Analysis: Battle of the spin doctors

Katsav and A. play the media game to score points ahead of showdown.

September 29, 2006 02:14
4 minute read.
Analysis: Battle of the spin doctors

anshel pfeffer 298.88. (photo credit: )


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The defense team of a politician or any other celebrity embroiled in a police investigation or court case is not complete nowadays without a spin doctor. The best lawyers money can buy are no longer enough. Those who have their public reputation to worry about know that the deepest damage can be done long before the verdict is pronounced. It's not only the famous defendants who are in on the media game. The police and attorney's office are also busy briefing reporters, leaking bits of evidence and other tidbits. You can always be sure that when a picture-worthy defendant has to show up for questioning at the most remote police station, there will be a gaggle of photographers gathered outside, tipped off in advance. From a legal point of view, much of this trial by media is unethical and in the case of the police and state, partly illegal, but it has become the norm over the last few years, the law of sub judice disregarded and irrelevant. But the investigation into President Moshe Katsav has broken all previous rules. In addition to the police leaking like a sieve and Katsav's formidable media team that includes a number of veteran reporters beholden to him, this has become now a three-way media battle. Not only are Katsav and the police trying to manipulate the press, each to its own interests, but also "A.," the first and main woman to have come forward with charges of sexual assault, has her own corner fighting her battle in the PR war. A's cause is being championed by a professional PR adviser, quite a few politicians and journalists with agendas or axes to grind, and an extremely media-savvy attorney. And as of this Tuesday, A. herself entered the fray with a first interview on Army Radio. It's hard to determine yet what part the media has played so far in the development of the investigation. The police and state attorneys naturally would deny that press reports had any influence over their professional decisions, but the question is clearly not whether there was an influence, but only how much. It's highly doubtful whether Katsav's discreet discussion, two and a half months ago, with Attorney-General Meni Mazuz over his claim to being blackmailed by A. would have ballooned into the current affair if it hadn't been leaked at the time to the press. The behind the scenes story will probably be never told in full, but the series of leaks in previous weeks, from all sides, did a lot to keep the snowball rolling, gaining speed and size and determined its direction to a great degree. The latest chapter in the saga, the tape of a meeting between Katsav and A. that the president's team turned over to the police, also made some of the various newspapers and channels almost take sides, by publishing different and selective quotes out of the tape, promoting different versions of the events. And we haven't even mentioned at least two crossovers here between legal proceedings, journalism and politics. The first took place when former broadcaster and now Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich met A. and subsequently took up her case, while another occurred when Maariv reported that Katsav had blamed figures close to Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu for being involved in the accusations against him. That report was subsequently denied by Katsav but affirmed by his brother and spokesman-in-chief Lior. And then there was the rigamarole over whether Katsav would officiate at the swearing-in of new Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, which enabled a whole row of MKs to grandstand over the issue. There are indeed political implications to this case. Not long ago, Katsav was seen as serious candidate for the Likud leadership, a year from now at the end of his presidential term. Katsav himself definitely thought he had a chance, and over the last year he religiously attended weddings, britot and bar-mitzvas of Likud members. The plan was to return to the political scene as a respected figure of consensus, dedicated to resurrecting the demoralized party, hence perhaps the attempt to implicate the incumbent Netanyahu. But now that the media has dug up so much dirt on the Katsav presidency, whatever the outcome of the case, he will never regain his former stature, unless it does turn out to have been a dastardly and totally unbased plot against him. Then he's back in the running with a vengeance. Of course the main question has to be will the media circus have any influence on the eventual decision of the judges in this case, when it reaches court as now seems inevitable? The main reason that prosecutions against journalists for breaching sub judice are virtually unheard of in Israel is that the statute is a remnant of British law, which believes in the system of a jury of a defendants' peers. Since Israeli courts have only judges, who of course could never be swayed by a mere headline, the law is seen as irrelevant here. Still, in previous high-profile cases, such as the Aryeh Deri bribery trial, lawyers have petitioned to have their clients acquitted since they had already been "tried by the media." Constitutional expert and dean of Shaarei Mishpat Law College Dr. Aviad Hacohen rules out the possibility of a judge deciding on a mistrial for these reasons. "No right-minded judge would ever set such a precedent," he says. "That would only create an incentive for defendants and their lawyers to contribute to the media activity, with a view to demanding a mistrial later. But obviously after a case like this, the media should be asking itself some serious questions as to its conduct."

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