Don’t blame the foreign media if Israel is a loser in the PR war of words

THOUGH I keep up to speed on daily events there, it’s some considerable time since I covered the Mid-East beat. Nonetheless, I’m still what the Israeli government dubs as ‘foreign media’ and today that’s a pejorative term.

Because, stripping away diplomatic niceties, ‘foreign’ now translates as ‘hostile’.
Which is why the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense sub-committee, chaired by the normally sanguine Tzipi Livni, is so taxed apropos the prickly question: ‘Why does Israel get such a lousy Press?
And it’s small consolation to them that the drip-drip-drip of negative coverage of Israel’s cause is nothing new.
In fact, I’d date the onset of the foreign media’s less than charitable overview back to the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, when what they’d previously acclaimed as the plucky, little David state subtly began being portrayed as a repressive Goliath.
And, however close-run was victory, the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict only served to further underscore an opinion gaining traction that Israel was imperious.
Another phenomenon was simultaneously emerging: the Palestinians discovered PR and the Western media’s appetite for their phony message of victimhood. Moreover, they became very slick at it, every bit as effective in the media war as a Merkava tank waging battle in the sands of Sinai.
Other nuanced changes also came in play. The Press corps of seasoned, wise, old scribes – like Eric Silver, alongside others who’d been around since the Jewish state rebirth – were fizzling out. And, lacking the experience, perception and balance of the veterans, a new generation of news-seekers was parachuted in as replacements.
Many knew – or cared – little about the region’s long, complex history, were ignorant of the Oslo Accords, let alone post-Ottoman treaties like the San Remo Agreement, which might as well have been a pact to standardize the ingredients of pizza.
In tandem with this sea change in personnel, many Western news outlets were adopting an increasingly strident, Leftward socio-political stance, so weren’t much enamored by Israel’s drift to the Right and, as they saw it, an erosion of the laudable, pioneering ‘kibbutz’ spirit.
So, mirroring the purblind Left’s default setting of a visceral dislike for winners plus deep antipathy to their own, Western egalitarianism – Israel being its Middle East bastion – open season was declared on the Jewish state.
Then, to make a dire situation even worse, the advents of 24-hour rolling news – applicable as much to online newspapers as TV – and ‘instant hit’ social media raised the bar in misreporting, accidental or otherwise, to a whole new high.
Because, nowadays, reporters are far too ready to Tweet the moment they glean even a whisper of a story, however scant and uncorroborated their info is.
This is lazy, shamateurish journalism and, to vets like me, sheer lunacy. What’s more, it goes against all the principles of fact-finding and checking, balance and rational appraisal, all of which are the essence of accurate, honest, reliable coverage.
Furthermore, there's the rhetorical question of: how much can be conveyed in 140-odd taps on an iPhone keypad?
The rush to Tweet also exposes the reporter to all manner of dangers. If what they’ve heard is wrong it doesn’t say much for their professionalism. Nor does it speak volumes for the integrity of the news organisation they represent.
Sadly, the axiom of C.P. Scott, legendary editor of The (then Manchester) Guardian – ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’ – has long been consigned to the waste-bin of history. Instead, facts can be cherry-picked, hyping even a hard-news story into an op-ed full of a writer's pet prejudices.
Alas, then, nothing in what I’ve said diminishes Livni & Co’s chagrin about adverse news coverage of Israel.
But hauling – okay, requesting the presence of – the president of the Foreign Press Association (FPA), Reuters bureau chief, Luke Barker, before the panel to explain smacks more of witch-hunt  than the actions of a confident democracy.
My guess is that the upshot of Livni & Co’s quest for answers will to antagonize members of the FPA – not merely the usual suspects representing contentious news organisations like the BBC, New York Times, The Guardian and CNN – even those of an open-minded disposition.
Because such an inquiry – rather like Lord Justice Leveson’s probe into UK tabloid phone hacking – will be dumped on its backside, where it belongs.
Unless a regime employs gagging tactics on the media, as the fork-tongued PA and Hamas's bully boys do in the near vicinity – and every Arab dictatorship in the wider neighborhood – the media will continue to have its say, like it or lump it.
Israel’s real problem is that it’s woefully bad at PR, at times even inept.
Okay, quite rightly, it doesn’t resort to lying like a snake-oil salesman, as the Palestinians do ad nauseum, and it lacks an international mouthpiece like Al Jazeera. However, it’s far too reactive rather than proactive.
Official spokespersons, like the articulate Mark Regev – now Israel’s ambassador to the UK – are plainly too sangfroid in their media crisis management presentation and the Foreign Office spinmeisters pack all the passion associated with a bunch of full-time bureaucrats.
At least Dore Gold appears combative, but he isn’t telegenic. And PR is as much about the packaging as the message.
Borrowing a sports euphemism, I’d also venture that Israel’s PRs are too inclined to box from the back foot rather than punching hard before the opposition has a chance to dictate the agenda.
Yes, there are undoubtedly those in the FPA whose DNA is ingrained with anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist/pro-Palestinian prejudice, who’ll deliberately mangle any briefing Israel’s PRs disseminate. So don’t expect to win them all; not even the Palestinians achieve that.
But getting retaliation in first is paramount to any public relations offensive and Israel must start doing that if it is to win the war of words.