IBA English editor hopes for a channel to rival Al-Jazeera

As IBA marks 20 years of news in English, Steve Leibowitz says top officials are all committed to full-scale ‘IBA World’ venture.

IBA news staff 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
IBA news staff 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Steve Leibowitz, chief editor of IBA News in English, sat down with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday in highly optimistic mood as he prepared to celebrate 20 years since it went to air.
The service had its origins, he said, in the Palestine Broadcasting Service – which was launched in 1936 and preceded the Voice of Israel and the Israel Broadcasting Authority. PBS included English-language bulletins along with its broadcasts in Hebrew and Arabic.
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Next came Educational Television, which began as an experimental project before the 1968 advent of Israel Television, and had English lessons as part of its program lineup, though it wasn’t broadcasting in English per se.
After Israel Television went to air on a regular basis, there were feature films and documentaries in English from time to time, but no news broadcasts. Israelis and foreign residents of Israel who wanted to hear and see news in English tuned in to Jordan.
Launching an English-language news slot on Israel Television, he said, proved far easier said than done.
Only after persistent lobbying by Anglos, and a few savvy sabras who had Israel’s interests at heart, did the IBA English News finally go on air 20 years ago, with Yosef Barel doggedly pushing it through political and budgetary barriers.
The only member of the original team still there is Leibowitz.
Dennis Zinn, who was already working as an editor at Israel Television at the time, was brought into the English News division as a reporter.
Yochanan Elrom, who came from the US with considerable broadcasting experience, arrived soon afterwards.
Not yet 40 at the time, Leibowitz, the New York native who had up till then freelanced for The Jerusalem Post, remembers being extremely excited and thinking what this would do in terms of balancing the negative picture of Israel that was presented by so many foreign reporters.
The possibilities seemed endless, and everyone on the team was thrilled at the thought of becoming a permanent part of the IBA. But they had not taken into account the opposition and political power within Israel Television’s flagship Hebrew Mabat News, especially after the November 1993 launch of Channel 2.
After enjoying monopoly status for a quarter of a century, Israel Television, now known as Channel 1, suddenly found itself competing for ratings. Worse still, the competition had better equipment and was open to new ideas.
The IBA English News became an unwanted stepchild that was taking up time and space on the screen that Hebrew broadcasters wanted for themselves. The attitude towards Arabic-language programs was equally hostile.
When Yair Stern was head of Israel Television, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to get rid of the English nuisance.
There was a long, unsettling period in which the Englishlanguage broadcasters were sure that they would be taken off the air. The time slots for their broadcasts kept changing to hours that were inconvenient for their viewers, and very often the amount of time they were given on air was reduced. No one in management seemed to have any concern for frustrated consumers of news in English.
But when it seemed as if the bell was about to toll for the IBA News, viewers took matters into their hands, and organizations such as the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, Hitachdut Olei Britannia, Telfed – The South African Zionist Federation (Israel), Bridges for Peace, and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem began to bombard Stern with letters, faxes, phone calls and e-mails.
He got the message and told Leibowitz, “Call off your dogs. You’re staying on the air.”
While Stern was an opponent to be reckoned with, Yair Aloni, during his stint as IBA director-general, was a firm supporter, as were Nachman Shai and Danny Ayalon before they became MKs. Shai, who has a strong broadcasting background, and who also served as chairman of the IBA, understood the need for news in English and lobbied hard to keep it going.
But Barel, who had long been the chief proponent for IBA News in English, backtracked while director-general of the Broadcasting Authority – not because he changed his mind, but due to budgetary constraints. The IBA’s deficit was growing all the time, and Barel was looking in all directions to cut down on expenditure.
Then three things happened – the launch of Channel 33, which was initially intended as an Arabic channel, Internet broadcasting and Al-Jazeera.
Arabic was Barel’s baby long before English, and he understood better than most people the need to have a facility that could be accessed by the Arab world.
Then there came a vehicle, not only to preserve the Arabic, but likewise the English news department and to expand it.
IBA’s decision to go digital included all its foreign language departments on radio as well as television, and Internet broadcasts became part of a win-win situation.
The popularity of Al-Jazeera invites a more substantial Israeli response, Leibowitz said, and from high-level meetings in which he has participated, he knows that the government, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office and the chairman of the IBA are all committed to Israel having an English-language channel that can compete with Al-Jazeera.
The essential difference is that Al-Jazeera receives immense funding from the government of Qatar, whereas Israel will have to find the budget to keep what Leibowitz refers to as IBA World going.
IBA World, he said, would be modeled along the lines of BBC World and would continue to expand in the volume and variety of its Israel coverage.
In his interview with the Post, Leibowitz made frequent reference to Israel’s image.
The word has certain PR connotations that provoke the question as to whether IBA News is a propaganda tool.
“Definitely not,” insisted Leibowitz. “It simply presents the news from an Israeli perspective.”
Other than the fact that its broadcasters are Zionists, it does not identify politically, “and we hope to keep and gain viewers by being objective.”
Overseas viewers today far outnumber those in Israel. Either via Channel 33 or the Internet, or television stations in their hometowns, they watch the IBA News and its talk show program Close-Up that is co-anchored by veteran reporter Leah Zinder and Leibowitz, he said.
The fact that the IBA marketing department can sell these programs to television stations abroad has generated additional support for the IBA News because it’s bringing in revenue.

Leibowitz is now dreaming of all the ways in which the IBA News can be expanded, “so that it can give Al-Jazeera run for its money.”
But he knows his dreams depend on the long-debated reforms for the IBA being implemented.
“I know there will be stumbling blocks along the way,” he said, “and we have to make sure that our budget is a long-term budget...”
But even with the eternal cloud hanging over his head, Leibowitz remains optimistic, and was especially so on Thursday night, when IBA News threw a huge party to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Among those who attended were past and present broadcasters, people who had been regular studio guests over the years, members of the IBA plenary and Board of Management, lobbyists and colleagues from the print media. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also made an appearance.