(photo credit: Courtesy)
For anybody overly concerned that the Israeli media are totally captive to the prime minister, Ariel Sharon's minor stroke this week served as a reminder that freedom of the press is still alive and kicking.
In most countries, even democratic ones, the health of the leader is a matter of state security. In the event of his hospitalization, it takes several hours before a carefully worded official statement about his condition is released, if at all. Not so in our neck of the woods. On Sunday night, Channel 2 viewers learned that Sharon had been rushed to Hadassah Hospital before he'd even made it past the emergency room. His spokespeople had no time to delay or suppress information, since they themselves heard about it first on television.
One might complain that the way rumors were initially flying around was irresponsible. But at least no one could claim that crucial information was being withheld.
Kudos to the press aside, it has to be said that there was a sticky and embarrassing element to the coverage of Sharon's illness. When the concern for the prime minister's immediate welfare was eased, reporters began hanging onto every joke leaked from his hospital bed, describing the tee-shirt he was wearing during the morning staff meeting and competing in descriptions of sumptuous means they had witnessed Sharon enjoying in the past.
This kind of warmth might have reflected the sympathies of a large part of society toward the prime minister. However, at a certain stage, it wouldn't have been surprising to see the kind of interview that Egyptian TV broadcast last year when Hosni Mubarak was hospitalized in Germany - ending with the words: "all Egyptians are praying for your recovery, dear president."
After coming to a short standstill for about an hour prior to the release of an official statement, Sharon's normally well-oiled media machine regained composure. A mere two hours after the stroke, strategist Lior Horev was already explaining to commentators that contrary to their thinking, the stroke would not only not harm Kadima's electoral prospects, but would cause an outpouring of sympathy that would translate itself to additional votes. (The latest polls seem to be confirming the spin.)
But the 'coup de grace' that night came a few minutes before midnight, when Sharon himself - fresh out of the MRI machine - telephoned senior TV and newspaper correspondents, just in time to make the late-night news and morning editions. The huge smile of relief on the fact of Channel 1's Ayala Hasson said it all.
COVERING THE medical condition of politicians is a potential minefield. On the one hand there's the right to privacy; on the other, the public's interest in the physical and mental state of its elected leaders. Many commentators mentioned this week that "in most democracies, the head of state's medical records are open to the public," and called for a similar standard to be adopted here. "Most democracies" is a euphemism mainly for the United States. Indeed, for the past few decades, administrations have been releasing the results of the president's regular check-ups, right down to the level of "good" and "bad" cholesterol. (This wasn't always the case. During the 1930s and '40s, the American people didn't even know that president Roosevelt was in a wheelchair.)
In the other major democracies, the situation is completely different. In Britain, for example, the public only found out last year that for months PM Tony Blair had been suffering from heart problems, and had to undergo electric-shock treatment. In France, senior journalists collaborated with the government to hide the fact that president Francois Mitterand was suffering from cancer during his last year in power. The secrecy in France is so severe that writers had to appeal to the European high court of human rights in order to cancel a gag order issued by a French court after Mitterand's family opposed publishing the facts of his illness even after his death.
Israel has advanced a lot since the days when prime ministers Levi Eshkol's and Golda Meir's cancer and Menachem Begin's clinical depression were hidden from the public. But the current demand by the press that Sharon reveal his medical records is unrealistic and lacks legal basis. The prime minister, like every other citizen, has a right to privacy. The claim that his position necessitates his forfeiting that right could be made in relation anyone whose job puts him in control of the lives of others: the defense minister, IDF generals, doctors, airline pilots, bus drivers.
What is more dangerous, after all, a prime minister who enjoys polishing off platters of fried beef or an Egged driver having a heart attack while transporting a busload of passengers down a winding highway. We citizens must have faith that our airlines and bus companies are conducting periodic health tests for their employees. We must also have faith in the hundreds of politicians, advisers, and officers who come into contact with the prime minister every day that they will give us warning if his conduct is impaired by his physical condition. Most of all, we have to be able to trust the press to be vigilant and not hide anything from us.
In 2000, before the elections in which Sharon challenged Ehud Barak, then Haaretz columnist Hanna Kim wrote about Sharon's dubious physical and mental health. His spokespeople strenuously denied he was impaired in any way, and the rest of the press accepted that at face value. Kim might have been misinformed. But since then, no one in the media has taken Sharon's medical condition seriously.
The demand that Sharon reveal his records is a way for the press to avoid its responsibility. The Americans know that George Bush is in fantastic shape - that he doesn't smoke or drink; that he eats healthy food; is a fitness nut; and goes to bed every night at 10. Does this make him a better president? The American media are convinced that the real power, in any case, resides with Vice President Dick Cheney, himself a four-time heart attack survivor.
I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of voters who were planning to vote Kadima before Sharon had his stroke won't change their minds because of his illness. If they were willing to swallow the corruption allegations against him and his sons, a small blood clot isn't going to bother them. The media's role in these elections isn't just to explain to us what a minor stroke means or the implications of Sharon's age and health on his performance as a leader, but to incessantly ask the oldest prime minister in Israel's history what he is planning to do with his next term in office, should he get the chance to have one.