Critics slam appointment of ‘political hack’ to head GPO

Disappointed candidates unhappy about new head of Government Press Office having no experience in dealing with the foreign press.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
September 24, 2010 05:10
Oren Helman

Oren Helman vertical. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The appointment of a candidate with no experience in dealing with the foreign press to head the Government Press Office faced criticism this week from disappointed candidates, members of the foreign press and experienced professionals in the field.

Oren Helman, a former political adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who most recently worked for a lobbying firm, was named to the post last week after winning a public tender for the job in which some 50 candidates competed, including people with decades of experience dealing with the foreign press.

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The selection was questioned by people who applied for the job but received the impression that the appointment was decided in advance of the tender.

“I knew it was going to be given to a political hack,” said one candidate. “I suspected they were going through the motions, perhaps because no one high up cared for the post, which has lost a lot of stature.

The guy they chose is a backslapping lobbyist who can turn on the charm when needed, but has absolutely no qualifications for the job, no understanding of what it entails, and I seriously doubt can speak English well enough to represent Israel to the foreign media.”

He noted that before the selection process was complete, he already saw Helman “strutting around like a peacock” at a pre-Rosh Hashana toast hosted by Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, whose ministry includes the GPO.

Former American Jewish Congress Israel office director Danny Grossman, who also applied for the post, questioned the selection process.

He said the civil service commission gave the candidates tests in math and general knowledge and put the candidates through maneuvers to indicate how they got along with people, but there was nothing that could indicate their abilities in public diplomacy and working with the foreign press.

Recommendations Grossman received from top US professors Alan Dershowitz and Marvin Kalb and a top Foreign Ministry official were not taken into account. He accused the civil service commission of “wasting our time and humiliating us.”

Members of the foreign press also complained and expressed concern that Helman would not be able to heal the tensions that emerged between the foreign press and the GPO under its outgoing acting director Danny Seaman. Some suggested that it could have been helpful for the Foreign Press Association to have been involved in the selection process.

“The process had nothing to do with the foreign media,” FPA executive secretary Glenys Sugarman said: “If the foreign press is not important to the authorities, then this is what [our relationship] ends up looking like. It’s not my role to tell the government how to behave. They should understand what their interests are.”

New FPA chairman Josef Federman, who is the news editor at The Associated Press’s Jerusalem bureau, said he did not believe the FPA should have been consulted on the new GPO head. He said he was looking forward to meeting Helman and giving him a chance.

“It’s no secret that relations between the foreign press and the GPO have become strained in recent years,” Federman said. “It’s our hope that we can turn a new page here and have positive relations now. We don’t expect to always agree.

He represents the government and we represent the media.

Our interests won’t always be the same, but we hope the relations will be positive and cordial and our disagreements will always be professional.”

Federman added that “theoretically it probably would have been a good thing for the [GPO head] to have experience dealing with the foreign press, but it is not essential and there are foreign press spokespeople both in and out of government who are not always helpful, so that [experience] is not essential for him to do the job well.”

The Government Press Office is an agency within the Prime Minister’s Office that is responsible for coordinating channels of communication between the government and the press corps. It issues press accreditation to both Israeli and foreign journalists and is responsible for facilitating press coverage of key state functions and visits of foreign dignitaries.

Tensions were created when Seaman declined to give press cards to foreign journalists who were perceived as hostile to Israel. The office used to have more involvement in Israeli public diplomacy, but its responsibilities have gradually been siphoned off by other governmental agencies and ministries and by private enterprises like Media Central and the Israel Project.

“The role of the GPO can be and should be an important source of factual information and assistance to the foreign press in Israel,” said Aryeh Green, director of Media Central, which provides services to the foreign press in Israel. “Foreign journalists in Israel need information and access to foreign policy makers. I am confident that the GPO can continue in this role and even expand it to help journalists report accurately from the field.”

But a former government official with 25 years of experience in Israeli advocacy suggested that the GPO was beyond repair.

“The Government Press Office is a bureaucratic dinosaur that sees its role as putting stumbling blocks in front of foreign press who are simply trying to do their jobs as efficiently as possible,” the official said. “[Helman’s] appointment, along with the degeneration of an office that used to be an official spokesman for the prime minister with direct access to him to a mere granter of press cards, reflects the continuing inability of this government and its predecessors to recognize the strategic importance of reaching out to the foreign press.”

Acquaintances of Helman were divided about his fitness for the position. One former official who worked with Helman in the Finance Ministry said he was shocked by his appointment.

“It’s like appointing Bar Refaeli as IDF chief of General Staff,” he said. “He has no skills or knowledge about the foreign press, diplomatic or international issues. His only assets are his closeness to Likud central committee members and Sara Netanyahu. When Israel’s image is at a low-point, you would expect quality people to be appointed.”

But Public Diplomacy expert Mitchell Barak, who has worked for prime ministers Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon and was a candidate for the GPO job, praised Helman’s appointment.

“Oren Helman has the requisite management and leadership qualifications to lead the GPO through this phase of rehabilitation,” Barak said.

“The GPO desperately needs someone who can motivate the existing workforce, improve their working conditions, fight for desperately needed budgets and attract quality spokespeople who can represent Israel in various foreign media outlets.”

Helman responded to the criticism and concerns by noting his degrees with honors in political science and public administration and his decade of experience in communications, journalism, public diplomacy, public relations, and advertising. He acknowledged that he has not worked with the foreign press in the past, but in passable English, he expressed his commitment to working to rebuild the trust between the foreign press and the GPO.

“I am not deterred by the criticism, and I hope I can contribute to improving Israel’s image in the world,” he said.

“Closeness to Netanyahu never hurt. I am proud that I worked for the prime minister.

But I applied like any Israeli citizen could, and I passed complicated tests of the Civil Service Commission. Netanyahu had no involvement whatsoever in the tender.”


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