Behind the Lines: Captives to the media

By giving blanket coverage to the plight of the Schalit, Regev and Goldwasser families, haven't we in some way also been serving their captors' agenda?

noam shalit 298.88 ch 10 (photo credit: Channel 10)
noam shalit 298.88 ch 10
(photo credit: Channel 10)
'Why can't we be so civilized?" more than one person remarked to me wistfully during the 13 days of the captured British sailors crisis, referring to the total absence of a media circus around the families of the 15 abductees. They weren't suddenly under siege by camera crews; nor did they seem interested in delivering their own statements to the press. For the first few days of the saga, their privacy was respected to such a degree that their names weren't even released to the public. What a contrast with the speedy reaction of the Israeli media nine and a half months ago, when hours after Gilad Schalit's capture on the border of the Gaza Strip, a cohort of reporters and cameramen were already camped out on the lawn by the Schalit house in the Galilee. Since then, his father, Noam - as well as various family members of Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, missing in Lebanon - has traveled everywhere with a press entourage. Perhaps it's not exactly an invasion of their privacy, especially since the families themselves seem to believe that intensive media attention will help mobilize public opinion here and abroad to pressure the government to do more to release their sons. But is that really so? Has the press been working in the families' and the prisoners' interests? Or have we been merely indulging our own curiosity and instinct for intrusion? And a more sinister question: By giving blanket coverage to the plight of the three families, haven't we in some way also been serving their captors' agenda? Ironically, any passing admiration some of us might have had for the self-restraint of the English media evaporated immediately after the sailors and marines returned home, and the farcical auction for their exclusive interviews got under way. There are many examples I would like to see the Israeli media take from our English counterparts (not only their pay scale), but one trick of the trade we should be grateful for not having mastered is checkbook journalism. I can guarantee that the day Schalit is returned to his family - hopefully very soon - his personal account of captivity will be eagerly sought after by the various news organizations. But it won't become a commodity going to the highest bidder. BEFORE THAT day comes, perhaps we should be asking whether we are doing ourselves and the families any favors with all this attention. The standard explanation for the deeply personal fashion in which the Israeli media treats these issues is that in a still relatively small country, where every young man and woman does military service, and many reservists continue doing so well into their 40s - yes, I know that universal conscription has long become a myth, but it is a myth that the mainstream media and their clients still subscribe to - we all feel that, but for the grace of God, the prisoner in the picture could be one of us. Or a son. Or a brother. In Britain, and to a degree also the US - much larger societies - the vast majority of the armed forces are recruited from a small, mainly underprivileged substrata, and they are seen as professionals who knew what they were signing up for. Interestingly, journalists who were killed, wounded or kidnapped in recent years covering the various wars on terror seemed to get a lot more attention and public sympathy in some Western countries than members of the armed forces who were fighting on their behalf. One could claim that this is simply a case of the media's honoring their own, but actually it's not all that surprising. Most civilians in the West nowadays have no knowledge of military life, and don't even have any close friends or relatives in uniform, while journalists are household names. And even if they're not yet, the moment they're kidnapped by a shadowy organization, the media immediately raise them to iconic status. Just look at the way the BBC's Alan Johnston, who disappeared in Gaza a month ago, has been instantly elevated, with delegations of diplomats vigorously demanding his release. It seems as if some governments are prepared to make greater efforts on behalf of journalists than they are for their soldiers. The Italian government almost fell last month after failing to pass a bill on financial backing for its troops deployed in Afghanistan, but Prime Minister Romano Prodi managed to pressure the Karzai government into releasing five senior Taliban prisoners, securing in return the release of Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo of La Repubblica. (His translator, Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, was less lucky. Without the backing of a Western government, he was left to be executed by the Taliban.) THERE IS one other basic difference between the predicaments of the Israeli and British prisoners. While the Iranians paraded their prisoners almost nightly on television, in a successful ploy to control the news agenda, the captors of Israeli soldiers use the opposite tactic, denying the families any detail of their loved ones' condition, not to mention a photograph. The different tactics are tailored for each public. The compelling footage of the sailors in a Teheran jail was necessary to stir up the media's and public's attention in Britain. Here there's no lack of concern; starving the families of information is simply another way of demoralizing the Israeli public. Which brings us back to the question of whether we aren't simply playing into the hands of Hamas and Hizbullah. Wouldn't a more low-key and circumspect style of coverage be more useful when covering prisoner issues? The families themselves obviously don't think so - and with good reason. Twenty years ago, Ron Arad's family kept silent for a long period after his capture, in the belief that the government knew what it was doing, and that it would be better not to attract too much publicity and heighten his captors' demands. Today, we know that in that first year, there was still a chance of reaching a deal with Amal, which held him in those days, before he was spirited away by shadowy groups with Iranian connections. THE SCHALIT, Goldwasser and Regev families are determined not to make the same mistake and are using every opportunity to champion the cause of their sons. No one can blame them. But should that excuse the rest of us from trying to find the delicate balance between voicing the families' legitimate concerns and providing responsible and factual coverage of the prisoners' saga? How do you decide what is newsworthy and crucial, and what is merely damaging disinformation? For a start, we should stop making headlines out of every report in an obscure Qatari newspaper of a breakthrough in negotiations. The days when we trusted the government to go about its delicate work without public scrutiny are long past, but that should only serve to heighten our sense of responsibility when dealing with issues such as these.