In Israel, pre-Olympic excitement wasn’t only about the games themselves; when the BBC uploaded its official Olympic website it didn’t identify Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State. What’s more, the picture accompanying the country profile was of an Israeli soldier confronting a demonstrator. By contrast, Iran, Syria and Libya had scenic pictures alongside their country write-ups.
Israeli officials were quick to accuse the BBC of “failing to adhere to the standards of professional journalism”, but a lot of the blame sits squarely on the shoulders of those doing the whining. Although I don’t envy them their job because while I think it’s fair to say that the foreign press is highly critical of Israel – some of it deserved, some of it undeserved – put yourself in the shoes of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. They are approached to comment on a story that’s already to some extent weighted against them, which in itself is a problem. So, their dilemma is do they give a view and thereby give credibility to the rest of the report or to refuse and have no Israeli opinion in an already unsympathetic piece? More often than not, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place.
The BBC later said an error was made “when the data was uploaded” to its website. If you go to that website now, it labels Jerusalem as Israel’s “seat of government” while mentioning that “most foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv”.
The fact is that the BBC is mild compared with some mainstream news agencies that go as far as to question Israel’s right to exist. It doesn’t really matter what you personally think about Israel, there’s no denying that those inside the country tasked with “selling” Israel and making its politics more palatable to an international audience are doing a dismal job of it.
My gripe starts with how the foreign media corps is treated. Israeli security guards see fit to strip-search foreign journalists, with the justification that it’s all in the name of security. Last year an Al-Jazeera cameraman was ordered to drop his pants during a security check before an event in which President Shimon Peres was participating. In another incident Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s guards ordered a pregnant Arab newswoman to remove her bra and told other reporters to strip to their underwear. And then in July of this year four Palestinian journalists were ordered to take off their pants when they arrived to cover US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Jerusalem.
Then there was the fiasco of the Gaza flotilla when a group of foreign journalists were kept waiting in the blazing sun, supposedly to view a captured ship running arms to Hamas.
Israeli politicians give us a minefield of material to work with. I imagine there’s nothing more counter-productive in PR than having colleagues from one organisation competing with different messages. This is the case with Israel – spokespeople for the State often speak at cross-purposes with the press and contradict one another. It begs the question whether Israel has a PR strategy, or if it has ever bothered to develop one. I’ve lost count of the number of times people ask me why Israel gets such a raw deal in the media. They should be addressing the question to their politicians and not to the journalists who report on them.
Israelis can also, with all due respect, be pretty arrogant at the best of times and many I speak to feel that because there’s already so much criticism against the State, it’s a hopeless job even trying to counter it. These same people tell me that those hostile to Israel are anti-Semitic or uneducated because there’s a lot of information out there that would support Israel’s position. If so, then why isn’t this information making it into the mainstream media?
Part of the answer is that Israel does carry out some highly questionable policies and practices and these cannot be justified, no matter how hard its spin doctors try. But even when we foreign journalists try to work with the Israeli government, it can be very frustrating. Most of the requests I’ve ever submitted to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) on behalf of South African and Russian TV have been turned down. Oftentimes it takes the IDF weeks to get back to me – and even then the final answer is almost always that inevitable ‘can’t do’ with no explanation as to why not.
Israeli spokespeople seem almost exclusively bent on “explaining” the Israeli point of view rather than taking the initiative and reporting something positive. But, to be fair, we as foreign journalists only ask for comment when we need a reaction to an incident. When the spokespeople are proactive and approach us first, the stories unfortunately aren’t particularly interesting for an international audience.
I’ve heard it said that Israel was the darling of the world before the 1967 Six Day War when it was literally on the brink of survival and perceived as David facing a hostile Goliath Arab world. Since then, things have swung almost 180 degrees in mainstream world opinion. However, if you look at the Middle East today, with all its upsets and regime changes, I’d say Israel had better think and tread carefully because it might very soon be back in the David position – but this time without world support.
This story was first published in the September issue of The Media magazine.