerusalem’. These broadcasts created deep anxieties within the British colonial establishment, which criticised Bari’s ‘violently anti-British tone’ and noted that it seemed to be ‘steadily growing in popularity and influence’ across the region. Their concerns were once again characterised by a belief in the psychological differences between coloniser and colonised. Decades of colonial prejudice maintained that Arab subjects were uneducated, emotional and obsessed with oral culture – which to the colonial mind made them perfect targets for inflammatory radio propaganda.

In response, British officials developed new mechanisms for tracing and responding to radio propaganda. The BBC had carried out experimental monitoring of foreign broadcasts in 1930 and 1935 as a means of gathering news from conflict zones. By 1937, however, the British Foreign Office had begun to envision a more detailed form of monitoring, able to record not only the content of broadcasts but their effects on supposedly vulnerable listeners. As such, the British Government suddenly had need of a fluent Arabic speaker, ‘a special officer with first-hand experience of Arab mentality’. This attracted the attention of Sigmar Hillelson, by this time working as a lecturer in London. With a letter of recommendation from John Maffey, who characterised him as ‘a great linguistic pundit’, Hillelson was hired by the Foreign Office News Department as a professional radio monitor and advisor on information policy.

In the following months, this role expanded significantly. In late 1937, the Foreign Office outlined ambitious plans for a new radio service to counteract the effects of Radio Bari – the first BBC service in a language other than English and the first to be funded by a government grant-in-aid rather than the domestic license fee. Within the BBC, many resisted this oversight, arguing that any obligation to produce propaganda in Arabic could undermine the BBC’s hard-won neutrality. In response, the Foreign Office reassured broadcasters that the service had ‘no intention of embarking upon propaganda [or] aggressive distortions of the truth. In short, there is no intention of imitating either the tone of the methods of Bari’. In practice, however, the Foreign Office reserved the right to direct the tone and content of broadcasts, and early broadcasts were dominated by ‘corrective’ accounts designed to undermine the claims of Italian broadcasts. Hillelson, for his part, was seconded to the Arabic Service and seems to have acted as a liaison between the two organisations.

On 3 January 1938, the BBC Arabic Service made its first broadcast. Opening with greetings from a Saudi minister, an Egyptian diplomat, a prince of Yemen and the BBC Director-General, the service then announced the day’s news in Nahwy, a form of classical Arabic which programme directors hoped would appeal to ‘the whole of the Arabic-speaking world and not to any particular country’. However, the BBC’s first Arabic broadcasts faced some severe drawbacks. As Hillelson explained in his account of the Arabic Service’s early years, broadcasters had struggled to secure everything from technicians and linguists to Arabic-language typewriters. The broadcasts were also criticised for being bland, at least compared to the sophisticated propaganda operations of Britain’s rivals. Critics in government and academia accused the new programmes of ‘dullness and unimaginative presentation’, adding that their balanced outlook did not ‘take sufficient account of Arab mentality’. To the High Commissioner of Palestine and Trans-Jordan, Harold MacMichael, the BBC’s Arabic broadcasts could only be effective if they adapted to suit an Arab world that he believed to be ‘addicted to exaggeration in speech’. This became particularly important in 1939, when Nazi Germany inaugurated their own Arabic-language broadcasts. Like Radio Bari, the German Arabic Service combined popular music with vitriolic Arab nationalist speeches. They also had the advantage of their charismatic presenter, Younis Bahri. At the BBC, monitors complained that Bahri was a ‘broadcaster of genius’ – a master of grandiose statements who gave German programmes the credibility of a ‘bona fide Arab origin’ and seemed to attract wider audiences than their own sober programmes.

In September 1940, Hillelson was appointed head of a new Near Eastern Service designed to reinvigorate British broadcasts to the region. This decision was met with some prejudice. Overseas Service Controller Stephen Tallents, for example, suggested that Hillelson might be ‘externally unsuitable as a Jew’ for sensitive work in the Arabic-speaking world. In practice, however, Hillelson was a good fit for a service seeking to expand its popular appeal. In December 1940, he produced a memorandum outlining his aim to ‘attract and hold the attention of an audience not primarily interested in news and politics’. He encouraged cultural, religious and political programmes, from popular music to daily Quran readings to Café Chaos, a discussion programme designed to resemble chatter in an Egyptian coffee shop. The Near Eastern Service also began producing a news review programme, helmed by the Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Mahmud Gom’a, which adopted some of Younis Bahri’s sharp-witted and informal style. Crucially, Hillelson also strengthened the relationship between the BBC and the British Government, arranging weekly meetings between the Arabic Service, Foreign Office and Ministry of Information to coordinate news policy. By 1941, BBC policy documents emphasised that ‘every broadcast should serve a purpose related to the war effort and to propaganda’ and Hillelson could confidently claim that political propaganda had ‘become the flesh and blood of broadcasting’.

At other times, however, Hillelson emerged as a surprising advocate of BBC neutrality in the face of government interference. As Head of the Near Eastern Service, he insisted on the importance of providing straight facts and a ‘judicious balance’ between news, which would attract Arab listeners and items in the British interest. His views about Arab listeners were paternalistic, but even these were often more nuanced than those of his colleagues in government. As he pointed out in speeches and memoranda, the Arab listening public was a complicated and diverse group, made up of ‘men at every stage of social evolution, from the tribesmen of Hadhramut to the westernised graduates of modern universities’. As such, he argued, the BBC should prioritise factual accuracy and careful framing over the careless rabble-rousing of German and Italian broadcasts. ‘Unlike the Axis’, he suggested in 1941, ‘we believe that it pays to address the Arab as an intelligent human being capable of reasoning an accessible to argument.’ As such, only a moderate policy of ‘sober confidence’ in the British war effort could built the trust and credibility required of a modern news service. Even as the Near Eastern Service accepted the political direction of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Information, therefore, its staff remained able to exercise a strong influence over style and tone. ‘Let the man at the wheel be told where to go’, Hillelson once suggested to the BBC Overseas Controller John Beresford Clark, ‘but let him take responsibility for the manner of driving.’

This policy proved successful. By November 1942, British success in the North African campaign had lent weight to the BBC’s quiet confidence and undermined the bold claims of Axis broadcasters. Germany’s growing isolation from Middle Eastern markets also prevented the service from attracting listeners with popular Arabic songs. By the end of 1942, the annual BBC Handbook reported with some pride, that Radio Berlin was justifying its lack of new music by claiming that ‘this is a time when news is more important, and frivolities like music and songs can, for the present, be heard from English broadcasting stations’. According to BBC monitors, Radio Bari also sank to ‘a low level of mediocrity’ as the pressures of war increased. In September 1943, the US Army captured the original transmitter site and drew the era of Italy’s Arabic-language propaganda to an immediate close. ‘Compared with the fanfares and harangues of Berlin’, Hillelson noted at the end of the year, ‘our truthful news bulletins were voted dull, and the story we had to tell in the early days brought little comfort to our friends. Victory has changed all that. We are no longer accused of dullness.’

Despite these apparent successes, Hillelson continued to face prejudice from within the British establishment. In the House of Commons, a Conservative backbencher suggested that it was inappropriate to retain ‘a Jew of German origin’ as head of an Arabic-language service, claiming that it could damage the British reputation for ‘fair dealing amongst the Oriental peoples’ and suggesting that the BBC appoint a co-director from among its Muslim staff. Similar criticisms were also levelled against the content of the BBC’s Arabic broadcasts. The Ministry of Information had long urged the BBC to avoid commenting on Jewish issues in the Middle East for fear of upsetting Arab political sensibilities. In 1944 they lodged a complaint with Hillelson against the Arabic Service’s coverage of the Jewish Brigade, an organisation of Palestinian Jews within the British Army, which they believed could inflame ethnic tensions in the region. The Ministry of Information’s views were echoed by the British Embassy in Cairo, which protested in January 1945 that the BBC’s coverage of Zionist conference was ‘pure Jewish propaganda’ and should not have been broadcast. Somewhat ironically,  Hillelson also came under fire for producing uncritical and factual reports about Arab nationalist groups. In March 1945, for example, the Free French government registered a complaint after the Near Eastern Service broadcast a news piece on the Istiqlal Party, which campaigned against French rule in Morocco.

Hillelson responded to these charges by reaffirming the importance of balanced reporting. In his reply to the Ministry of Information in 1944, he suggested that it was in the British Government’s interest to cover Jewish issues in the Middle East with ‘explanatory comment’ so that the news of Jewish mobilisation in the Middle East would not catch Arab listeners by surprise. After the controversial coverage of a Zionist conference, too, a Near Eastern Service employee reiterated that offering ‘reliable and accurate information’ on the development of Zionism helped to undermine Nazi claims that the BBC was suppressing information which might disturb the colonial public. As the war drew to a close, Hillelson continued to defend the rights of the BBC to broadcast news of Arab nationalist politics, which was clearly newsworthy and would be dishonest to exclude. As one BBC report suggested in 1945, it was only natural that the Arabic Service ‘should be metropolitan rather than regional and should thus work in harmony with the Arab urge toward the strengthening of their common nationhood.’ Moving away from its origins as a colonial broadcaster, the Near Eastern Service began to adopt a pragmatic approach to the rise of nationalism and the possibility of new Arab states in the postwar world.

Hillelson retired from the BBC a few months later, but his defence of impartial journalism as a mechanism for furthering British interests would go on to define the work of the BBC Overseas Services. At times, this balancing act has produced tensions between the corporation and the British Government – most infamously in 1956, when an indignant British Government threatened to cut the BBC’s annual grant-in-aid by £1,000,000 in response to its coverage of the Suez Crisis. Even then, however, many BBC editors received confidential briefings from the British Foreign Office and even attended clandestine Egypt Committee meetings – a reflection of the close cooperation established during the Second World War.

Hillelson’s vision of the BBC as a source of straight news in times of crisis also remains highly relevant. On 2 May 2023, just over four months after BBC Arabic’s last broadcast, the BBC inaugurated an emergency radio service in Arabic to respond to the escalating conflict in Sudan. According to BBC World Service Director Liliane Landor, broadcasts in Arabic were intended to provide ‘clear, independent information and advice at a time of critical need.’ On 3 November, the BBC began a second Arabic programme for listeners in Gaza, offering ‘vital news […] during this time of urgent need’. One year after the closure of his flagship radio service, Sigmar Hillelson remains a ghost in the BBC machine.


Alex White